Review by Usha Raman
My first encounter with Ali Smith was a hardcover library book with an intriguing title: How to be Both. I raced through it, transfixed, by the ingenuity of form and stop-in-your-tracks prose, the effortlessness with which she shifts perspective and forces you to see first through one pair of eyes and then another, and before you know it, you have been both. The seer and the seen. The painting and the painted. The one and the other.
The second time led to a more sustained involvement; my interest was sparked by an interview of the author by writer Linn Ullman on the podcast How to Proceed. In the course of five months I consumed the entire Seasonal Quartet, too impatient in the midst of our pademicked lockdown to wait for book stores to open or Amazon to deliver, like a greedy child, I had to have them right now—on my Kindle. Four luminous volumes that pack story and riddle, art and nature (Art in Nature, as we shall see), past and present, crises personal and political, all wrapped in what has now become signature Ali Smith wordplay.
That’s one of the things stories and books can do, they can make more than one time possible at once, says Art in Ali Smith’s Winter.
[A tiny word you will become quite familiar with in the first few pages of the Summer, the final book in the Quartet. Except that the ‘so’ I use is more in the nature of ‘so let’s get on with the review’ while Smith asks, insistently, indignantly, even angrily—So? As in So, what about it? But I am getting ahead of myself here. On with the review, I hear you say.]
Autumn opens with old Daniel Gluck, not quite dead, washed up on a beach on the edge of a forest, now clothed only in leaves, and now “respectable”. Even as we wonder who he is, and how he finds himself thus, he vanishes, leaving us to encounter Elisabeth Demand, in the midst of dealing with the intractable bureaucracy of the British Postal Services. And now Elisabeth is watching Daniel in his hospital bed, waiting for him to wake and ask the question he always asks: What you reading?
This first book in Smith’s quartet is about the time-traversing friendship between the young Elisabeth and the old Daniel—“lifelong friends, …We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.” Even as their conversations dance through art and literature and history, the country is breaking apart (again) over the Brexit vote, and xenophobia is in the air and populates the new detention centres for illegal immigrants that are springing up in the countryside.
All across the country, what had happened whipped about itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air about the trees, the roofs, the traffic.
All across the country, the country split in pieces. All across the country, the countries cut adrift.
Winter begins cold, with the pronouncement that God is dead. As is romance and chivalry and poetry and painting and culture and decency. And even though Christmas too is dead, Sophia Cleves prepares for the visit of her son Art the nature blogger and his (soon to be former) girlfriend Charlotte to her large Cornwall home, now also occupied by the disembodied head of an otherworldly child—the explanation for which would make this a spoiler. The vanished Charlotte is replaced by Luz, the wise immigrant who seems to know more about the soul of England than do her native hosts, except perhaps Sophia’s idealist sister Iris who is intent on saving the country from itself and the world from climate change.
Spring, despite its hopeful name, is perhaps the darkest of the four novels, focusing on the refugee crisis, the surveillance State and the nationalistic turn in Britain. Anger bubbles through the words at the start of the book.
Now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth.
A has-been film maker, consumed by the loss of his best friend and collaborator, finds new purpose in documenting the lives of the undocumented. A security guard at a detention centre for displaced persons struggles to make sense of her job and the violence it normalizes. And a child begins to set it all right, asking,
“What if…instead of saying this border divides these places. We said, this border unites these places. This border holds together these two really interesting different places. What if we declared border crossings places where, listen, when you crossed them, you yourself became doubly possible.”
And then, finally, Summer comes, not blazing, but gently, with children leading the way, again. It is the time of a pandemic, and there is a lockdown and the anxieties provoked by distancing of various kinds, but there is also hope. By now Smith’s fictional landscape is familiar and we meet old friends, and may be surprised to see them in what seem to be new places, as the connections become clear.
I must confess I was predisposed to liking Ali Smith’s quartet, given my response to her earlier work. But they are certainly not easy reads. The books are like nested puzzles, tricking you into thinking one thing and revealing the story to be entirely different. Artists of various kinds make cameo appearances, and if the names are unfamiliar, you may find yourself turning to Google for a quick primer. But there are also the knowns—Chaplin and Rilke, Shakespeare and Dickens, Keats and Mansfield, Hepworth and Boubat—and their presence through the books, sometimes structuring, sometimes reflecting, offers a layered reading that is both cultural comment and context.
If you can, you should read them in quick succession, or you might find yourself either missing connections altogether or thumbing back furiously to an earlier book to confirm a suspicion. But that’s what makes the final book, Summer, so satisfying. It’s a neat-but-not-too-neat ending. It leaves you with just the right sense of unease and hope, making up for the sadness of Winter and the despairing anger of Spring, and returning us to the gentle wondering of Autumn.
Read an earlier review of Winter.