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The summer’s tale: On Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet

By Madeleine Gray
Addressing climate crisis and global pandemic, the concluding book in Ali Smith’s quartet reminds us that an ending is also a beginning

Most writers have their tics. Some authors become attached to certain strange verbs, and will continue to deploy them, novel after novel, without ever becoming consciously attuned to their attachment. Other writers might circle back to the same setting – it is yet to be seen if Sally Rooney will ever write about characters not studying at Trinity College Dublin, for example. Tim Winton’s thematic consistency (novels must include: the vast ocean, a gang of grommets, a powerful secret that could tear a whole coastal community apart) is so well known that a spot-on Tim Winton parody account on Twitter has thousands of followers. Once a reader has noticed a writer’s tics, it is impossible to un-notice them. Whether the reader finds these tics energising or cloying really depends: like living with the odd habits of a spouse over many years, the outcome relies on commitment to the bit (or not). You either love your partner as they are, with all their weird quirks, or you don’t, and those weird quirks drive you slowly insane.

Readers new to Ali Smith’s fiction are faced with a similar ultimatum: either give in or get out. Smith’s idiosyncrasies are plentiful, her oeuvre chock-a-block with a recurring parade of themes (the power of art; time’s non-linearity; the puncturing of middle-class self-importance), rhetorical devices (puns; wordplay; self-conscious, philosophical onomatopoeia), character tropes (a mysterious stranger who makes everyone revaluate their lives; a precocious child who sees what adults don’t; a wise, older figure who knows a lot about art history), and aesthetic attachments (including but not limited to: the work of Katherine Mansfield, Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hepworth, Shakespeare and The Seekers). I write this on the assumption, however, that readers of Smith’s latest novel, Summer, have made (or will make) the decision to commit to the bit, as Summer is the fourth and final novel in Smith’s “seasonal quartet”.

This quartet has been published incrementally over the past four years, responding in “real time” (ish) to sociopolitical happenings in Britain and across the rest of the world. It is also a body of work in which Ali Smith is at her most “Ali Smith” – noted quirks ahoy. On March 23, after Britain had just gone into national lockdown due to the coronavirus, academic James Bailey wryly hypothesised on Twitter:

Imagining the novel Ali Smith is furiously composing during all of this: Narrated by a nurse, a precocious child called Germ, a tree stump, a Microsoft Teams call, NHS automated advice, and the ghost of Kenny Rogers. Musings on Charlie Chaplin throughout. Out this afternoon.

The quartet’s opening book, Autumn, published in October 2016, was hailed as the “first great Brexit novel”. By November 2017, Winter was still responding to Brexit ramifications and, relatedly, to Europe’s continuing migrant crisis. Released in March 2019, Spring was concerned with national division, with the bureaucratisation of hate, and with the UK’s own inhumane detention of refugees and displaced persons. Now, in August 2020, arrives Summer. National divisions regarding Brexit, British identity and the European migrant crisis are still key themes; but so is the worsening climate crisis, and so too is the global pandemic in which we are now living. The speed of the publication turnaround on each of the four novels is part of the project itself, with Smith wanting the books to “be available to readers as close to their time of being written as possible”. As the timing would have it, this has meant that Summer is the first published novel set during the coronavirus pandemic.

But, since this is Ali Smith, the present is not the only time in which the novel exists. Readers of Autumn will remember the character of Daniel Gluck, an old man who befriends his young neighbour, Elisabeth Demand, and teaches her about language’s multiplicity, its dynamism. “Herbal and verbal,” says Daniel in Autumn. “Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about.” In Autumn, we are introduced to Daniel three times: as an old man, through the eyes of a young girl; as a very elderly man, whose memories of the far past are swilling up and bleeding into his present; and as a young man, as he is in his memories. It is from the perspective of an old mind untethering time that we are given slices of Daniel’s past, of a sister he once had, named Hannah, who served in the French Resistance during World War Two. Though much is unsaid, it is clear that Daniel loved his sister very much, that he admired her, that he thought her brilliant, and that he has spent his whole life missing her. I read Winter and Spring hoping that Smith would bring me to Daniel and Hannah again; something about their relationship seemed very important and very potent to me. It seemed like the emotional crux of the quartet, but it was only half told.   

In Summer, thankfully, I am greeted by my old friends. Daniel and Elisabeth’s lives have now become intertwined with some of the characters we have come to know in Winter and Spring. At his deceased mother’s behest, Art, the nature blogger from Winter, brings part of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture to aged Daniel. While she is caring for Daniel, Art meets Elisabeth – now a lecturer in art history – and falls in love with her. A line at the end of Spring suggests that one of that novel’s main characters, the filmmaker Richard Lease, is in fact Elisabeth’s absent father. Characters’ lives intersect, or sometimes they don’t; they just come very close, and then veer off in other directions before the point of contact.

Part of Summer takes us back to World War Two, to when Daniel – a German-British citizen – is interned with his father, and with other Germans and Austrians living in Britain, on the Isle of Man. The camp is based on Hutchinson Internment Camp, which was a real internment camp for potential “enemy aliens” in Britain during the war. During his internment, young Daniel mixes with artists and intellectuals, none of whom are Nazis, but who, like him, are detained because of a British nationalist fear of alterity, and an inability to comprehend nuance (i.e. you can be German and not be a Nazi; you can be from somewhere else and not want to destroy the place you’ve come to). An interned Daniel responds to a Daily Mail–quoting Isle of Man local, who suggests that Daniel’s internment is actually a luxury holiday paid for by the British taxpayer, saying:

Tell the Daily Mail from me, Keith … from me as a representative of us all here, that we’re internees in a prison camp, we’re not enemies, and that a prison is always a prison, even in August when the sky is blue.

Smith is clearly inviting us to draw parallels between the internment of refugees and dual citizens in Britain during World War Two and the current treatment of refugees and displaced peoples in Britain’s detention centres. These centres, and the people in them, are prominent in Winter and in Spring. In Summer, 16-year-old Sacha lives in coronavirus lockdown in present-day Brighton, and writes emails to Hero, a Vietnamese refugee who has been indefinitely detained in Britain after fleeing persecution from his own government. Sacha’s thoughts are consumed by climate justice and coronavirus. She writes to Hero:

My brother Robert is holding out for medical geniuses to invent a vaccine. I am holding out for the geniuses who invent the vaccine to also be climate change geniuses. Then we might have a future.

In her own relative confinement, Sacha compares her lockdown living to Hero’s detainment. She reasons that open horizons have been helpful to her in this period, and so she writes to Hero of the outside world, and of the seasonal return of the swifts, in particular. “But lockdown is nothing compared to the unfairness of life for people who are already being treated unfairly,” she adds, in an afterthought befitting her role as the wise teenager in an Ali Smith novel.

Robert, the brother of whom Sacha speaks, is 13 years old and very clever – but he is also on the precipice of becoming radicalised by the alt-right. Robert has spent much of his childhood and early adolescence being cyberbullied by his school peers, and consequently he finds solace in internet communities that encourage the venting of personal frustration onto marginalised groups like women and non-white people. In Robert, Smith demonstrates the ease with which feelings of loneliness and impotence can be funnelled into a politics of hate. But she also demonstrates that this transmutation is not inevitable for every aggrieved person, and that mere human connection can often offer at least a partial antidote to such toxic views. For Robert, becoming enamoured by clever and beautiful leftist Charlotte (Art’s ex-girlfriend in Winter) is enough to rid him of most of his “devil’s advocate” positions. When Sacha tries to play the part of the protective older sister by confronting Charlotte about Robert’s crush, we see one of Smith’s central theses spelled out:

If people think you like them, Charlotte said, well, it can go either way. There’s a lot of powerplay in liking and being liked. Such a powerful connection, it’s a chance to make the world bigger for someone else. Or smaller. That’s always the choice we’ve got.

In saying this, Charlotte echoes the wisdom of Hannah, Daniel’s sister. For while Summer takes us back to Daniel’s experience of World War Two, it also takes us back to Hannah’s. Unlike her brother, who mostly grew up in England, Hannah has grown up in Germany. Hannah spends the war in France, acting in the resistance and arranging for the safe passage and re-homing of Jewish people and other displaced persons across Europe. Hannah has already been foregrounded in Autumn as Daniel’s brilliant younger sister, as a teenager already smarter than him and already on her way to changing the world. In Summer, we see a brilliant young woman trying to survive, and to help others do so. Hannah roams the French countryside, borrowing the names and stories of the dead so that living refugees might take them on and have a chance at life. She does what she can with the cards she has been dealt, as she is living in this particular place, in this particular terrible moment in history. She is wise beyond her age, but wisdom will not give her more age; she will be killed in her youth, we know.

During his time imprisoned, Daniel imagines whole conversations with, and writes letters to, Hannah. He then burns the letters, as actually sending them would endanger her. At her end, Hannah does the same thing. She writes (and then burns):

I really believed I could hold all the knowledge in me, all the narratives, all the poems, all the art, all the learning – and that this gathering and holding of all the things meant I now owned these things and that to do this was the reason for living. These days what do I know? Close to nothing. But one thing I do know is that I don’t hold any of those things I thought I owned. Instead, all those things hold me. They hold us all under the sky.

Smith seems to be saying that it is the act of writing itself that matters: it is the attention that is paid that counts, even when proof of reciprocity cannot be hoped for. In their not-quite exchange, we witness two people torn apart by war, each trying to rectify this by imagining life for the other; keeping life for the lost other inside their head, if nowhere else. This strategy echoes that undertaken by Richard Lease, in Spring, who sustains a connection to his estranged daughter, Elisabeth, by conversing with an imaginary version of her, and by taking that imaginary version to plays, films and other places she might enjoy.

Summer brother, autumn sister. These are the names that Daniel and his sister call each other, because Daniel comes to Germany from England each Summer to visit Hannah. And, as we learn in Autumn, this is the title of the one popular song Daniel writes in his lifetime. Lines and refrains from this song pop up throughout Smith’s quartet, like a tune you can’t get out of your head. Autumn sister, summer brother. As the seasons flow into each other, so is Daniel tied to Hannah, and vice versa. In her short life, Hannah is impelled by love for the brother she only gets to see once a year, and may never see again. In his final years, Daniel is returning to his second childishness, and all he can think of is his sister; for him, Hannah is summer, that bright, fast season emblazoned in memory like light on the back of one’s eyelids.

In the present, Sacha and Robert’s mother, Grace, reflects on a production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in which she once starred. For a moment, she misremembers the name, and christens it The Summer’s Tale. In her thinking, she echoes Hannah’s unsent letter to Daniel: “The brightest and slipperiest of seasons, the one that won’t be held to account – because summer won’t be held at all, except in bits, fragments, moments, flashes of memory of so-called or imagined perfect summers, summers that never existed.” It is the promise of summer, she decides, that makes it so powerful. The mere idea of summer hints to all the other good summers that might one day come. And after her misremembering, Grace reasons to herself that The Winter’s Tale is, actually, all about summer: “It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible. When you’re stuck in the world at its worse, that’s important. To be able to say that. At least to tend towards comedy.”

As the world gets hotter, and the global pandemic rages on, and Black people continue to be murdered by police, Smith’s seasonal quartet comes to a close with summer. But if we are to take any wisdom from these four novels, it is that an ending is also always a beginning. In 2016, Autumn began: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.” A younger Daniel plays a yarn-spinning game with a very young Elisabeth on the street between their houses. When she, in her youthful temerity, is disinclined to allow Daniel to invent a tale that would bend narrative convention as she knows it, he tells her, “The world’s made up of stories. And whoever makes up the story makes up the world … So always try to welcome people into the world of your story. That’s my suggestion.” Later, a disembodied voice that might be nature itself, speaks: “There’s always, there’ll always be, more story. That’s what story is.”

In Summer, the parting word is from Hero, or, as his name is in Vietnamese, Anh Kiệt. He has been quietly evicted from the immigration detention centre he has been imprisoned in, as the UK government tries to avoid headlines about refugees dying en masse from coronavirus in state-sanctioned jails. A group of displaced peoples has been taken into Art’s house, and Anh Kiệt is one of them. In a letter, Anh Kiệt tells Sacha that he sees the swift she writes of in the sky, and that it will return to her “in the shape of members of its family”. The idea is that nothing is not connected, that when we are displaced we place our love and our hope into surrogates and symbols – be they letters unsent or birds in the sky. We hope that our love reaches those who need it, in whatever form. And as we do this, the seasons keep on turning. Summer might come again, and what else can we hope for?

Madeleine Gray

Madeleine Gray is a writer and critic from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, the TLS, The Lifted Brow and the BBC.

@gray_madeleine_

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