Antidotes to Brexit, COVID-19, and Other Afflictions in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet

November 30, 2020   •   By Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Autumn

Ali Smith

Winter

Ali Smith

Spring

Ali Smith

Summer

Ali Smith

IN THE SUMMER of 2016, just before the November election that upended United States politics, the United Kingdom had its own paradigm-shifting moment in the form of “Brexit.” As many readers will already know, the portmanteau that combines “Britain” and “Exit” is used to describe the results of the 2016 referendum in which Britons voted to leave the European Union by a small margin. The deceivingly simple yes-or-no vote set the stage for a long-winded political drama that has consumed British media, politics, and the great majority of family conversations for more than four years. It also serves as the backdrop to prodigious novelist Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, a critically acclaimed series of four books that are subtly interconnected, with each taking place at a different stage of the ongoing political divorce. While the UK only managed to formally exit the EU during January of this year — after a few delays, plenty of acrimony, and three prime ministers — the process is still in a transitional period during which the 27 member states and Britain are ironing out the details for their future relationship.

Aside from the severing between the UK and EU that lately makes the English Channel seem more like a cement wall, the vote wrenched open generational, political, and personal fault lines. Smith, who set out in 2016 to write each book as closely to its publishing date as possible, powerfully captures in the series’s inaugural book how the only unified experience of Brexit was disunity:

All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. […] All across the country, people felt history at their shoulder. All across the country, people felt history meant nothing. All across the country, people felt like they counted for nothing. […] All across the country, people drew swastika graffiti. All across the country, people threatened other people. All across the country, people told people to leave. All across the country, the media was insane. All across the country, politicians lied. All across the country, politicians fell apart. All across the country, politicians vanished. All across the country, promises vanished. All across the country, money vanished. All across the country, social media did the job. […] All across the country, everything changed overnight. All across the country, the haves and the have nots stayed the same. All across the country, the usual tiny per cent of the people made their money out of the usual huge per cent of the people. All across the country, money money money money. All across the country, no money no money no money no money.

All across the country, the country split in pieces. All across the country, the countries cut adrift.

Set just months after the 2016 referendum, Autumn introduces us to two unlikely friends. Daniel Gluck, a 101-year-old musical composer, is revealed in the opening chapters to be in a prolonged sleep state at a retirement home in Suffolk, England. Beside Daniel’s bed is Elisabeth Demand, a young art history professor who grew up next door to him and for whom the elderly man served as an “unofficial babysitter.” The book travels back and forth through time and minds, showing us Daniel’s comatose memories tinged with fantastical elements, as well as the relationship between a young Elisabeth and a somewhat younger Daniel. When the 77-year-old composer meets the eight-year-old, he tells her he’s glad to “finally” meet her. “The lifelong friends,” Daniel explains to a confused Elisabeth, “We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.” Their connection is profoundly intimate and, for Elisabeth, formative, as her neighbor teaches her how to describe and examine artwork. Daniel also encourages the child’s budding imagination, nudging her to muse about a world free from the limits that a rule-obsessed society — as illustrated in several humorous scenes in which an adult Elisabeth is trying and consistently failing to renew her passport — has already begun to impose on her.

The following season leads us to England’s Southwest coast, where a high-powered, aging Sophia Cleves is struggling with her vision — both literally and figuratively — just as her son Arthur, who goes by the less regal Art, arrives for Christmas with a woman he claims is his girlfriend Charlotte. Later they are joined by Sophia’s estranged rebel-with-many-causes sister Iris, a firebrand activist who’s participated in everything from antinuclear war protests to assisting refugees in Greece, and who serves as the foil to an upright, business-leader sibling who puts profit and corporate success above all else. Over the course of a frigid Winter we learn that Art, who writes deceivingly falsified stories for his “Art in Nature” blog, has parted ways with Charlotte, and that she is now impersonating him on Twitter with embarrassingly misspelled and misleading 140-character messages. The woman Art’s brought home is actually a Croatian student named Lux whom he’s paid to play his partner and who, like her name signals, shines some warmth on the icy Cleves family while challenging the xenophobia that has taken hold of Sophia and many of her compatriots. Throughout Winter, the characters’ wildly different perspectives on life, Brexit, and even their own shared family history play out over a tense Christmas in which secrets are divulged, political ideas disputed, and, as is usually the case at family gatherings, nothing is truly resolved.

A year later, Spring takes us on parallel journeys which ultimately converge in the Scottish Highlands. Richard Lease, a filmmaker grieving the loss of his lifelong friend Patricia “Paddy” Heal, ends up haphazardly traveling north as the novel bounces around time to show us Richard’s fondest memories of his friend. Paddy, we learn, helped him mourn another loss — the daughter he lost with his divorce — by suggesting he take his child to art galleries using his imagination. Unwittingly traveling in the same direction is Brittany Hall, an employee at an Immigration Removal Center (IRC) in London who is following Florence, a 12-year-old girl in search of her refugee mother. Florence previously caught Brit’s attention by entering the IRC one day and, as if by magic, ordering the prison’s managers to clean the filthy bathrooms. Brit’s work at the center, where immigrants are detained indefinitely without charge, had already begun to dehumanize her in ways both big and small without her noticing. When Brit and Florence come across Richard on a North Scotland train platform, the wunderkind ends up saving the filmmaker’s life, after which the three embark on a new leg of their journeys on a caravan that leaves all passengers forever changed.

Summer, the quartet’s much-awaited denouement, is the least like the series’s first three installments in that it reunites readers with several characters from the other books. In the opening passages, set a couple of months before the coronavirus pandemic hits, the Greenlaw family is introduced. At its heart are two precocious siblings: Sacha, who is having dystopian nightmares about climate change, and Robert, a spritely troublemaker who, as a response to being bullied, is pulling elaborate pranks and perpetually playing devil’s advocate. One of Sacha’s irritating younger brother’s antics leads her to cross paths with Art and Charlotte, from Winter, on a Brighton beach in January 2020 just as news of the novel coronavirus is starting to spread. The two are on their way to Suffolk at Sophia’s request to visit none other than Autumn’s Daniel, who is under the care of Elisabeth in her mother’s home. When Art and Charlotte ask the Greenlaw siblings and their mother to join them on a spontaneous trip, we embark on the quartet’s final journey. Like its predecessors, Summer flicks through time and, in the past, tells the story of two equally brilliant Jewish siblings separated by World War II. Daniel, asleep in Suffolk, recalls his days in a German internment camp on the Isle of Man where, despite being a British passport holder, he was detained with his German father. Across the English Channel, Daniel’s sister Hannah has escaped Germany and is in hiding in France, where she is helping other refugees make their way to Switzerland.

Throughout this final season, it is slowly revealed to the reader, though never to the characters themselves, how the protagonists in the Seasonal Quartet are linked as several generations come together under one roof. A careful reader will have caught the subtle hints about two novels’ characters spending a week in “the city of love,” each with an unnamed romantic interest. Or a protagonist in Spring musing about the slightly unusual spelling of a child’s name. The connections, familial and otherwise, don’t end there as a new love story begins and, at the very end, the caravan from Spring returns. It is somewhat enjoyable to map out the connections between all of the characters, and yet much of Summer is preoccupied with tying up these loose ends. The usual playful lyricism readers expect from Smith is partly displaced by overt exposition where more understated clues would likely have allowed the final book to stand on its own as forcefully as the rest. That said, Summer, like its predecessors, consistently offers breathtaking prose and engaging story lines throughout.

While Smith’s storytelling abilities are undeniable, the true power of the Seasonal Quartet lies in how it captures living British history through the intimate relationships playing out before the backdrop of sociopolitical turmoil in both the past and present. The juxtaposition of Brexit and World War II — it’s no coincidence the swastika features in both — points to how xenophobia endlessly rears its ugly head and is used to justify the unthinkably inhumane. In describing the UK’s German internment camps and the current immigrant detention centers peppered throughout the country, Smith also signals that Britain’s perennial refusal to grapple with its past has set the nation on a dizzying path of tragic repetition.

In a poignant Summer scene set in World War II Britain, a 10-year-old boy tells Daniel that The Daily Mail, the most popular British tabloid to date, says the “enemy aliens” are “getting a sea air holiday” on the Isle of Man and have “more money than we’ve got and hot water and coal.” The story, in which right-wing media pits low-income locals against immigrants seen to be reaping benefits which are inaccessible to them, is one that will sound familiar to 2020 readers in the UK and elsewhere.

“Tell the Daily Mail from me, Keith,” Daniel calls after the boy, “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’s artful collation of World War II and Brexit highlights how the EU, which began to form in the 1950s as a means of ameliorating centuries-long tensions between European countries, failed to heal age-old wounds. The current refugee crisis and EU membership, however, may seem unrelated to readers outside Europe. The link between the two only became apparent to me as a journalist living in Britain and reporting on Brexit. In interview after interview during the run-up to the EU referendum, Britons told me that Syrian asylum-seekers played a part in their decision to vote “Leave.” When Autumn’s Elisabeth sees signs in her hometown that read “Go Home,” it’s clear that the demand targets not just the EU citizens now residing in a British limbo, but anyone perceived to be non-British in the narrowest understanding of the term. This is due in part to far-right politicians such as UKIP leader Nigel Farage and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson skillfully stoking racism to promote Brexit. In one now infamous moment, Farage unveiled a poster of a long line of refugees that read “Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all.”

Astonishingly, in Summer’s Britain as in the actual country, COVID-19 led to the previously unimaginable mass release of hundreds from IRCs across the country. Smith, who interviewed detainees for Spring, could not have predicted that the pandemic would upend the irrational justifications the British public had been fed about indefinite immigrant detention as, in one fell swoop, hundreds of people were suddenly no longer treated as a threat simply for seeking asylum. That the incredible about-face is already captured in the final book illustrates one clear benefit of the self-imposed publishing challenge, which allows the novelist to incorporate current events seamlessly.

Someone reading Summer now will thus already be able to read Smith’s take on the global event that has marked everyone’s lives in recent months. While the coronavirus pandemic is consistently labeled “unprecedented,” the Scottish novelist summons one of the quartet’s most prominent themes to remind us mankind has been here before, too. At 104, Daniel recalls how his own father lived through the 1918 flu pandemic, telling Elisabeth, “He said you had to remember not to take it personally. Then you stopped being scared.”

Rather than take the pandemic “personally,” Summer’s Sacha shows concern for those who most need it as the British government’s response to the pandemic collides with Brexit politics. As the teen activist notes in a letter to her refugee pen pal Hero, while the release of IRC detainees is welcome news, it is troubling that as COVID-19 was spreading like wildfire immigrants were turned out on the streets with no assistance. Smith offers an elegant solution in her novel, setting an example for the kind of real-life altruism it will require to survive these schismatic times, leading Iris to turn Sophia’s 15-bedroom mansion into a refugee asylum.

In addition to political and historical mentions, the four novels are all richly layered with intertextual references. Each book is in conversation with a Shakespearean play, but the bard is hardly the only great British writer Smith conjures in her series, where references to and revisions of Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Katherine Mansfield among many others abound. Visual artists in turn serve as something akin to patron saints of each novel as paintings by Pauline Boty and Tacita Dean, along with works by sculptor Barbara Hepworth and filmmaker Lorenza Mazzetti, appear in vivid detail. At a time in which her country is trying to decide what it means to be British, Smith’s collage of British visionaries reveals that it has always signified a multiplicity of identities — not to mention multiple “countries within a country” — that cannot and should not be pegged to a single idea.

Throughout the quartet, Smith offers up moving moments filled with hope, often in the form of a child or childlike messenger that dazzles us with their visions for a more equitable, compassionate future. Robert and Lux, after all, both bear names that mean “bright light,” whereas Sacha, intent on saving the planet, is aptly named “protector.” Florence, one of the quartet’s most unforgettable characters who is based on Pericles’s daughter Marina, carries the promise that, even through the darkest seasons, we will ultimately find a way to flourish. As it’s not enough to rely on future generations, Smith also holds up examples of activism as effective responses to politically designed tragedies and highlights how connections — familial and otherwise — not only shape our lives, but give them a meaning beyond any walls and borders that are erected.

When I asked the author what she expected from Brexit in an interview last year, her response summed up many of the lessons found in the Seasonal Quartet: “We’ll sort it. We’re multifarious, and we’re astonishing. And division is a kind of lie to us, in our human multifacetedness. We won’t stand for it for long. I hope.”

As another season nears, one that is expected to bring with it even more mass hardship, my hope is that readers in Britain and beyond turn to Smith’s four novels. I know I will, not only to salve growing fears about the future but also to arm myself with lessons of the past and present that none of us can afford to leave unlearned.

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Natasha Hakimi Zapata is a London-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Nation, Truthdig, Los Angeles Magazine, and elsewhere. She has received several Southern California Journalism and National Arts & Entertainment Journalism awards, among other honors.