Novel Times: On Ali Smith’s “Summer”
By Matt HartmanOctober 7, 2020
Summer by Ali Smith
Two days later, it came back negative. “You can breathe easy,” the nurse said. The problem was I could barely breathe at all — I felt worse than ever. Only later did I learn my neighbors’ doctor claimed 30 percent of tests were false negatives. I never could find a source for that statistic.
Throughout the ordeal, I kept thinking of an early scene from the novel Autumn, by the prolific Scottish writer Ali Smith. A young woman, Elisabeth, goes to the post office to renew her passport. The clerk says her photos aren’t up to code because her hair is too close to her face and her face is too small. “HEAD INCORRECT SIZE,” he writes on the form. “If this were a drama on TV,” she says, it would be a sign of some impending doom. “This isn’t fiction,” the clerk responds. “This is the Post Office.”
Real bureaucratic messes have outpaced fiction of late, and the doom they foretell is here. Bad testing, barely existent unemployment benefits, stimulus checks delayed for Donald Trump’s signature: these are the quotidian tortures of a collapsing world. Even the post office is at risk, to say nothing of the anonymous soldiers in unmarked vans rounding up protestors.
Published in October 2016, Autumn was the first installment of Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, each written only four months before they were published, according to the Guardian. Smith had the idea in 2015, but by the time she started Autumn, the Brexit vote was upending the United Kingdom and Donald Trump was on the campaign trail. The baffling, inhumane events of the past four years had begun. “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,” she wrote in the book’s opening sentence.
With the release of Summer in August, the series concluded its literary accounting of this era’s degradation. Set in England, the novel features several characters discussing the early spread of COVID-19. George Floyd is mentioned by name. Against that background, Smith explores the personal experience of grand political upheaval, as she has throughout the quartet.
But time isn’t the same in quarantine. Months can last years. Summer dwells at length on once-leading news stories that have since been completely overshadowed. Read in July when I first sat down with the book, it was almost quaint to think the Australia fires were the sign of the apocalypse that they were in February. The discontinuities have only heightened in the time since, with California in flames, a dead Supreme Court justice leading to the president becoming a COVID-19 super spreader, and more protests over Breonna Taylor, whose name doesn't appear in the book. Even Smith’s ambitious schedule can’t keep up anymore. In a way, that’s the point: it’s a project that questions the fragile, unbreakable role of art in making sense of a world that is always slightly beyond our comprehension.
At its heart, the Seasonal Quartet is about relationships: Autumn centered on the friendship between Elisabeth and cultured centenarian Daniel Gluck; Winter the tension between half-hearted nature blogger Art, his “business-minded” mother, his “seasoned lefty activist” aunt Iris, and a mysterious woman Art has paid to pretend to be his erstwhile girlfriend, Charlotte; and Spring the surprise connection between filmmaker Richard, an immigrant foster child on the run, and the immigration detention center guard accompanying her.
Each story alluded to the others, but Summer makes the connections explicit, tying (some) existing characters into the life of the dysfunctional Greenlaw family. Sacha, a precocious teen who writes letters to immigrants in detention, tries to guide her younger brother Robert, who glibly supports revanchist, right-wing policies when not apathetically playing a computer game about torture, and both chastise their mother Grace, a former actress turned Brexiteer who blames the vote for her marriage’s demise, despite the fact that her husband moved in with his girlfriend next door before the vote ever happened.
The fault lines (between siblings, between generations, between lovers) are at once private and public, personal and political. “Ironic,” Sacha thinks after her mother praises a quote about forgiveness that she has cited in a school paper about Brexit, “given that neither her father nor her mother looked likely to forgive each other anything any time soon.”
In lesser hands, these books would degenerate into Pollyanna both-sidesism: if only we could all get along! Smith skirts the trap, but never falls in. When Robert, a boy who “sighs the sigh of an ancient tyrant who’s seen it all,” says he is “in awe” of the way Boris Johnson gets “away with talking about patriotism with all the fervor of 12 year olds” and that he “still aspires to it a bit, though he’s now 13 and recognizes its pre-adolescent ventriloquisms,” the effect is not equivocation. It’s elaboration. It’s a question of how cruelty is reproduced, of how experience within the home shapes the way we approach the world outside of it. And vice versa: after all, these times are defined by fights over the home — of who must stay inside it, of who is able to stay inside it, of who gets to make one and where.
Weaving Robert’s story with Sacha’s and Grace’s experiences, and all of them with Daniel’s flee from Nazism into a British internment camp, Iris’s lifelong activism, and Art’s and Charlotte’s writing projects, Summer becomes an intergenerational patchwork illustrating both the trends of our times and a meditation on time itself. (“The two, time and times, are not the same thing,” Robert says.) It’s a question of history and what it can teach us, of whether there’s a “new meanness is meaning” (Art’s mother) and whether “[t]he past’s the past. What’s coming’s stuff we can’t even imagine” (Sacha).
The series’s cyclical titles imply a philosophy: what happened in the past always happens again, but not the same way. (Sacha might point to rising sea levels and changing current patterns here.) Smith knows that, on its own, history is about as effective as throwing nostalgic kitsch at an immigration center fence, as one character does in Autumn. Instead, she turns to art as the human endeavor that can revive the past for a new era.
Smith has described the Seasonal Quartet as “a kind of keeping the novel novel project,” and the quartet frequently draws on a literary inheritance. Autumn isn’t the only book that begins with a play on a famous line. Winter (“God was dead”) and Spring (“Now what we don’t want is Facts,” an update on Hard Times) follow suit. Summer has its own David Copperfield riff, but first it voices a challenge to itself: “Everybody said: so? As in so what?”
The quartet’s answers are the bonds its characters have to each other (and occasionally reject), which are made speakable through art and literature. It’s what friends talk about, how children define themselves against their parents, how siblings remember their childhoods. Pop artist Pauline Boty played an essential role for Daniel and Elisabeth, sculptor Barbara Hepworth for Art’s mother, Katherine Mansfield and Tacita Dean’s chalk drawings for Richard and his beloved writing partner. Summer returns repeatedly to the films of Italian director Lorenza Mazzetti and Einstein’s writings, and allusions to Dickens, Shakespeare, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others appear throughout. This is the raw material of our thought.
Smith is well aware that quotations and allusions risk speaking a language that only a “MEMBER OF THE EDUCATED ELITE” could understand, to use the insult Robert often levies at those around him. It’s a dishonest barb, but not an incorrect one: the art world has never been the most welcoming place, and those too invested in it risk closing themselves off to the meat of politics. “Worrying about stuff like this was what her mother’s generation did as displacement activity from worrying about the real things happening in the world,” Sacha says. It’s a moral challenge from the generation that gave us the Sunrise Movement and Black Youth Project 100, and Smith takes it seriously.
What makes the Seasonal Quartet such a pleasure is the way its writing forms its own response. Smith fills the novels with literary flourishes in the form of communication failures: wordplay and references and assumptions that disclose different ways of seeing the world. “I mean, this is Ragnarok,” the filmmaker Richard exclaims in Spring when Alda, a coffee saleswoman, tells him the library is closed. “It’s not like closed closed,” she says. “It’s closed on a Tuesday.” Too focused on books, Richard doesn’t notice that the coffee van is a cover. Alda is actually an activist helping immigrants escape detention. In Summer, Sacha tells Grace about Greta, meaning Thunberg, and her mother assumes Garbo — a sea change contained in a name.
Often, these misunderstandings become generative. “I have a theory,” Elisabeth says about Daniel, “that he hears the word internet and thinks the word internment.” She means his own from World War II; Smith also implies the one at today’s border. In flitting between the two, Elisabeth learns something about her world, which she learns to translate through the art she shares with Daniel. For others, it’s Chaplin’s physical comedy, Shakespeare’s conventions — it’s the same human drive that allows a mother to become fluent in her daughter’s mispronunciations. A private language made from art as a public memory. Smith writes with the same flourish. Few authors can match her playful, wrenching prose. See, for example, the numerous paragraphs that consist of a single exclamation mark and still, somehow, carry a clear meaning.
It’s that ability to communicate, to connect in spite of everything, that motivates critics to praise Smith for “bending, despite everything, toward hope,” as Sarah Lyall wrote in her review of Autumn. But it’s the hope of a pessimist. This has always happened: “Everything means something quite other now,” Daniel says from his internment camp. The new generation has its Roberts as much as its Sachas, and the past has its Irises. “Yes, it’s surreal for us here right now,” the activist says. “But it’s never not a state of emergency somewhere. We’re naive if we think life normally isn’t as surreal as fuck for most people scraping a living on this earth.” Our suffering isn’t new; it’s just different.
Expressing the novel and the historical at the same time, finding it in the marrow of our deepest, most ordinary selves, is the Seasonal Quartet’s greatest achievement. But it’s also what makes reading Summer during this summer so strange, much less in the fall. Maintaining hope, however pessimistic, after Brexit is one thing; in 2020, it’s another entirely. We don’t need wordplay. We need bodies in the streets. Anything else feels like a fairy tale — like the lies we tell ourselves to feel better in a world that is too complex, too cruel, to comprehend.
Ultimately, the most hopeful part of the Seasonal Quartet is admitting just that. “We are a fairy story,” Alda says of her activist group.
We’re a folk tale. I don’t mean to sound in the least bit fey. These stories are deeply serious, all about transformation. How we’re changed by things. Or made to change. Or have to learn to change. And that’s what we’re working on, change. We’re serious, too.
It’s too easy to say that a story, a human connection, can change the world — except that, amazingly, it happens. It is at the core of the friendships, love, solidarity that enables political action. At times, Summer can feel too ephemeral for the weight of these times. Yet I’ve also found myself recommending them more and more the worse things have become. Maybe their levity is just the reminder we need. “Memory. It can be heavy,” Charlotte says. “Other times, so light,” Grace responds. It’s human connection that carries us between the two, whether to empower or oppress us.
That, in turn, is a question of time. “Is that the gift we get to give to others, then?” Charlotte asks Robert. It’s a question that might not mean what it did when Smith wrote it, in the world that existed six months ago. But Smith knows that’s always the case, and she’s given her answer.
Matt Hartman is a writer from Durham, North Carolina.
Matt Hartman is a writer from Durham, North Carolina. He tweets at @themhartman.
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