Win­ter by Ali Smith

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Yas­mine El Rashidi

Win­ter by Ali Smith.

Pan­theon, 322 pp., $25.95

Au­tumn by Ali Smith.

An­chor, 264 pp., $15.95 (pa­per)

I read the first two nov­els of Ali Smith’s sea­sonal quar­tet in Cairo, where long, warm, sunny days make up most of the year. In a city whose pace—a down­tempo lull—gives a sense that time is ex­panded, Au­tumn, with its me­an­der­ing, time-trav­el­ing, light-footed story of a friend­ship be­tween a young girl and an old man, felt ex­hil­a­rat­ing, deeply touch­ing, even breath­tak­ing. Win­ter, which is not strictly a se­quel ex­cept in the sea­sonal sense and which re­volves around a Christ­mas gath­er­ing at a fam­ily home in Corn­wall, was fraught, over­whelm­ing, dire. Too many peo­ple, too many egos, too many ideas, too much ten­sion. “Ghastly” is how I have heard the sea­son, which I have never ex­pe­ri­enced in its en­tirety, de­scribed—but the word “some­what” ap­plies to it and the tem­per­a­ment of the novel as well.

Win­ter be­gins tellingly, like Au­tumn, with a con­tem­po­rary take on a Dick­en­sian tale:

God was dead: to be­gin with.

And ro­mance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Po­etry, the novel, paint­ing, they were all dead, and art was dead. The­atre and cin­ema were both dead. Lit­er­a­ture was dead. The book was dead. Modernism, post­mod­ernism, real­ism and sur­re­al­ism were all dead. Jazz was dead, pop mu­sic, disco, rap, clas­si­cal mu­sic, dead. Cul­ture was dead.

As were his­tory, pol­i­tics, democ­racy, po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, the me­dia, the In­ter­net, Twit­ter, re­li­gion, mar­riage, sex lives, Christ­mas, and both truth and fic­tion. But “life wasn’t yet dead. Rev­o­lu­tion wasn’t dead. Ra­cial equal­ity wasn’t dead. Ha­tred wasn’t dead.” Smith, who was born in Scot­land in 1962, is as at­tuned to the cur­rent mo­ment as she is to the cy­cles of his­tory that led us here. Grow­ing up in coun­cil hous­ing, Smith held odd jobs in­clud­ing wait­ress­ing and clean­ing let­tuce be­fore per­su­ing a Ph.D. in Amer­i­can and Ir­ish modernism at Cam­bridge; she ul­ti­mately aban­doned academia to write plays.

In Win­ter, Arthur (Art), who makes a liv­ing track­ing down copy­right in fring­ing im­ages in mu­sic videos and also main­tains a blog, Art in Na­ture, has just bro­ken up with Char­lotte, his con­spir­acy-the­o­rist an­t­i­cap­i­tal­ist girl­friend, who has de­stroyed his lap­top by drilling a hole through it and taken over his Twit­ter ac­count to im­per­son­ate and ridicule him. Un­able to face Christ­mas alone with his emo­tion­ally with­drawn, hy­per­sen­si­tive, and self-starved mother—Sophia, aka Ms. Cleves—and hav­ing promised her that he would bring along his girl­friend, he hires Velux (Lux), a gay Croa­t­ian whom he meets at an In­ter­net café, to be a stand-in Char­lotte (for £1000). At some point over that Christ­mas week­end, a long-es­tranged, po­lit­i­cally and tech­no­log­i­cally aware hip­pie aunt, Iris, vis­its too. In their midst, ac­com­pa­ny­ing Sophia, is the float­ing, dis­em­bod­ied head of a child. Bash­ful, friendly, non­ver­bal, it be­comes some­thing of a con­stant, if grad­u­ally dy­ing, pres­ence. Fam­ily banter, con­flict, po­lit­i­cal de­bate, reck­on­ings, and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion en­sue. As do dreams, night­mares, hal­lu­ci­na­tions, and ap­pari­tions. Per­spec­tives and nar­ra­tors con­stantly change, shift, and col­lapse; par­al­lel and tan­gen­tial events are re­counted at the same time. (“Let’s see an­other Christ­mas. This one is the one that hap­pened in 1991.”) Con­ver­sa­tion is struc­tured and guided in­tu­itively:

I can­not be near her fuck­ing chaos a minute longer. (His mother talk­ing to the wall.)

Lucky I’m an op­ti­mist re­gard­less. (His aunt speak­ing to the ceil­ing.)

It is no won­der my fa­ther hated her. (His mother.)

Our fa­ther didn’t hate me, he hated what had hap­pened to him. (His aunt.)

And mother hated her, they both did, for what she did to the fam­ily. (His mother.)

Our mother hated a regime that put money into weapons of any sort af­ter the war she’d lived through, in fact she hated it so much that she with­held in her tax pay­ments the per­cent­age that’d go to any man­u­fac­ture of weapons. (His aunt.) My mother never did any such thing. (His mother.)

The events and the in­tri­ca­cies of the var­i­ous in­ter­ac­tions are both quo­tid­ian—“The walk from the gate to the house is un­ex­pect­edly far and the path is muddy af­ter the storm. He puts his phone on to light the way. It buzzes with Twit­ter alerts as soon as he put it on. Oh God. So much for low re­cep­tion”—and sur­real. The plau­si­ble and the im­plau­si­ble are in­ter­change­able, com­ing to­gether in ex­u­ber­ant, tragi­comic, and shrewd scenes:

Good morn­ing, Sophia Cleves said. Happy day-be­fore-Christ­mas.

She was speak­ing to the dis­em­bod­ied head .... The head was on the win­dowsill sniff­ing in what was left of the su­per­mar­ket thyme. It closed its eyes in what looked like plea­sure. It rubbed its fore­head against the tiny leaves. The scent of thyme spread through the kitchen and the plant top­pled into the sink.

At the din­ner ta­ble and in al­le­gory, tales are shared in mul­ti­ple ver­sions, form­ing a kalei­do­scopic world­view and view of the fam­ily. An un­re­ported chem­i­cal leak at a fac­tory in Italy has killed trees, birds, cats, and rab­bits, sent chil­dren to the hospi­tal break­ing out in boils, and poi­soned the air, forc­ing ev­ery­one to leave their houses, which are then bull­dozed. Sophia laughs at the vi­sion of a cat with its tail fall­ing off. No­body else finds this funny. Smith’s char­ac­ters nav­i­gate one an­other’s twisted hu­mor and mul­ti­di­men­sional takes on the world with var­i­ous modes and tics of sur­vival (the ner­vous laugh, the emo­tional with­drawal). Po­lit­i­cal and class di­vides mark ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion, even the most in­ti­mate, and Win­ter brings out the per­ver­sity of priv­i­lege and choice:

What’ve you re­ally been do­ing? Sophia said. Or have you taken ide­al­is­tic re­tire­ment now?

I’ve been in Greece, Iris said. I came home three weeks ago. I’m go­ing back in Jan­uary.

Holiday? Sophia said. Sec­ond home? Yeah, that’s right, Iris said. Tell your friends that. Tell them to come too. We’ll all have a fab­u­lous time. Thou­sands of hol­i­day­mak­ers ar­riv­ing ev­ery day from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, for city-break hol­i­days in Tur­key and Greece.

“None of my friends would be in the least in­ter­ested in any of this,” Sophia re­sponds.

Au­tumn set the prece­dent for Win­ter’s method of mo­ral in­quiry as well as for its use of found lan­guage and its form, which dis­cards the con­form­ity of se­quence and lay­ers fic­tion with con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal facts. This, as the sea­sons pass, is per­haps the only con­ti­nu­ity, both within and be­tween the nov­els. Char­ac­ters don’t walk in from one book to the next, though ref­er­ences and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions do. The pace picks up in Win­ter, pos­si­bly as Smith finds her cre­ative stride. Re­mark­ably, out of the abysmal state of world af­fairs she finds the ca­pac­ity for in­ven­tive­ness and play.

A master craftsper­son, Smith seems to be com­pletely lib­er­ated from ideas of what a nov­el­ist should be or do. There is no self-con­scious­ness, no pre­ten­sion. One has the im­pres­sion that ev­ery­thing that meets her fancy, amus­ing or in­trigu­ing her, finds its way into her work. Word­play, ideas on syn­tax, puns, banter with po­etry and ne­ol­o­gisms— “(What’s cara­pace?) It’s a car­a­van that goes at a great pace”—mus­ings on im­ages and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, death, myth, paint­ing, ap­pro­pri­a­tion. As her char­ac­ters turn to Google or the dic­tio­nary, one imag­ines she just did too:

She looked up at the con­so­nants and vow­els of what looked like a non­sense Scrab­ble game the peo­ple liv­ing here had painted round the room’s cor­nic­ing, still quite el­e­gant re­gard­less of the dis­re­pair. is opropy­l­methylp hosp ho flu­o­ri­date with death.

It is not by chance that Smith ref­er­ences art and artists so fre­quently in her work. (In her lu­mi­nous 2014 novel, How to Be Both, the nar­ra­tor of the his­tor­i­cal novella that forms part of the nar­ra­tive is the fif­teenth-cen­tury Re­nais­sance pain­ter Francesco del Cossa; in Au­tumn, the icon­o­clas­tic 1960s Bri­tish pop artist Pauline Boty is a shared fas­ci­na­tion among the char­ac­ters, as is the mod­ernist sculp­tor Bar­bara Hep­worth for Sophia in Win­ter.) While lit­er­ary ref­er­ences seep through her nov­els, she also ex­ca­vates and ref­er­ences his­to­ries of cul­ture, pol­i­tics, and art to come up with a lan­guage en­tirely their own. Smith’s nov­els are not so much pre­scient as they are in­tu­itive and sen­si­tive to nos­tal­gia, the forces of col­lapse, and the break­neck speed with which we are hurtling to­ward fur­ther dis­as­ter.

She long ago aban­doned tra­di­tional modes of sto­ry­telling. How to Be Both was printed in two edi­tions, one with the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tor pre­ced­ing a con­tem­po­rary one, the other in re­verse or­der. Be­fore that came her fic­tion­al­ized book of lec­tures, Art­ful, which

was nar­rated by a char­ac­ter haunted by a for­mer lover who writes a se­ries of sharp lec­tures on art and lit­er­a­ture, and the Booker fi­nal­ist Ho­tel World, nar­rated in part by a spirit and the women around her af­fected by her death (it’s sur­real, prob­ing, com­pas­sion­ate, and witty all at once). Au­tumn and Win­ter, the first two in the quar­tet, are writ­ten in sort-of real time (think re­al­ity TV as novel) with stream-of-con­scious­ness and po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary com­ing to­gether to form par­al­lel nar­ra­tive threads that con­nect the var­i­ous char­ac­ters, their ac­tions, and the sto­ries in their heads—past, present, fu­ture.

Smith seems to be at­tempt­ing to write as fast as in­for­ma­tion and re­al­ity change, as fast as truth turns to fic­tion and fact is an­nulled. While let­ting her char­ac­ters guide her—as well as guide and muse and strug­gle with them­selves—she re­sponds to cur­rent events that find their way into the story:

Jan­uary: it is a rea­son­ably balmy Mon­day, 9 de­grees, in late win­ter a cou­ple of days af­ter five mil­lion peo­ple, mostly women, take part in marches all across the world to protest against misog­yny in power. A man barks at a woman. I mean barks like a dog. Woof woof. This hap­pens in the House of Com­mons. The woman is speak­ing. She is ask­ing a ques­tion. The man barks at her in the mid­dle of her ask­ing it.

More fully: an op­po­si­tion Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment is ask­ing a For­eign Sec­re­tary a ques­tion in the House of Com­mons.

She is ques­tion­ing a Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter’s show of friendly de­meanour and re­peated procla­ma­tion of spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with an Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent, who also has a habit of liken­ing women to dogs.

Au­tumn was as at­tuned to po­lit­i­cal forces as Win­ter, but it seems to have been writ­ten in a state of slight shock or dis­may—at the refugee cri­sis, the rev­o­lu­tions and fallen hopes in the Mid­dle East, and the out­come of the Brexit ref­er­en­dum. It is breath­less, too, but sad­der, slower, and eas­ier to take in. Win­ter moves with such fe­roc­ity that while read­ing it one is forced to pause, stand back, reread, and take a bird’seye view of the ab­sur­dity of what our cul­ture has be­come: we bat­tle to keep peo­ple flee­ing war-torn coun­tries out of our “home­land” for fear of what they might bring, how they might ter­ror­ize our lives, our jobs, our com­mu­ni­ties: “Ask them what kind of vicar, what kind of church, brings a child up to think that words like very and hos­tile and en­vi­ron­ment and refugees can ever go to­gether in any re­sponse to what hap­pens to peo­ple in the real world.”

There is the ab­sur­dity, too, of an age in which we adopt on­line avatars and take to Face­book, Twit­ter, and In­sta­gram to share our thoughts, pro­mote our work, cu­rate our iden­ti­ties. Read­ing a blog post of Art’s, Lux clears her throat:

It doesn’t seem very like you, she says. Not that I know you that well. But from the lit­tle I know.

Re­ally? Art says.

They are sit­ting in front of his mother’s com­puter in the of­fice. You don’t seem so pon­der­ous in real life, Lux says.

Pon­der­ous? Art says.

In real life you seem de­tached, but not im­pos­si­ble, she says.

What the fuck does that mean? he says.

Well. Not like this piece of writ­ing is, Lux says.

Thanks, Art says. I think.

Mean­while, on Twit­ter, “Char­lotte is de­mean­ing [Art] and si­mul­ta­ne­ously mak­ing it look like he is de­mean­ing his own fol­low­ers.” This manic un­rav­el­ing, the pre­tense of Char­lotte-as-Art and Lux-as-Char­lotte, isn’t the fu­ture—it is our present.

Who are we, the bob­bing child’s head begs us to ask, when we have lost who we were? The dis­em­bod­ied head, some­times sad, some­times sim­ply look­ing on, might rep­re­sent our pasts, or our con­science, or our lack of one:

How could it breathe any­way, the head, with no other breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tus to speak of?

Where were its lungs?

Where was the rest of it? Was there maybe some­one else some­where else with a small torso, a cou­ple of arms, a leg, fol­low­ing him or her about? Was a small torso ma­noeu­vring it­self up and down the aisles of a su­per­mar­ket? Or on a park bench, or on a chair by a ra­di­a­tor in some­one’s kitchen? Like the old song, Sophia sings it un­der her breath so as not to wake it, I’m no­body’s child. I’m no body’s child. Just like a flower. I’m grow­ing wild.

Not that there aren’t glim­mers of hope in these books. Po­lit­i­cal up­heaval, and then rev­o­lu­tion, change the very na­ture of our so­cial in­ter­ac­tions, split­ting so­ci­ety, cre­at­ing hi­er­ar­chies, and di­vid­ing us into ve­he­ment tribal groups (Stay/Leave, pro-coup/ pro–Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, Trump/any­thing else). But out of the frac­tures, the losses, even the ma­nia (at Christ­mas, or at po­lit­i­cal break­ing points like ref­er­en­dums or coups), we some­times lose our­selves so com­pletely that we even­tu­ally find com­mon ground again. Lux, pre­tend­ing to be Char­lotte but act­ing with no pre­tense, dis­arms Sophia, who warms to her (and be­gins to eat). Art, skew­ered for pre­ten­sion by some­one no longer in his life, is forced to reckon with him­self. Iris and Sophia, at po­lit­i­cal odds, so long es­tranged, re­con­nect through mem­o­ries prompted by a song from child­hood.

Win­ter is a novel about be­ing alone, and of be­com­ing more alone in an age of tech­nol­ogy and manic ego, on the verge of ex­plod­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. But it is punc­tu­ated with re­minders of times past and what could still be sal­vage­able. In one such sec­tion, Smith imag­ines “an­other ver­sion of what was hap­pen­ing” on the morn­ing Win­ter de­scribes:

As if from a novel in which Sophia is the kind of char­ac­ter she’d choose to be, pre­fer to be, a char­ac­ter in a much more clas­sic sort of story, per­fectly honed and com­fort­ing, about how som­bre yet bright the ma­jor-sym­phony of win­ter is and how beau­ti­ful ev­ery­thing looks un­der a high frost, how ev­ery grass­blade is en­hanced and sil­vered into in­di­vid­ual beauty by it, how even the dull tar­mac of the roads, the paving un­der our feet, shines when the weather’s been cold enough and how some­thing at the heart of us, at the heart of all our cold and frozen states, melts when we en­counter a time of peace on earth.

One can imag­ine Win­ter—which is fast-paced and fre­netic, some­times to the point of ex­haus­tion—be­ing read ea­gerly some hun­dred years from now, in a fu­ture that tries to make sense of an Earth where much has im­ploded. In that fu­ture, it might ap­peal equally to the lit­er­ary reader, if there still is one, and to the his­to­rian.

Smith’s quar­tet, so far, is not only an in­ven­tive ar­tic­u­la­tion of the forces that have col­lided to make the present, but also a med­i­ta­tion on—and ex­per­i­ment with—time.* By struc­tur­ing her books around the chang­ing sea­sons in an epoch when the sea­sons them­selves are un­pre­dictable, even in ques­tion (“No­vem­ber again. It’s more win­ter than au­tumn”; “It will be a bit un­canny still to be think­ing about win­ter in April”), she urges us to ask whether we can still save our planet, as well as fu­ture gen­er­a­tions’ lives. It’s hard to imag­ine what Spring and Sum­mer might bring—per­haps a com­plete halt, or in­ver­sion, of time awaits us—but the first two nov­els of the quar­tet are so free with form, as well as so morally con­scious, that they come close to be­ing an an­ti­dote to these times.

*Spring will be pub­lished by Pan­theon in April 2019.

Ali Smith in her gar­den, Cam­bridge, Eng­land, 2005

Odilon Re­don: Homage to Goya, circa 1895

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