Ali smith had long hoped to write a series of novels named for the seasons. When the Scottish author pitched the idea to her UK publisher in 2015, she envisioned a series of poetic meditations on time and nature. She planned to give herself four months for each book (she likes to write quickly, she says) and deliver them as close to their release dates as possible – a nod to the Victorian mode of timely storytelling. What she couldn’t have predicted was that her so-called seasonal quartet would span some of the most recent years in ages.
Ms Smith was working on the first of the novels as Britain voted to leave the European Union. Released four months after the 2016 Brexit referendum, “Autumn” captures the disorientation of a nation on the move: “People across the country felt legitimized. Across the country, people have felt mourning and shocked. Often nameless but not invisible, Brexit and its fallout form the backdrop for the entire series, but “Winter” (2017) and “Spring” (2019) also address the migrant crisis, the US president and change. climate. The latest novel, “Summer,” which Ms Smith began writing in January, includes Covid-19, the fires in Australia, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the quirks of life on lockdown. “Things can change quickly. They just do it, ”observes one character. “The whole world is learning this lesson simultaneously right now, one way or another. “
By Ali Smith
Pantheon, 379 pages, $ 27.95
In lesser hands, this opportunity might seem like a set-up. Reading the ‘Zoomombed’ courses and the unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd, it’s easy to marvel at the speed at which Ms Smith and her editor transformed these books (especially during a pandemic). But despite all their contemporary allusions, these novels promise to stand the test of time. Everyone feels both dreamy and shrewd, with plump, distinctive and compassionately drawn characters. Their main concerns are also timeless: How, she seems, asks Ms. Smith, should people live in the face of injustice? What can a person do to change something? And what is the role of an artist when much of the world is in a mess?
Despite the drama of current events, Ms Smith makes it clear that this moment is not as unprecedented as it sometimes seems. Throughout the quartet, she draws on Dickens and Shakespeare to highlight what is enduringly human in the headlines: Corrupt rulers, ‘fake news’, bureaucratic whims, xenophobia, and unhappy poverty have always been with us. Ms. Smith also defines much of “Summer” during World War II, bringing home historical parallels between times of civilizational uncertainty. Renouncing a certain subtlety, she seems to warn against the dangers of complacency. Still, the durability of its dark themes should also offer some hope. We have faced such nonsense before, Mrs Smith seems to say, and we will do it again; it’s up to each of us to decide what this mess will look like.
“Summer” is populated with characters from previous novels but also introduces new ones. Among the new arrivals is Grace, a divorced mother in her 50s and former actress who yearns for the not-quite-simple pleasures of youth. Sacha, her 16-year-old daughter, is so alarmed by the world’s environmental incompetence that she already knows she will never have children: “Why would you want to bring a child into a disaster? Like most of the girls in Mrs. Smith’s fiction, Sacha has genuine love but little patience for her mother, whom she convincingly believes is “more panicked” by menopause “than she is by them. real things happening in and in the world “. Then there’s Robert, Sacha’s intelligent 13-year-old brother, who takes pleasure in torturing people in ghoulish video games and who honors Albert Einstein for his brilliant wit and “face like an Easter lamb”. Ruthlessly intimidated by his peers, Robert began to cultivate a grim appreciation for the current British government, hailing officials as “geniuses of manipulation.”
Former half-German songwriter Daniel Gluck dominates “Autumn” and haunts his successors. He reappears in “Summer”, bedridden at 104 years old and under the loving care of Elisabeth, a former neighbor who has become a young scholar. Daniel spends most of his days inhabiting a dreamlike landscape of memories; his musings often take him back to 1940 and his stay in an internment camp for “enemy aliens” on the Isle of Man. He also thinks of his radiant younger sister, Hannah, who had a firecracker mind and fought in the French Resistance.
Arthur and Charlotte, the thirty-something nature bloggers of “Winter”, also host these pages, as does Arthur’s revolutionary octogenarian aunt, Iris. Sadly, little “Spring,” the darkest book in the series, returns here, ensuring that some of the quartet’s most distressing narrative threads remain unanswered. Given the grim and uncertain state of so much right now, that seems fair enough.
Ms. Smith keeps her politics little secret. Unexpected connections between characters throughout the books highlight the international porosity of relationships, independent of border walls. “Summer” also includes other references to SA4A, the menacing fictional entrepreneur who resurfaces throughout the series, managing everything from immigrant detention centers to copyrights to entertainment. For a writer as intelligent as Ms Smith, however, Robert’s ambitious, adolescent fear of Boris Johnson’s “brilliant application of lies” seems a bit heavy.
It is no coincidence that the most intriguing characters in the quartet tend to be immigrants. “Summer” includes the story of Lorenza Mazzetti, a true Italian filmmaker who arrived in England in the early 1950s after most of her family were brutally murdered during the war. In a chapter which may or may not be a direct address from Ms Smith, she writes that Mazzetti, who died earlier this year, has created work “on the rupture that occurs when innocence and knowledge meet, and on the way to maintain that innocence even in the heart of a broken adult psyche. Given Ms. Smith’s obvious fascination with the passion and incisor of young people, in contrast to the resignation and recklessness that often come with age, the appeal of Mazzetti’s work is evident.
Ms. Smith appears to grapple with the role of art in politically charged times. Blogger Arthur (he goes through Art) often gets carried away in a privileged misfortune, but feels a kind of righteousness to string together sentences about the natural world. Charlotte, stuck with Iris in a cavernous Cornish mansion during the lockdown, believed her own writing online meant something. Now she feels intimidated by Iris’ mind in crafting real world solutions to real world problems.
All four novels consider the deep and enduring value not only of Dickens and Shakespeare, but also of figures such as Charlie Chaplin and Rainer Maria Rilke. They also explore the contributions of recent female artists (Pauline Boty, Barbara Hepworth, Tacita Dean, Mazzetti) who have created works that have approached and transcended their time. Grace, after seeing a Hepworth sculpture of two smooth stones of a mother and her child, is surprised to find that she cannot get the piece out of her head. “Well, that’s art, maybe,” she said to herself. “Something that mysteriously impresses you and you don’t know why. With her Seasonal Quartet, Ms. Smith has crafted something that speaks to this moment, but the impression it leaves will also be unsettling and lasting.
-Mrs. Bobrow, former editor of The Economist, is a journalist living in New York City.
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