By Ellena Murray
Ali Smith, Penguin, 2020
We’re always looking for the full open leaf, the open warmth, the promise that one day soon we’ll surely be able to lie back and have summer done to us [...] So we mourn it while we’re in it [...] Even while I’m right at the heart of it I just can’t get to the heart of it.
In Summer, published this August, Ali Smith concludes her ambitious Seasonal Quartet: a literary project that propels the publishing industry into the 21st century. The Quartet confronts the present day head-on by accelerating the traditionally slow process of book publishing. Smith’s most significant innovation is shortening the turnaround from script to book. This collapses the temporal distance between literature and its reader, which conscripts us into the text’s action. However, in an attempt to counterbalance the potentially prosaic immediacy of such writing, Smith’s four-part series is also designed to remind us of the much larger seasonal cycles that remain consistent despite the passage of time, and to reconnect us to these overarching patterns. Now that the Quartet has come to an end, the question remains: does this technique work?
The success of How to Be Both (2014) made Smith renowned for her confident experimentation with literary form. The novel is made up of two parts, one set in 15th century Ferrara, and the other in 21st century Cambridge. Crucially, it was printed in two versions, with the parts in different orders. With the bifurcation of both the content and the book copies, Smith emphasises the singularity of our own lives. An individual reader will never know what it’s really like to read Francesco’s story before George’s, and vice versa; and yet, in the social dimension of the literary work, fans compared their reading experiences. The popularity and widespread discussion of the book was a testament: one way to soften the time-boundedness of our experiences (or ‘to be both’) is to view each person’s experience as part of a collective whole.
With How To Be Both, Smith highlights the difference between how we experience time alone and how we experience it socially. These themes continue to develop throughout the Seasonal Quartet. The turnaround from script to book has been shortened to a mere six weeks, so that Smith writes the text and the public read it all in the titular season. These novels are (in Smith’s own words) ‘utterly contemporary’.
What does such a method offer? Primarily, it seems to be an effort to keep up with our hyper- connected society. As a character in Autumn thinks to themselves: ‘News right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff’. The publishing schedule forces the immediacy of these novels, and allows them to bear a strong imprint of the current political and cultural context. Autumn (2016), Winter (2017), and Spring (2019) predominantly bear witness to Brexit, although they reference a wide variety of contemporary events, from the refugee crisis to the murder of MP Jo Cox to Trump’s presidency. But Smith also dwells on diurnal occurrences like post-office bureaucracy and long train journeys, interweaving them with historical events such as the Profumo affair or the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.
Smith’s project might seem to blur the line between art and journalism. But the cyclical nature of the seasons from which each of the books takes its title secures the project’s potential to ritualise our present social moment, creating the sense of ‘an old story that’s still in the middle of happening’. As a review from The Observer, boldly emblazoned on the inner cover of Winter, puts it: ‘Smith is engaged in an extended process of mythologising the present states of Britain’. Indeed, she has made clear she intends to create a sense of an overriding structure to life, stating ‘all these books will be about other seasons regardless of what they’re called. Winter won’t really be about winter. You can’t have any of the seasons without the other seasons. All seasons exist within each season’. It’s unsurprising, then, that we find a chapter in Winter opening with July: 'it is a balmy day at the start of the month’. Smith seems to suggest that these seasonal building blocks must disintegrate and become part of a universal whole, and that this increases their value and relevance. There’s a kind of Boethian solace to be found in placing the inchoate and uncertain present in a wider framework; it’s a way of getting some perspective in our own troubled times.
However, the execution of a book that’s both immediate and mythological is not all that straightforward. For anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction’. Literary works are able to access a mythological state by taking the reader to a parallel world. The seasonal-yet-integrated aspect of the Quartet, and the reemergence and interweaving of the same characters throughout the series, achieve this structurally. Yet, by shortening the publishing turnaround to incorporate ‘real-time’ content, Smith is turning the volume up on the disparate events of our everyday.
The problem is that writing about the everyday and the mythological are two very different tasks, and rather than balancing each other out, they sometimes work against each other. The compacted, of-the-moment energy actively pushes the text towards journalism and away from myth. This puts pressure on Smith’s fictional characters to match the nuance and realism of the everyday events she incorporates. For that reason, when Smith tries to mythologise in her content as well as her structure, it results in incongruously stylised and simplistic characters. She lingers explicitly, for instance, on the metaphorical resonance of names like ‘Art’ and ‘Brit’. Similarly, Spring centres around young schoolgirl Florence who, modelled on Marina in Shakespeare’s Pericles, has the superhuman ability to charm any person and cross any border. Florence embodies myth’s ability to overcome contradictions. But this all feels discordant and a little artificial when placed in a context which is defined by its political realness.
The irony is that Smith’s own fictional narratives resonate most when they are positioned as independent and anecdotal than when they claim to represent a universal or mythological whole, or speak for a collective society. It is astonishing, for example, that in a series focused primarily on the social division brought about by Brexit, class goes entirely unacknowledged. In view of this, the reliance of her work on high culture to create meaning takes on a troubling light. The Seasonal Quartet seems to fall short of its aim of universality. Smith’s argument that ‘right wing stuff [can be] answered by a voice bigger than it’ does little to try and include those who don’t share her own views, and even less to transcend the political dichotomies of our time.
The series is riddled with anxieties about its exclusivity that lie just under the surface.
Spring’s Richard berates himself for being a ‘self-mythologizer’, since inventing a story for oneself often means ignoring or oversimplifying the stories of others. Although he is linked to characters in other books, he fails to reappear and integrate for the series’ conclusion as other characters do, meaning that this tension and what it might mean for the Quartet is never really resolved.
Nevertheless, there are moments when Smith’s writing does manage to reconcile these contradictions. Just as the frescos of the Palazzo Schifanoia are a lynchpin that unites the past and present in How To Be Both, Smith’s conflicting goals are most successfully reconciled when she invokes the work of other creators in the Seasonal Quartet. Each book is linked to a Shakespearean romance, a Dickens novel, and an artist. The life and works of artists such as Pauline Boty, Barbara Hepworth, and Tacita Dean are a means both of emphasising Smith’s element of realism (because the artists exist both in our world and in the fictional world), and of transcending the conflicts of our current day (in her exploration of the otherworlds that exist in their work). This effortlessly bridges the gap between the real and the extraordinary, creating a kind of mythological resonance.
Despite the fact that Smith has not perfected her shortened publishing model, the
unbelievable rate of change taking place due to the coronavirus pandemic does draw attention to its unique capabilities. Given that it was only in March that she sat down to write Summer, Smith’s method is well adapted to rapidly assimilating the influence of Covid-19. As I waited for my copy of Summer to arrive while in lockdown, I wondered how Smith would address this incredibly particular present. Her project requires that this crisis will be reflected in her work—but how does that impact the cyclical effect her project has been driving towards? Is a sense of such cyclicality possible in a world overwhelmed by change? Just as the speed at which Smith has been writing inevitably limits and puts pressure on her ability to mythologise, for many people, the pandemic has been a testament to the unsustainable pace of life in the 21st century. The high-speed, dense connections that have allowed for so many positive changes are the same things that have made the virus so devastating. Smith herself says of the breakneck speed at which news and information is travelling: ‘I thought I ought to meet and question that speed’. And evidently her contracted turnaround is a significant obstacle to any mythologising project. The work of many writers remembered as great takes time and space apart from the present moment for this very reason: mythologising one’s own present as it occurs is no easy or straightforward task.
It is then all the more impressive that Smith’s style comes through in full force. She pulls off the remarkable feat of incorporating the pandemic into the Quartet with a light touch. After a disappointing dry spell in Winter and Spring, artists and their otherworlds flood back like returning swifts. Smith utilises the work and biographies of Lorenza Mazetti (an Italian artist who lived in England after her family were
assassinated by the Wehrmacht), Fred Uhlman, and Kurt Schwitters (both imprisoned at an internment camp in the UK during WWII) to position lockdown alongside the themes of confinement, separation, and isolation that run through the series. The shadows of WWII and the Holocaust hang over the entire Quartet, and are placed in parallel with life in modern immigration removal centres. Smith walks a fine line, providing consolation to the reader while being careful not to shy away from the full intensity of contemporary trauma; instead, she baldly pushes us to face it. One character taunts another: ‘Uh huh [...] Okay. You keep finding the big words for what’s happening to us all so that you won’t have to think about what’s happening to us all, yeah?’
Smith explores art’s usefulness in ‘times like this [sic] when feeling and thinking and saying anything about anything are under impossible pressure’. She reminds us of the crises that the artists lived through, and points out that these real people have left tangible evidence of their suffering in their creative work, by which we can feel connected and understood. For Smith, the timelessness (or time-resistance) of art still creates the potential for a kind of mythological connection.
As a finale, Summer brings together characters and themes from across the series in a powerful send-off, but does not fully resolve its tensions, nor address the problems of class representation that afflict the series as a whole. Classical scholar F. M. Cornford describes myth as ‘collective representations’, a social creation in a pre-authorial space. Smith is deeply aware of and critical about many current day struggles, from Brexit and the refugee crisis to digital media and climate change; similarly, her enthusiasm about art’s relevance and its ability to connect us is genuinely affecting. The ritualised structure of the Quartet and Smith’s invocation of other artistic worlds goes some way to evoking a now long-forgotten time where collective, overarching narratives helped us make sense of reality—but perhaps it’s impossible for Smith to fill that hole alone.
Art by Isabella Lill