Untimely Endings in Ali Smith’s Summer: Review

4 STARS

Ali Smith, 2020

Summer isn’t just a merry tale. Because there’s no merry tale without the darkness.

              It’s quite sad that this series has come to an end. The contemporary-est of contemporary novels, they have featured current events often of only a month or two before publication, mixed in with stories about inter-connected families and friends, about female artists through the decades, about nature changing through the seasons.

              In this fourth and final volume, connections across the series became solid rather than subtle. Links between characters from different novels became apparent, threads were tied together, recurring motifs chimed a fourth time. For a full breakdown of the recurring features of the Seasonal Quartet, see Grumble’s Yard’s review on Goodreads – one of my favourite reviewers, who enjoyed tracking all the patterns through this quartet.

              However, I additionally noticed the revisiting of several ideas from Smith’s 2014 novel, How to be both; my favourite of all her books, and the one which most immediately precedes the Seasonal Quartet.

One revisited theme was the blurred line between male and female, seen in the earlier novel both in the cross-dressing Renaissance artist known as Francesco del Cossa and when the ‘ghost’ of this artist sees the present day George and believes her to be a boy because she is wearing trousers. In Summer, not only is Robert mistaken for Daniel’s long-dead sister Hannah, but he becomes Hannah within the narration, the names and pronouns shifting in a move which defies not just gender but – fitting with the prevalence of Einstein in the text – time and space.

              The second idea revisited from How to be both was that of leaving something behind to prove, after you die, that you existed. In How to be both, art is this message from the past, the idea of frescos – where paintings can be hidden below layers of wall – used to explore the idea of whether art needs to be seen for the existence of the artist to be confirmed. Seeing and not-seeing have a similar connection with existence in Summer. On the last page, stars that we can see are just as meaningful even if they have since ceased to exist:

They stood under a night sky in a car park where Einstein himself may possibly once stood and looked up at the lit pinpoints in the dark that meant the ancient and original and already dead stars.

              Another example is that of early photographs with long exposures, where anything that moved would disappear from the photo, and thus, not be known to exist by the later viewer.

One of his most famous photos is of boulevard du temple late 1830s taken at busy time of day and almost every moving or living thing is gone except a man standing having his shoes shined. Everyone else disappeared! It says online that’s the very first living person every photographed. All because he stood still. Yeah I thought but all the other gone people are still there too. We just can’t see them. You know how people keep saying about this time we’re in now, oh well, we are where we are. It’s more like we are where we aren’t.

              This passage, and the message that ‘we are where we aren’t’, had a personal resonance for me, as I’m sure it would for many people in the context of lockdown and the pandemic. Everyone had plans cancelled in one way or another, everyone had an experience of feeling as though ‘we are where we aren’t’, existing between the unexpected present and the alternate reality of could-have-been, if things had gone to plan.

              In 2018, I felt that Winter, my favourite book of the quartet, had an optimistic note. By contrast, Summer felt unexpectedly melancholy. Readers may remember that in my review of Winter I quoted Ali Smith in an interview for Foyles, saying that ‘winter is predicated as much on the coming back of the light as the waning of it.’ In the same, cyclical way, summer is predicated on its own demise. The exploration of this idea was one of my favourite parts of the novel; the idea that summer has so many expectations of perfection placed upon it, which it can never live up to, even in its best moments.

Summer’s surely really all about an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something. We’re always looking for it, looking to it, heading towards it all year, the way a horizon holds the promise of a sunset. We’re always looking for the full open leaf, the open warmth, the promise that we’ll one day soon surely be able to lie back and have summer done to us; one day soon we’ll be treated well by the world. As if what it was always all about, your time on earth, was the full happy stretch of all the muscles of the body on a warmed patch of grass, one long sweet stem of that grass in the mouth.

              I think this understanding of summer is particularly fitting this year. Summer 2020 was definitely not what everyone hoped it would be, not least because when the pandemic erupted in March, there were hopes that it would be ‘over in time for summer’ if we all abided by the rules. The parallel here to WW1’s ‘over by Christmas’ message is apt, due to Summer’s heavy featuring of WW2.

The briefest and slipperiest of the seasons, the one that won’t be held to account – because summer won’t be held at all, except in bits, fragments, moments, flashes of memory of so-called or imagined perfect summers, summers that never existed.

Not even this one she’s in exists. Even though it’s apparently the best summer so far of the century. Not even when she’s quite literally walking down a road as beautiful and archetypal as this through an actual perfect summer afternoon.

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.

              It’s not surprising that this series draws links between natural seasonal changes and aspects of human nature, particularly in relation to politics:

It’s the foulness happening every day round us is a growth without roots. Goodness is more like a turnip!

The foulness just wants one thing, more of itself. It wants self self self nothing but self over and over again. I begin to realize that this makes it very like the blowaway moss that spreads fast across everything but can easily be kicked away because its grip is only about surface.

Just the act of thinking this kicks it loose and blows it away.

              The recurrence of transient greenery is contrasted with another repeating motif; stones. Stones were particularly important in Winter, where Sophia saw a child’s head turn into a spherical stone. That same stone crops up in Summer; we learn it is part of a Hepworth sculpture, it represents a child, while a larger stone with a hollow in the middle is the mother. We see this mother and child reunited in Summer at the same time as characters from across the series find each other and a family is reunited when Daniel meets Robert and believes him to be Hannah. For me, Hepworth’s work is about form, form that is pleasing to the eye in a way which we can’t explain. The tying together of narrative threads from across the series seemed to aim at this same sense of rightness.

She’d placed the stone in the curve of the piece of sculpture the man had in his bedroom.

It looks really good there, her daughter said.

[…]

When she’d gone to bed she couldn’t get the thought of that piece of stone out of her head. Well, that’s what art is, maybe. Something that impresses mysteriously on you and you don’t know why. They did look good together, the two stones, the curved one with the hole in it, the perfectly spherical one.

              Perhaps the recurrence of stones throughout the series suggests permanence in the face of the changing seasons. This is exemplified when we read an account of Grace as a young woman, spending an interesting afternoon in a graveyard with someone she’d never meet again, reading a beautiful poem on a gravestone. The narrative skips to the present day, when all she remembers is a vague sense of specialness, and that poem on the stone.

Here was the stone. Still here. It was old and curved eaten into by weather and plants. She pulled the growth away from its front. She got as close to the ground as she could to read its poem.

[…]

It wasn’t till she was halfway back to town on the cliff path, walking in the sea air with the sky so wide all round her, that she looked at the photo she’d taken and saw that though it was still a beautiful picture you couldn’t see any of the words on the stone to read them, and all she’d actually got a record of was a blur of twigs, a surface of old stone, some bright lichen.

              Some things are just green ‘growth’, smothering what’s beneath but easy to brush aside, while other things are the stone, beautiful and important, but impossible to capture. Like the stars, or the invisible people in the photograph, the gravestone is a reminder of something – or somebody – that once existed, and though it’s hard to ‘get a record’ of, the feeling lasts. This malleability of time and space all makes perfect sense when the novel gently reminds us that ‘Einstein’ means ‘a stone’.

Grace is sitting outside by herself on the concrete steps that lead down out of the back door. She’s finished her first acts. Her character’s dead and gone now till her cue, that sky up there is an early evening blue, the birds high, the ones her mother used to say the thing about when they arrived, well Grace, that’s the summer here. And when they were gone, well Grace, that’s the summer gone –

And then someone hisses behind her,

Graceforfucksake,you’reon,you’relate,you’reon –

              Unfortunately I have to agree with several reviews which remarked that Summer slumped in the middle. It was disappointing to be introduced to a new family of characters, and grow to care for them, only for Smith to abandon them completely for 122 pages. Perhaps if I had reread Autumn soon before Summer, I would have appreciated this return to Daniel’s story more. As it was, the Greenlaws felt curiously abandoned; we never met Ashley, or got closure on why she stopped talking. What I liked so much about Winter was that for all its social commentary and linguistic playfulness, it focused empathetically on a small group of characters. Summer was lacking that – presumably because it was too busy tying all the threads together from each book in the series.

              Something which every book in this series has done well is portraying characters with different attitudes without preachiness or any kind of moral agenda. One of my favourite passages in Summer was Iris and Charlotte’s conversation about the government’s incompetent response to COVID. The reader understands Iris’s political anger, but empathises in the same measure with Charlotte’s weariness, disengagement and desire to hide away (I wish that apathy was explored more in this novel, because what there was was excellent). Neither is portrayed as particularly right or wrong, just as different responses to the same upsetting situation.

I’m so sorry, Iris, she said. I’m feeling very much at a disconnect right now.

Nothing’s not connected, Iris said.

              Sacha and Robert are written with similar impartiality; we understand and admire Sacha’s passion about the climate crisis, but also Robert’s irritation from hearing so much about it, his desire to switch off or take the easy path of ridiculing her.

              However, I would say that, as usual, Violet Wells struck the right tone when she remarked that she “began to tire of every character being essentially of the same mind. Her pro Brexit character for example was thoroughly unconvincing as a different point of view. I found myself longing for a larger canvas. Too often there was a sense of Smith preaching to the converted. If the world consisted only of Ali Smith characters there would be no racism, no social inequality, no global warming. But, disturbingly, I found myself wondering if it’s a world I’d like to live in. We certainly don’t want racism or global warming but maybe we do need Tories – to provide some creative opposition.”

              I see what she means. Grace from Summer and Sophia from Winter were both fairly set-in-their-ways and supposedly right-wing and intolerant. But their political stance was never actually interrogated or explored at all. Instead, we got vague reminders that Grace voted Leave and then an extended chapter about her youth as a travelling actor, in which she was portrayed as perfectly benign and likeable. This series has never truly attempted to get inside the mind of ‘the other side’ – in which it mirrors Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (2018), which promised to dissect Brexit Britain but instead portrayed its Leave voters as varying levels of stupid, with a right-wing politician swooping about in a supercar like a Bond villain.

What had they all wanted from each other in that vote, say, the one that had split the country, split her own family as if with a cheesewire, sliced right through the everyday to a bitterness nobody knew what to do with, one so many people used to hurt people with, whichever way they’d voted, a vote so important to her, but so much old hat to a bright young person like that girl Charlotte that she could call it a fly on a corpse?

It seemed that we would explore an alternate worldview through Robert, who seemed in the opening chapter to be a rage-fuelled, internet-obsessed teen, making scathing provocative remarks and terrorising his family. But when we went inside his head, we discovered that he was actually a ‘good’ person who just played devil’s advocate for attention, with a charmingly nerdy obsession with Einstein.

              So has this experiment – a series written in ‘real time’ about the state of the nation – paid off? In some ways, lockdown was the perfect end to a series which has investigated ideas about division and boundaries. Fences have played a key role throughout, symbolising political opposition in Autumn, protest in Winter and migrant detention in Spring. This year we were all fenced in – what could be better? But, as Violet Wells points out, the timing was ever so slightly off.

“You can imagine the scenario: Smith only has a few weeks before the book needs to be delivered and suddenly life as we’ve always known it dramatically changes. How can you write a series of novels about the state of the nation and leave out Covid and lockdown? So she has to hurriedly shoehorn it in. And, not surprisingly, the result is messy and unconvincing […] Basically, this book needed at least another six months of gestation and work which it didn’t get because of its gimmick. Hubris in action.”

The pandemic does not fundamentally shape the novel – instead, you can tell that sections were edited to include it. I commented earlier that the 120-page diversion into WW2 reads frustratingly because we’ve become invested in the Greenlaws, but it’s also because it seems like a distraction tactic from the fact that Summer barely features the defining event of the year.

Of course, that’s no one’s fault – Summer was clearly scheduled for an awkward time (each of the books has been published roughly in its namesake season). Perhaps Ali Smith’s luck had run out. Writing in The Guardian in 2019, she relays the fortunate way that the pre-mediated Autumn suddenly became politically relevant in the middle of being written:

“I shake my head as I remember what I thought, back then – in the pre-referendum days: that these books would probably be pastoral evocations, rather traditional stories about the richness of the seasons, the workings of time in our lives etc. I really did. I started writing the first of the four, Autumn, in 2015. Then 2016 gave us the new word: “Brexit”. I looked at what I’d written so far: a piece about a woman in a village hit by coastal erosion, social division, gentrification and austerity; she walks along the edge of a massive security fence that has suddenly appeared across a piece of common land, then tries to have a dialogue with a security man who tells her repeatedly only that she’s not allowed. Brexit’s divisions? They aren’t new.” 

         These books have undoubtedly been a truly special reading experience. Seeing the often painful events of the world reflected back with Ali Smith’s humour and grace has been wonderful. Alex Preston put it beautifully in The Guardian:

“She says: things are bad, life is complicated; but here are Chaplin’s films and Pauline Boty’s paintings, here is Tacita Dean and Barbara Hepworth, here is Shakespeare and Dickens and Katherine Mansfield. She says: yes there’s Brexit, but here are deep shared ties of history and culture; yes there’s indefinite detention and the climate crisis, but here are people willing to lose their freedom, even their lives, to protest against them; yes there’s loss and loneliness, but here are small moments of connection, of recognition, of dignity.”

Perhaps the fact that this series had to be finished a little too early mirrors my own regret that this series is over. It feels too soon.

read 10 – 22 august 2020

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