Things Fall Apart: On Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’

January 16, 2018 | 2 books mentioned 10 min read

It’s a care, a real care, when a writer whose work you love takes on a project like a seasonal quartet. The potential for readerly woe is plain: four novels forced into a form already replete with corny allegories and tired themes.

Ali Smith begins her seasonal quartet of novels with Autumn, followed by, of course, Winter. She doesn’t dump those most tired of themes—decay and death. She jumps right into them. Autumn opens:

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.

Her Autumn and Winter do indeed fall apart; they unravel. They were never tightly constructed in the first place. Autumn and Winter are no more neatly plotted than life itself; like human life, they are constructed of stories. Ali Smith’s seasons are chockfull of other bookish treats and tricks: wordplay in a myriad of forms; luscious, textured prose; allusions galore; shifting points of view; characters who seem to jump right out of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare and our own circles of friends and family. At times, all these goodies threaten to tumble us into a literary junk shop, but Smith exerts a literary master’s superb confidence in her readers; she trusts us to make of her glorious mess the novels she wants us to read.

The three stanzas of John Keats’s poem “To Autumn,” lend Autumn its three sections: summer’s departure, fall’s transformations, winter’s threshold. Departures, transformations, thresholds: Autumn’s people move and metamorphose in the most dramatic ways we humans know: growing up and dying. Elisabeth, the book’s female protagonist, grows from child to woman, a metamorphosis conveyed in a collage of memory and the book’s present time. Her intellectual and sentimental education is shaped by Daniel, a vital old man who befriends her as a child and teaches her how to see, deeply and subversively, art and literature. Her love for her old friend metamorphoses from that of a father-hungry child, into unrequited quasi-romantic adolescent devotion, into a mature love no less profound for being unspoken; it ripens as Daniel lies semi-comatose in a nursing home bed. With Elisabeth in vigil, Daniel’s dying dreams pare his past to essentials: he forgets the name of his beloved, Holocaust-dead sister but remembers her brilliance and that she called him “summer brother.” His memories both fall away and become evergreen; he dreams he’s a green man, rejuvenated yet unalive, helplessly mythic. Meanwhile, his and Elisabeth’s land metamorphoses, not so much under the seasonal round as from climate change, and Britain unravels, Brexit both symptom and result.

By winter, in Winter, things have finished falling apart. They’re dead. Right at the start, Winter says so:

God was dead: to begin with.

And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they all were dead, art was dead….

The dead continue in a fabulous list: heaps of culture, isms, social institutions, electronics, sentiments, dead; yes, dead with few exceptions, all the way through to love. Flowers are dead….

Of course flowers are dead. It’s winter. Except, says this listmaker, an omniscient who pops in now and then throughout the book:

Imagine being haunted by the ghost of a flower. No, imagine being haunted (if there were such a thing as being haunted, rather than just neurosis or psychosis) by the ghost (if there were such a thing as ghosts, rather than just imagination) of a flower.

Right away, the narrator slyly disclaims any possibility that this is to be a ghost story: “forget ghosts, put them right out of your mind.”

Winter’s two protagonists, a mother and her son, are haunted by memories they don’t always remember, and by people they loved and failed to love. And yes, by the ghost of a flower: a rose bud, dead and gone for centuries, whose impression pressed into a Shakespeare folio lives as a shapely ghost of the flower.

Sophia lives not as she wishes, not in “a story that’s thoughtful, dignified, conventional in structure thank God, the kind of quality literary fiction where the slow drift of snow across the landscape is merciful, has a perfect muffling decorum of its own,” but trapped within a wasteland of her own making, literally wasted by paranoia-induced self-starvation, spiritually wasted by her own systematic rejection of those who would love her most: son, sister, and lover.

Sophia’s son Art authors a twee and fairly popular blog, Art in Nature. He tweets to a fairly sizable following. But in a breakup battle royal, his girlfriend destroys his laptop and hacks his Twitter account; her departure severs a good part of his identity. He hires Lux, a young woman he meets at a bus stop, to pose as his freshly ex-girlfriend on his Christmas visit to Sophia.  (Lux, an immigrant from Croatia by way of Canada, is engaging but rather boilerplate: the downtrodden outsider, canny and kind, who magically appears to help and heal and astonish with flashes of erudition a family privileged but benighted and emotionally needy.)

When Art and Lux arrive at Sophia’s, her physical and mental deterioration prompts Lux to insist that Art call Iris, Sophia’s estranged sister. Iris, nicknamed Ire, rushes to the house to perform what therapists would call an intervention.

Family assembled. Let the holidays begin.

The Christmas family dinner is just as awful as any you’ve ever sat through, stomach clenched on the congealing feast. People (the adults) drink. A fight erupts. Mean and mean-spirited things are said, both laughable and devastating. A revelation (not a skeleton-in-closet type secret, more the awkward clunk of a psychological veil falling off) brings a gut-shot truce: silence.

In the silence, Art:

He now knows he never wants to see another Christmas Day again.

What he longs for instead, as he sits at the food-strewn table, is winter, winter itself. He wants the essentiality of winter, not this half-season grey selfsameness. He wants real winter where woods are sheathed in snow, trees emphatic with its white, their bareness shining and enhanced because of it….

For snow to fill this room and cover everything and everyone in it.

But winter’s not performing: it’s the warmest on record and no snow will fall to sheathe the woods and cover up Art’s troubles along with his troublesome relatives. And himself.

coverFor in Winter, in winter, under the force of family dead, living or absent, masks slip on and masks slip off. Memory reveals and conceals the past. Art, too (arty art, as Elisabeth’s mother says in Autumn—not Art, though he does too) reveals and conceals.

Autumn and Winter center on the works of two real-life artists, both of whom are dead. In Autumn, it’s Pauline Boty, an English pop artist who died in 1966 at age 28, and whose mostly forgotten works are undergoing a revival. Daniel, who knew Boty, describes one of her works to 11-year-old Elisabeth. Then:

What do you think? Daniel said.

I like the idea of the blue and the pink together, Elisabeth said.

Pink lace. Deep blue pigment, Daniel said.

I like that you could maybe touch the pink, if it was made of lace, I mean, and it would feel different from the blue.

Oh, that’s good, Daniel said. That’s very good.

What does Daniel want? Elisabeth’s mother demands. Why would a man more than 70 years old befriend a little girl? No one can answer that, Daniel least of all. Maybe he wants a daughter to teach, or maybe he longs to open the eyes of his long-dead little sister. He must want to relive his love for Boty, an affair no more physical than his relationship with Elisabeth. Both man and girl want and need what we all want and need: a true friend. As Daniel says on meeting Elisabeth:

The lifelong friends, he said. Sometimes we wait a lifetime for them.

Ali Smith’s treatment of Boty and her work could be called Feminism 101: the objectification of our bodies, the ignorance, intentional or careless, by critics and academics concerning our works, the dismissal of us as artists. (“Feminism 101” is not a slight or sneer. We all keep flunking Feminism 101, and we all need to keep taking it, over and over, until we learn it.)

Winter’s central artist, Barbara Hepworth, who died in 1975 at age 72, worked in stone, cold, hard stone sculpted into the softest forms, rounded, caressable, often shaped as that most tender icon of our iconography: mother and child. In Feminist 101 terms, Hepworth was more the exception than the rule, one of the few renowned female artists of her time.

One of Hepworth’s works, or what seems to be part of a work, takes on life as a disembodied child’s head that Sophia sees floating near her. The contact is both delusional and beautifully fulfilling, for Sophia’s evolving hallucinations of the stone “head” follow the trajectory of her own memories and needs and loves. She’s not a good mother; like most mothers, she’s the mother she is. Or she’s the woman she is, at different times. She’s the mother of a gentle, sensitive boy. She’s a woman in love with a man who looked at her through a holly wreath and owned a Hepworth sculpture. She’s a business woman for whom djellabas and Afghan coats, stuff beloved by her sister’s dope-smoking friends, are no more than trendy wares to buy and to sell at the highest markup she can get.

Both Autumn’s Elisabeth and Winter’s Sophia embrace art, but whereas Elisabeth takes a more political, intellectual route, Sophia literally embraces her artifact as a memento of lost love: the lover, face framed in evergreen, who gave her the most blissful days of her life, the child she never could embrace, “a squalling, appalling dark night of the soul.”

Save for a few, select, painful and blissful memories, the past for Sophia means no more than her shedful of faux-aged trinkets (the detritus of her closed-down business). Sophia yearns for a clean, featureless beauty, without story, unpeopled, with no possibility of fiction and its cheats.

She accuses her sister Iris of “myth-making.” Iris is happy to make story. Sophia’s austere, ideal Beauty doesn’t concern her much. She cares for the human—humans—whether in art or politics. When Art texts her to ask the difference between politics and art, she replies:

the diff dear Neph is more betwn artist and politician—endlss enemies coz they both knw THE HUMAN will alwys srface in art no mtter its politics, & THE HUMAN wll hv t be absent or repressed in mst politics no mtter its art x Ire.

Art himself is trapped in the middle. He dreams of being chased by giant flowers, metamorphosing into a stone knight so they can’t eat him. Sheltered in stone—oops! he’s captured in stone. He’s become stone. Inert under the accusations of his anima/ex-girlfriend (“dead, she said, like your political soul”), he whines:

Stop bullying me. I am political. It’s pathetic. Look at you, all mouth and stamen. Look at me, stiff as a stone. What would Freud say about this dream?

Smith leaves it to us to imagine what Freud would say: devouring females and the paradox of stones: a never-alive mineral, a man’s generative parts.

Paradox and puns are not dead.

Autumn doesn’t draw Winter’s sharp line between living and dead. The season is, after all, as Keats put it, “season of mellow fruitfulness.” Boty’s work is of paper and cloth, Hepworth’s of stone. In the underworld of dreams, Autumn’s old man Daniel is trapped inside a pine; Winter’s young man Art is locked in stone. Autumn sheds summer’s dress of green gently, passively. Winter is hard ice and death.

Not to say that Autumn holds autumn blameless. After things fall apart, winter’s unmasking is all the more brutal, all the more essential, its potential all the more thrilling. One of Winter’s ambiguous narrators—maybe it’s Iris story-telling to the child Art, maybe it’s Art mansplaining that story to Lux—tells a tale of a child captured by the god of winter.

But don’t worry. Because the child shoots through that underworld like hot blood through the veins of every cold dead person who grew up to be lost in the snow, and there are millions of them, and the child passes like warm blood through them all and what the child is seeing when it does is pure colour, the colour green, Christmas green, green at its brightest, because green isn’t just a summer colour after all, no, green’s a winter colour too.

What’s implied: But the child won’t be able to melt the ice, if we don’t get any ice at all.

Climate change threatens Autumn’s green man and Winter’s ice god alike; it threatens to extinguish the seasons themselves. Yet here Smith’s novels thin out, not because of the dreaded seasonal conceits, but because they verge on preachy. Brexit, climate change, Donald Trump and his followers, nuclear saber rattling, hard-hearted immigration policies, pollution: all are issues vital to the characters (and us), whether we demand change or justify the status quo, but at times the author’s concerns nearly smother the characters’ concerns, and the books become, at moments, just for moments, Ali Smith’s bully pulpits.

Maybe that’s exactly right. If Shakespeare’s Prospero (who looms large in Autumn) can break through the fourth wall to beg life-giving applause, why shouldn’t a novelist engage her readers in a worthy cause? Smith’s skill is to make us realize how much we miss the seasonal treasures cherished by the children of autumn and winter: the ponds and canals that used to freeze over and we’d get out our skates, the balmy gift of an Indian summer interrupting late fall’s death-grip chill.

And it’s not as if she and her characters ignore the tension between art-making and activism; art as beauty versus art as message; art versus artist.

Art versus reality, for that matter. Autumn’s Daniel owns that, for him, love is “how eyes that aren’t yours let you see where you are, who you are.” He’s stuck seeing his reflection in the eyes of his beloved, rather than the beloved itself—herself. Winter’s Art, too, is in love with the image—of himself, of his ex-girlfriend, of his faux girlfriend. Paradoxically, his self-awareness, what his ex called narcissism, and his passiveness may give him the means to break free. He reflects:

That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.

Or is he eyeing a retreat?

Is it a retreat, from the hard issues of our season, to revel in the pleasure of reading passages like this, in Autumn:

The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.

And in Winter:

That’s where the birds came in and out, they were pigeons, no, they’re called collared doves, they had their families here, several families over the years, I remember there were quite a a lot of birds in here at one point. They made a lovely soft sound. We gave them a box full of straw to nest in but they brought their own twigs and took bits of the straw and wove them together, built nests up in the rafters and only used this room when it was rainy or cold. They mate for life, you know, those birds.

I think you’ll find that’s a myth, Sophia said.

Bending and breaking national borders, disastrously vulgar world leaders, narrowing social policies, loudening militancy, expanding deserts, shrinking glaciers—is it the worst of times, the very worst of times, after which times can only end? Or can the ghost of a flower:

the life of it reaching across the words on the page for all the world like a footpath that leads to the lit tip of a candle

—or can the image of a flower’s ghost, a photo viewed on the Internet, an impression of a rose trapped in dead-tree medium of words (the Shakespeare folio)—can it really light up the world? Can art light up anything? If we’re in the worst of times, can things only get better?

Do we have to wait for Spring to find out?

I’m looking forward to spring. I don’t like the cold. Where I live, the snow comes down these days as sleet and the dust on my ice skates thickens every year. But I’m also looking forward to Spring because I love Autumn and Winter.

is author of the interactive book With Walt Whitman: Himself, acclaimed as "a true Whitmanian feast” by Whitman scholar Ed Folsom. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and Civil War Monitor. Other published works include The Bones You Have Cast Down, a young adult novel set in late medieval Italy, and The Cosmic Tarot book, based on the tarot deck by German visionary artist Norbert Loesche. She co-founded Circling Rivers, an independent press dedicated to literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Visit her at jeanhuets.com.

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