Autumn: A Novel

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The Light and the Dark: On Ali Smith’s ‘Summer’

Don’t you think it’s sad when people say they can’t wait for summer to end? Like, I can’t wait for this chunk of my life to be over with. It’s too hot, it’s too boring, the sky’s not blue enough. It’s not autumn.

I couldn’t wait for Summer to arrive this year, though Spring was a bit disappointing. And when finally I held Ali Smith’s book in my hands, I wasn’t eager for it to end. Though it had to, of course.

So?

So.

Ali Smith’s Summer opens:
Everyone said: so?
As in So what?
The so-question mark of indifference, rejection, defensiveness,
…their own punchy little
so?
So.
The so-period. The so that announces: Listen. I’m about to dare to say something sincere. It might not be earth-shaking (or it might be that), but it’s important to me, and not only is it important for me to know, it’s important to me that I tell you about it. With this so, the tales told by Summer truly begin.

Smith’s Seasonal Quartet runs: Autumn (published October 2016), Winter (November 2017), Spring (April 2019), and Summer (August 2020). Each book pokes relentlessly at our consciences with accounts of people, including ourselves, affected by climate change, Brexit, immigration, homelessness, social indifference, the lethal missteps of public health authorities during the Covid-19 pandemic. Each book loves duos and paradoxes. Migrants can be fleeing refugees or swifts flying from Africa to England. There’s the meaning of art and/or life, or the lack thereof. Families are sundered by external forces like poverty and detention, and by internal forces like divorce and drift. Silence can be meditation or muteness, elected or imposed, with human communication breaking through for better or worse. Isolation can offer time and space for insight and inspiration, or it can be a punishing confinement, or at the least a frustrating restriction. Or, as we know, all of these.

Each book has rants, often out of the mouths of children, about the mangling of human discourse in social media and in the mouths of politicians. In each, the work of a woman visual artist, renowned in her time and nearly forgotten in ours, figures prominently. Not to mention a motley crew of cultural icons, especially Shakespeare, Dickens, and Charlie Chaplin.

Most of all, the Seasonal Quartet is a foursome of togetherness and apartness, life and death, brought close by memory. Or are togetherness, et cetera, really the elements of this foursome? And if so, is it memory—rather than vague kinship or friendship, or duty imposed by family chosen or born, or plain old coincidence, or fate—that brings them together? Or is there a blamed foursome at all, besides the four seasons?

To assemble the puzzle pieces of an Ali Smith book is a challenge that might not be meant to be met. But to quote another familiar figure of Smith’s—the sage girl or woman—from Summer: “I really am me. And you really are you. But if we follow Einstein’s thinking [in his response to a bereaved man who asked, ‘what was the point, in being innocent, and gifted, and dying and becoming nothing but dust’] and add together you plus me plus time plus space. What does that all make?…It makes you and I more than just you or I… It makes us us.”

Summer’s “us” includes most of the ensemble Smith has been building through the previous seasons. (Though, curiously, Spring’s people barely make an appearance at all.) Daniel is now a very, very old man floating amidst memories, especially of his father and his sister Hannah during World War II. Grace Greenlaw, a former actress, ushers along in life, sometimes fumblingly, her two children, Sacha and Robert, both of them annoying and clever in equal measure. Iris, once a hippy, always an activist, connects again with Art, her earnest nephew, and with Charlotte, Art’s friend and ex-girlfriend. Missing fathers, grandmothers, brothers and sisters, and even an artwork, reunite with kin, in memory if not in the book’s present.

Summer brings us, too, a completion of the cycle of seasons: suffering to hope, green to gray, life to death, and back again. Or all of them at once. Or not really at all. For example, “life to death and back again” is not a given.

Take The Winter’s Tale, paradoxically, the Shakespeare play that runs through Summer. Grace remembers it from a long-ago summer tour with a theater company. She played Perdita, a dead queen who comes back to life—or a queen who pretended to be dead and to come back to life. After a particularly catty exchange with her fellow actors, Grace took a walk, ending up in an old church graveyard, talking with a mason working there. When she tells him of the (possibly mock) resurrection, he asks about the children who died in the play.
Do they come back too?
Only one of them, she says. It’s a very uneasy play, really. Pretending to be a comedy.
Smith’s references to Charlie Chaplin and Lorenza Maretti, two artists with unbearably harsh childhoods, caution the reader on the precariousness of pretend comedies, of happy endings, and happy beginnings and middles.

Hope, or optimism to put it in more practical terms, pulls people through. Grace says to the mason, “The Winter’s Tale’s all about summer, really. It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible. When you’re stuck in the world at its worst, that’s important. To be able to say that. At least to tend towards comedy.”

Ali Smith’s Summer tends toward comedy. Though unable to turn her face from the suffering happening right now, right here in our world, Smith can’t resist…To say she can’t resist seeing the bright side is to invoke a phrase appealing, but long gone trite.

So?

So.
Summer’s like walking down a road just like this one, heading towards both light and dark.
Bonus Links:
Things Fall Apart: On Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’
Rites of Spring: Does the Latest in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet Satisfy?

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