Take it from an autumnal historian: all this — the time of sickness and scoundrels — will, eventually, pass. But in the imperfectly vaccinated, fretfully distanced, ecologically fragile future, who will generations read to get a measure both of the magnitude of our distress and the fortitude of our humanity? To remember not just what separated us from each other but what tied us together? Not, I think, the commentariat but rather, I’d bet, Ali Smith’s deeply affecting seasonal novels.
Yet to bill these four books as the “Brexit-Covid series” — much as Trollope or Dickens have sometimes been classified as “condition of England” writers — is to sell them short. Nor, despite the pretty covers, are they meant to be consolingly scenic: a ramble through blighted Blighty as blooms and birds come and go.
“Summer can fuck off”, says Robert, the 13-year-old contrarian in this powerfully absorbing closer to the series: “it’s never as good as you think it’ll be, usually shit weather and even if it is hot now, hot just means a whole other kind of shit weather in which it’s too hot to do anything”.
What Smith’s series actually ponders, even in this summer of biting anxieties and bitter discontents, are matters way beyond the never-ending catalogue of crimes, follies and afflictions. She may start a book with a topical howl, as in the Orwellian opening of Spring: “Now what we don’t want is Facts . . . What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth”. Or in the quietly desperate tone of Summer, at once utterly exhausted and bristlingly combative: “Everybody said: so? As in so what? As in shoulder shrug, or what do you expect me to do about it?”
But the issues pondered in Summer, as in the three other books, are weighty questions of the human condition: how memory haunts an age of stress; how the times of our lives are not the same as their ostensible timeline; how families connect and disconnect; how arbitrarily barriers are fashioned to separate the free from the trapped, the native from the alien. (“Languages don’t exist singly”, one of her characters sharply and correctly observes.) And Smith has in her sights the not unimportant subject of the fate of the Earth, poisoned and mutilated, yet obstinate in its seasonal rhythms and regenerations.
To all these matters Smith brings not a sermon disguised as a novel but the brawling comedy of English diction (she has a pitch-perfect ear for social voice, whether the Man Behind the Counter or the teenage crusader). She also brings her A-team of literary players to the game so that storytelling, along with knowledge and truth, stand ready to testify about the matters in hand. Among others, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Keats, Shakespeare, Dickens and the un-English Rainer Maria Rilke, walk and talk in her pages — while James Joyce is present through Smith’s heady addiction to lists. But they all gather, not as defensive sentinels of literary tradition but as kindly, ghostly tutors, murmuring, before it’s too late, “please pay attention”.
All these matters are embodied in the characters of Summer, some returning from other seasons in the series, as if in valedictory reunion. From Autumn, we meet again Daniel Gluck, the Jewish “Englishman whelped as a German and after the age of six . . . an Englishman again”. In that book he was in “extended sleep” mode at the age of 101; now he is 104, but vitally alive in the memories populating his dreams. Art, the dull and dauntless blogger of “Art in Nature” in Winter, returns but as a minor presence beside his sometime girlfriend Charlotte, who strikes the teenage Robert blind with infatuated light. Do you need to read the other volumes to get the most out of Summer? No, but a binge through the lot of them will, I promise, leave you cumulatively transformed.
In any case, Summer introduces a new family: additions to Smith’s gallery of abandoned souls, somehow hanging together to hang on. Grace, who voted Leave, has been left by her Remainer husband who, because the separation is anything but clear-cut, now lives next door with his partner Ashley. Ashley, however, has become entirely mute, the flow of utterance transferred into the Updated Lexicon she is writing.
Grace’s two children are polar opposites. Sixteen-year-old Sacha, surnamed (in Dickens style) Greenlaw, is the earnest idealist writing letters to a Vietnamese asylum seeker known as Hero, who is held in a privately run internment camp for illegal immigrants. Inspired by the name, Sacha searches the web and discovers that “only the mighty Greta [Thunberg] can upend the internet’s determination to make the word heroine refer not to a female hero but to a misspelling of a class-A drug.”
Horrified at the half-billion animals killed in Australian wildfires, Sacha imagines “across a blasted plain the dead animals two by two by two by two by two million, further than any eye can see, kangaroo cinder with kangaroo cinder, wallaby ash with wallaby ash, charcoaled koala, charcoaled koala.” When she thinks of coronavirus, she sees “little planets with trumpets coming out of their surface or . . . a little world that’s been shot all over its surface by those fairground darts with tuft tails”. But these nightmare visions only reinforce her Thunbergian conviction that individual actions can and must count in saving the world from self-destruction.
To which her brother would respond with a withering put-down. Robert — one of Smith’s most fiendishly alive creations — casts himself as “realist” with an altogether different style of hero: “the people in charge in England”, whom he admires for “the brilliant application of lies”, and the prime minister, whom he credits with “a brilliant subterfuge to look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing and to make people like him for it”. But his other hero is the altogether different Einstein, with his “Eastertime lamb” face, “for bucking every trend and rewriting the universal truths to make them truer”. In the early going, Robert plays a brutal trick on his sister involving the stickiness of time, the subject of which obsesses him, along with the startling fact that his hero, between fleeing Nazi Germany and settling in America, spent a brief time somewhere in England.
Which, in the way of Smith’s narrative loop, takes the story back to England during the second world war, recovered in Daniel’s dreams and waking moments, to another preposterously cruel internment: that of Jews who had fled the Third Reich only to find themselves confined as “enemy aliens” on the Isle of Man.
“See, I never would’ve imagined, the NCO marching alongside them said . . . that there’d be so many of you Jews who was Nazis”. Daniel and his father (who was similarly interned during the first world war) find themselves locked up in seaside houses — the House of the Bathing Belles, the House of Fairy Tales and so on — amid filthy conditions but together with a packed raft of virtuoso musicians and artists. Here, thanks to a kindly camp commander, he gets to read Kafka, Hardy and the inevitable Dickens, not just for himself but for his sister Hannah, trapped in occupied France. But having finished the long, lovely letter he asks a “bird up there” to “take this letter to my sister” — whereupon he tears it into small pieces and burns it, rubbing the ash into his hands.
Again and again, the crushing burden of separateness — of members of a family, of the living and the dead, of peoples and cultures, of seemingly discrete pieces of nature, of the seasons themselves — proves to be an illusion. Things and people interpenetrate.
In a touching passage towards the end of the book, we learn that “summer” is a word for a lintel supporting the weight of a building structure — in this case the roof of a medieval church beneath which, while touring in rep years earlier, Grace had experienced an earthy epiphany of intense uncomplicated joy. Sacha, too, who writes to her internee about the miracle of perpetually airborne swifts, the reunion of lifetime mates back at the nest, digs her heels in against despair. “I believe one good thing that will come out of this is that my already trampled on generation will be evermore resilient. We will be aware of how lucky we are to spend time with our friends because we will know what it’s like to live without them. And by God we will treasure our freedoms and we will fight for them in the name of all that is good.”
The Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize
Now in its eighth year, the FT and The Bodley Head, one of Britain’s leading publishers of non-fiction, team up to find the best young essay-writing talent from around the world. The competition has been the springboard for many writers; entries can be submitted at ft.com/bodley2020. It is open to anyone between 18 and 35 years of age.
And if the unexpected bonus of Smith’s wise, funny, unsentimental and exhilarating work turns out to be optimism, the message for our predicament is expressed with exquisite economy during one of those half-dream, half-awake moments when Daniel imagines his sister (shot during the war for an act of intuitive resistance) coming to see him.
“There is no doubt, Daniel says, You really are you.
“Yes, Hannah says, I really am me. And you really are you. But if we follow Einstein’s thinking and add together you plus me plus time plus space. What does that all make? . . .
“What? What does it all make? Daniel says.
“It makes you and I more than just you or I, Hannah says. It makes us us.”
Which, right now, in our own time of many isolations, is surely the most important thing to bear in mind.
Summer, by Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99, 400 pages
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor. He will be among the speakers at the FTWeekend Festival on September 3-5
Simon Russell Beale on nature as salve
As a preview of the upcoming FTWeekend Festival, one of the world’s leading theatre actors reads William Wordsworth’s most famous poem, which takes on new meaning amid the coronavirus crisis. Russell Beale will be performing a curated selection of poems — from EE Cummings to Emily Dickinson — at his Friday September 4 event, as part of the fifth annual FTWeekend Festival, which will be digital this year. For more information on the three-day online extravaganza, its host of starry global speakers and to purchase a festival pass visit: ftweekendfestival.com
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