I read the first two novels of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet in Cairo, where long, warm, sunny days make up most of the year. In a city whose pace—a down-tempo lull—gives a sense that time is expanded, Autumn, with its meandering, time-traveling, light-footed story of a friendship between a young girl and an old man, felt exhilarating, deeply touching, even breathtaking. Winter, which is not strictly a sequel except in the seasonal sense and which revolves around a Christmas gathering at a family home in Cornwall, was fraught, overwhelming, dire. Too many people, too many egos, too many ideas, too much tension. “Ghastly” is how I have heard the season, which I have never experienced in its entirety, described—but the word “somewhat” applies to it and the temperament of the novel as well.
Winter begins tellingly, like Autumn, with a contemporary take on a Dickensian tale:
God was dead: to begin with.
And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead. Modernism, postmodernism, realism and surrealism were all dead. Jazz was dead, pop music, disco, rap, classical music, dead. Culture was dead.
As were history, politics, democracy, political correctness, the media, the Internet, Twitter, religion, marriage, sex lives, Christmas, and both truth and fiction. But “life wasn’t yet dead. Revolution wasn’t dead. Racial equality wasn’t dead. Hatred wasn’t dead.”
Smith, who was born in Scotland in 1962, is as attuned to the current moment as she is to the cycles of history that led us here. Growing up in council housing, Smith held odd jobs including waitressing and cleaning lettuce before persuing a Ph.D. in American and Irish modernism at Cambridge; she ultimately abandoned academia to write plays.
In Winter, Arthur (Art), who makes a living tracking down copyright-infringing images in music videos and also maintains a blog, Art in Nature, has just broken up with Charlotte, his conspiracy-theorist anticapitalist girlfriend, who has destroyed his laptop by drilling a hole through it and taken over his Twitter account to impersonate and ridicule him. Unable to face Christmas alone with his emotionally withdrawn, hypersensitive, and self-starved mother—Sophia, aka Ms. Cleves—and having promised her that he would bring along his girlfriend, he hires Velux (Lux), a gay Croatian whom he meets at an Internet café, to be a stand-in Charlotte (for £1000). At some point over that Christmas weekend, a long-estranged, politically and technologically aware hippie aunt, Iris, visits too. In their midst, accompanying Sophia, is the floating, disembodied head of a child. Bashful, friendly, nonverbal, it becomes something of a constant, if gradually dying, presence.
Family banter, conflict, political debate, reckonings, and reconciliation ensue. As do dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, and apparitions. Perspectives and narrators constantly…
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