Book Review: Summer

Ali Smith’s Summer – the last in her quartet of seasonal novels – was published in August 2020. Autumn, the first, emerged in October 2016 which means that, within the life of this blog, whose first post was also October 2016, she has published four bestselling, critically-acclaimed novels. I have read – and reviewed – them all (Autumn, Winter and Spring). Smith’s is a phenomenal achievement whose origins might owe something to a long-rooted desire to produce a series of connected novels about the seasons but more so to a piece of personal misfortune – she was a year late with her manuscript for 2014’s How To Be Both, but the publisher still managed, somewhat heroically, to get the book out more or less on time. Among other things, this demonstrates something very interesting about Smith’s own writing process, of which more in a bit.

Summer, recently shortlisted for the 2020 Highland Book Prize, ties up some though by no means all the loose ends established in the earlier novels. For those with an interest in these things, others have exhaustively and painstakingly drawn the myriad links which Smith has made, connecting characters, motifs and figures in the art world, in the course of these four novels.

This one starts, however, with new characters Grace Greenlaw, recently divorced from a husband who now lives next door (interesting, but entirely coincidental, thematic echoes here of Our House which I read just previously), together with her daughter and son, Sacha (16) and Robert (13). In terms of the narrative arc, there is an entirely chance meeting with Art and Charlotte, who we met in 2017’s Winter (though this time it’s the real Charlotte), who are on a mission to reunite Daniel, the old man we met in Autumn, with something which Sophie, Art’s mother, wanted returned to him after her death. This they do. In the course of the journey, Grace and Daniel both revisit their youths, summer being a time for warm, even dreamy, recollection, her at the end of the 1980s, him in the 1940s, while the tale is spiced with latter-day notes prompted by the activism of Sacha, who is concerned not only with environmental issues but also with the fate of refugees in immigration removal centres whose story was central to 2019’s Spring. The item is returned and the tale reaches a surprisingly romantic (and, perhaps, a rather cliched) conclusion as a vehicle for Smith to relate her significant optimism and hopefulness for our future on this planet, born from the warmth of our essential humanity and the timeless things that endure about the human spirit.

The narrative arc is thus slight but, as in all the novels in this series, the point is indeed the journey not the culmination of the tale, just as summer is neither the end of the chronological year nor, indeed, is the end of the year ‘the end’ as the seasons continue rhythmically to roll around. The book, and thus the series, does have a conventional end – it would have detracted from the work had it not – but, in pointing us back towards autumn, we are reminded both of those seasonal rhythms, that eternal regeneration and the continuing evolution of the human story.

This evolution is naturally picked up via Smith’s literary reference points throughout the quartet to Shakespeare (in Summer, overtly, to The Winter’s Tale); and to Dickens (in terms of narrative genius as well as Dickens’s own writing of some of his stories, including Oliver Twist, serially for regularly published journals). Both would recognise Smith’s characters in their own times and their own tales feature recurrent human tragedies and heroism (and with a strong eye on the singular rather than the grandiose).

Smith started writing Summer at the end of January, when the Australian wildfires which wrought such devastating environmental effects were much in the news, and just as stories were coming to the attention of the western media about Covid-19, with the narrative mostly taking place in March – Summer is not set in summer, but in late spring – handing in the final manuscript as Black Lives Matters protests took to the streets (there is an understandably brief reference to the murder of George Floyd, which took place at the end of May 2020). Thus it was written entirely during the early phases of Covid-19 and there are references to the ‘sickness’ – which is unnamed – in the novel both thematically as well as in terms of the events described, both Daniel and Charlotte experiencing their own lockdown imprisonments, both physical and mental. Six weeks from manuscript to finished product, in the middle of a pandemic, is indeed another heroic achievement by Smith’s publishing team.

Writing in this highly contemporary fashion allows Smith to use literature to shine a light on our own times as well as to draw illuminating connections with events in our shared history. This not only allows her to explore the circularity of events within the human condition, but also lends a considerable topicality to her work – Daniel’s (very real) recollection of the 1940s is as the son of an unnaturalised German living in the UK, and thus interned for a period on the Isle of Man (while his beloved sister Hannah is fighting the Nazis in occupied France): events called to mind later in 2020, and which have re-surfaced recently, as the Tories have openly considered sending asylum seekers to places such as Gibraltar and, indeed, the Isle of Man for the processing of their asylum applications (an idea immediately rejected by both). Lorenza Mazetti, related to Einstein and the artist whose spirit informs this part of the quartet, and who died only as Smith was getting underway with Summer, was herself an ‘undesirable alien’ in 1950s London. More humourously, the disagreement about sourcing a Hannah Arendt quote from the internet, the subject of a debate at the start of the novel between Sacha and her mother, crossed my Twitter feed on only Wednesday this week as Deutsche Welle wondered why so many famous quotes – many of them from Einstein – are fake.

As with the rest of her novels, Smith glories in language, both verbal and non-verbal, and in playing around with words and Summer is no different – I love, for example, the fun she has here with Einstein and ein stein; while here, the opening monologue takes on, and challenges, the simple word ‘so’, in the first place as an expression of jaded, shoulder-shrugging, care-free indifference and in the second as a word as resolute, determined, programmatic and as focused on action as any verb. This love of language dominates her work and its expression here – never forced, never apparently hard work – seems to come entirely naturally to her. The revelation that she suffered during the writing of Spring from a loss of faith in what she calls ‘dialogue with the form’ – the conversation between author and novel in progress – is thus a surprising one, Spring representing for me a return to form from what I saw as an over-hasty realisation of Winter.

All artists suffer at some times from a form of “writers’ block” – that crisis of confidence in which you read, or hear, or see only the weaknesses in your work accompanied by a stymieing inability to recognise that what makes something great can also be its weakness, whether you’re a late-20s New Jerseyan taking months to get right not just the sound but the opening sound on what will turn out to be your most famous record; or a member of a production crew walking around Los Angeles at more or less the same time wearing T-shirts carrying the legend ‘Stevie’s nearly ready’. It is therefore a sign of great confidence in her own abilities that Smith took on the task of producing such a masterwork in this timeframe, as well as in bringing it to its conclusion. Artists of all kinds have to have the confidence, but also the courage, to ‘let it go’ – to let things out in the wild despite what may be imperfections and such that they stand or fall as products of their time. Smith makes such a connection between art and literature in this series; I draw a similar connection between literature and music in the same way – not that literature needs to be the rock’n’roll more than anything else does (rock’n’roll being some way from falling on its back). But, a novel is much like an album: you let it go and it may turn out to be ‘long grass by the wayside’ in ten years’ time (as Smith herself self-deprecatingly thinks likely about these volumes) or your songs may still be being sung 120 years in the future (see Nanci Griffiths’s introduction before playing track ten).

It’s partly confidence but it’s also about process. Smith is able to get novels out in this short timeframe because she re-drafts and edits as she goes. Consequently, there is no lengthy period of to-and-fro between writer and production house: what the production house gets as a final manuscript is – give or take a bit of subsequent judicious editorial intervention – what the reader holds in their hand. This ‘dialogue with the form’ is the key: books don’t ‘write themselves’, but they do go down their own roads in the process of being written, sometimes in ways that surprise their authors the most successful of whom have that confidence in the natural evolution of what they are writing. Writing is, ultimately, about your own reading.

Summer starts out as a book about forgiveness, perhaps as befits a novel whose purpose, at least in part, is to bring about some form of closure to the series. But with the pandemic raging against the background of a government whose multiple failures, weak preparation and incompetent handling, alongside PPE debacles and cronyism, allied to its catastrophic trust in a murderous herd immunity strategy, this was clearly no time for a message of ‘forgiveness’. In lesser hands, this turn of events might have implied disaster to a novel written for the here and now but Smith has skilfully turned the book into an extended consideration of the collective implications of the occurrence of a national sickness.

Far, therefore, from Summer being ‘derailed’ by the pandemic, as some readers have alleged, it is in fact made by it. This is the case not only in that the pandemic forms the essential background to the novel – which would have been written to the same timeframe whether it had happened or not – but which also provides the key hook for the key message which she allows to evolve from it – that, given Smith’s ability to juxtapose opposites and enjoy doing so: a Winter’s Tale toured in summer; lightness in the middle of darkness; happiness in the midst of sadness; protests in the face of implacable opposition; hope for the possibility of another world when this one seems to be at its worst; health (and healing) coming after sickness – we may still, despite all the signs of loss of the times in which we live, find the hope of a healing which will resolve the fractures and the fractiousness of the years in which this series of novels has been set. That we cannot truly experience joy unless we have always seen despair – that, in terms of the theatre, we carry two masks: one for comedy and one for tragedy. There is, at least, hope and, indeed, times pass as time passes. Til then, our pandemic-influenced position is, as it is for Leontes in The Winter’s Tale which Grace interprets for her colleagues in the repertory company as follows:

A blight comes down on him, on his country, from nowhere. It’s irrational, It has no source. It just happens. Like things do. They suddenly change, and it’s to teach us that everything is fragile and that what happiness we think we’ve got and imagine will be forever ours can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye. (pp. 282-3)

Smith is not for everyone – those who prefer a more linear narrative arc will find the novel’s extended flashbacks and playing around with the time sequence confusing and disorienting. Others of a less liberal mindset will find much that they will despise. Purists will hate the lack of quotation marks when characters are in dialogue. But, if you love words and enjoy the thought of watching a master writer at work, able to tell a story about the way we live in our times and, in doing so, relate much about the creative process that authors and editors experience, do engage with this: Summer, both in its own right as well as the summation and realisation of an immense literary ambition, deserves all the awards that ought to be coming its way.

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