9 January, 2021 • • 45.8Fiction

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‘The briefest and slipperiest of seasons’

Erin Minogue

Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton
$20.80 (Hardcover)

Summer, Ali Smith’s most recent novel, completes the Seasonal Quartet that she started with the publication of Autumn in late 2016, following the referendum on Britain’s membership to the European Union. The premise of the books began as a discussion between Smith and her publisher about the speed at which it would possible to publish a book, in order to write a series about the seasons that felt as contemporaneous as possible. The six-week-turnaround between the submission of these manuscripts and their release dates is almost unheard of in publishing terms.

By starting her quartet in 2016, it was incumbent on Smith to write about the times that followed. In a discussion with author Linn Ullman, for the podcast ‘How to Proceed’, Smith stated that the books began as “a sort of light experiment about time,” and then, following rapid political upheaval, “became about a time in which we have seen unprecedented change in the UK and across the world.” The books are infused with themes of division, betrayal, fake news, trust, toxicity, immigration detention, and hope. Smith not only presents an extensive catalogue of contemporary political events but also fashions a form and language with which to examine our immediate present.

Each book in the tetralogy works on an individual level and, also, as part of the larger whole. When the cycle is completed, we are borne right back to the start. Life is cyclical; our relationships continue and grow, moving with us as we move through life.

The books can be read in any order but they gain meaning cumulatively, resulting in a blend of new characters and interwoven storylines in Summer. Itbrings us back to the start of the cycle where things open with the friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel Gluck, her older next-door neighbour. In Summer, though,we are introduced to a new family, to brother and sister, Robert and Sascha, and their mother, Grace.

Each work in the cycle centres a relationship, usually of platonic or familial love. Here it is that of Sascha, a committed teenage environmentalist, who suffers from insomnia as a result of consuming climate anxiety, and her younger brother Robert, who seems committed to cruelty, though is intelligent and, by Sacha’s own admission, ‘brilliant’. Their parent’s marriage has broken down as a result of their opposing opinions on Brexit, and into this fray enters a range of characters from the earlier works in the cycle; stories shift with a kaleidoscopic quality from past to present, with a mounting sense of dread as they progress from early February (and rumours of a new virus) into the summer months of lockdown.

Smith is a novelist experimenting with time. In particular, she examines how we move though life, how time moves through us, and asks “[h]ow do we come to understand what time is, what we’ll do with it, what it’ll do with us?” Her concerns echo many of the experiences voiced in pandemic journals, media outlets, and public forums in recent months. The BBC published an article by Claudia Hammond entitled ‘Why time seems to be going faster in lockdown.’ Lyn Reed wrote an article for the UK Counselling Directory with the headline ‘Why time feels heavy in lockdown and what you can do about it.’ We are trying desperately to understand our shifting relationship with time, in a world where our normal experiences of time have rapidly changed.

Smith’s Seasonal Quartet – her ‘light experiment with time’ – enacts this theme on many levels. An incident occurs early in Summer where Robert superglues an egg timer onto his sister’s outreached hand. His explanation, delivered by text, invokes wordplay characteristic of Smith: ‘know how worried ur about how there’s no time left so this woz best present I cud imagine from now on u always have time on ur hands’ [sic]. Their sibling relationship is maddening, loving, and comprised of moments of utmost trust and cruelty; it’s a relationship of ultimate recognition. Sascha knows her brother is “brilliant”, and Robert knows how to hurt Sascha’s feelings the most. Smith constructs their relationship as a fraught, wild, graceful balancing act – an image she describes to us earlier in the book of a man dancing with two suitcases on a rooftop ledge. Of this image, she asks: “How can what he’s doing be so wild and still so graceful, so urgent and blithe both at once?”

Across the span of her Seasonal Quartet, Smith’s work is filled with artists, sculptors, poets—Dickens, Shakespeare, Chaplin, Rilke, and Katherine Mansfield, among others—but in Summer, it is Albert Einstein who features prominently. Robert quotes from a letter that Einstein wrote to a man whose son died of polio and who was seeking consolation: “The problem is,” Robert paraphrases, “we tend to think we’re separate. But it’s a delusion.” Across Summer it is this impression of entrenched division which gives way instead to an empathetic understanding of humanity as inherently linked, through our relationships with one another and with art.

 In Summer, Smith enacts her interest in connectivity at the level of form by weaving together stories, fragments, letters, and descriptions of art and films. Smith places stories and fragments in disjunctive relationships, creating a jostling style where meaning flickers between and beyond stories. “I’m feeling very much at a disconnect right now,” one character says. Iris, an activist who opens her house to refugees from UK detention centres, replies, “Nothing’s not connected.” This, it seems, is Smith’s central argument. Again and again, across the tetralogy, we are reminded of the interconnection between things. The lives of characters stray from each other and merge back again in time (a central character from Winter, for instance, falls in love with a character from Autumn). Lives are ongoing, these books tell us, and as readers we are dropping in.

Summer is the “briefest and slipperiest of seasons”. As one character says, “Summer can fuck off, it’s never as good as you think it’ll be.” But also, just sometimes, a summer comes along that makes us feel free and alive and possible. Our imagining of the season ‘summer’, with all it entails, is described by Smith as a yearning for a “kinder finale,” one that’s “not just possible but assured.” To read Smith requires a kind of negative capability, to trust her enough to follow where she takes you, to venture where her mind goes.


Erin Monogue took a BA at Mansfield College in June 2020.