Mothers have a hard time in Ali Smith’s novels. I mean that Smith gives them a hard time, as well as acknowledging the hard time they’ve had already, just getting this far, in one piece. In Summer, the final novel of Smith’s seasons quartet, the harried mother is Grace. Grace gets good marks from the novel’s thirtysomethings for her resolve to live on easy terms with her ex-husband (‘next door dad’), who lives – next door – with his much younger girlfriend. But in other ways (and possibly in that way too) she is a caricature of her generation. She says things like ‘when I was young and foolish’, ‘you young people’, ‘what is cancel culture?’ She endlessly harks back to her feminist heyday in the 1980s, when she was an actor; she refers to herself as ‘so menopausal’ when her memory fails her; she talks in slogans, particularly about Brexit: ‘All over now. Done and dusted … dawn of a new era.’ She voted Leave.
Smith has produced one ‘seasonal’ book a year for the last four years, beginning with Autumn in October 2016 and ending now in high summer – or, to put it another way, beginning with the EU referendum and ending with Covid-19. The quartet is an experiment in writing about how we live now, and especially about how we register the language of politics in our everyday lives – how far we escape it, how much we are defined by it. Smith has us mostly flailing about. Early on in Summer, Grace gets involved in an argument about freedom and the imagination. She scoffs at the idea (Wittgenstein is mentioned) that the limits of a person’s language are the limits of their world. The imagination, she insists, ‘can and does do anything it likes and everything it likes’. But as with Elisabeth’s mother in Autumn, Art’s mother in Winter and Brit’s mother in Spring, Grace’s own world has been largely reduced to the language and images she’s fed by TV.
The different generations are defined by their media habits: film for the very old and the arty; Twitter and Instagram for the under forties; and for middle-aged mothers the telly, their companion during the years of domestic incarceration. At first glance Smith’s portraits of women whose minds have been invaded by the national entertainer in the corner of the living room seem an updated version of 1950s anxieties about the destruction of ‘real life’ by mass popular culture. No longer merely a passive lump in an armchair from 7 to 11 p.m., like Arthur Seaton’s father in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Grace finds that the boundary between her own thoughts and corporate thoughts has become unstable. But Smith’s take on the relationship between people and TV is much odder than that.
The television itself has lost its boundaries. Characters keep stepping into or out of it. The screen in the corner of Grace’s living room behaves like a recalcitrant family member. It talks too loudly and won’t shut up. (Grace’s 12-year-old son has posted the remote to the most remote place he can find on Google.) Grace used to be on TV herself, most memorably in an ad for washing-up liquid. In the novel’s first pages she recognises a Trump-supporting televangelist, Mercy Bucks, as a woman she once toured with in The Winter’s Tale. The name Mercy Bucks screams cartoon character, but the on-screen numbers showing donations to the Mercy Bucks Church of the Spirit ‘rising hundreds of dollars a second’ register the money taken off real people. And Grace and Mercy – there is allegory here as well as cartoonishness – are not the quartet’s only voyagers into and out of the world of the small screen. In Autumn, Elisabeth’s mother appears on The Golden Gavel, a fictionalised version of Bargain Hunt, and begins a relationship with one of the judges; in Winter, Art’s father was a 1970s TV comedy star, and there’s a life-size cardboard cut-out of him in the barn; in Spring, Richard makes TV documentaries; and the slow-dreaming, 104-year-old Daniel Gluck (whom we first met in Autumn and who returns in Summer – a man for all seasons) awakes from his reveries and returns to the present when he hears a song he wrote playing on the TV in his rest home.
The series as a whole worries about caricature, and in Summer the worry becomes explicit. Next-door dad’s new girlfriend has completely lost her voice after watching old footage of a country fair in Germany: a comic sketch showing citizens wielding cartoon-sized brooms sweeping people dressed in caricature Jewish costumes off the streets. What upsets her is that ‘then and now were meeting up and that it was such a caricature time then and it’s such a caricature time again.’ Something like this distress is what powers Smith’s insistence that people who seem to have become caricatures – including those who spout Brexity slogans heard on TV – are actually real.
Then and now meet up in the plot of the novel, which picks up narrative strands from the rest of the quartet and drives them towards resolution. An object stolen by Art’s mother (in Winter) must be returned, more than thirty years later, to the songwriter Daniel Gluck, necessitating a meandering road trip from Cornwall to an immigrant removal centre at Gatwick, then to Brighton, then to Suffolk. Grace and her children, Sacha and Robert, get swept along in the car after one of Smith’s characteristic accidental encounters, on Brighton beach. A long central section, a third of the novel, takes place in the past, where we return with Daniel to his wartime internment as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man, and with his sister to wartime France, where the language of caricature is far more dangerous.
These are novels with designs on us, one of them being to excoriate resurgent British nationalism and its treatment of minorities and refugees. But Smith’s achievement is to have created a set of scenarios plotted with this clear purpose in mind and yet to treat the people trapped as functionaries in contemporary Britain’s unlovely state-corporate systems with tremendous generosity. She doesn’t judge them. The novels are loosely modelled on Shakespeare’s late romances: The Tempest, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale. But it’s a line from King Lear (‘None does offend – none, I say’) that more surely gets at Smith’s tone. Most people aren’t sinners, just lost. Take Brit, a young woman working in an immigrant detention centre in Spring, who struggles with the growth of a kind of inner proto-fascism inculcated by her role. Being on the side of fear and authority isn’t something she wants but she doesn’t know how to escape it. Since spring (as Smith tells us) is a time of hope and possibility rather than resolution, Brit isn’t offered redemption at the end of the novel, though there are hints that redemption will come. The character who plays the equivalent role in Summer, Grace’s son Robert, a clever kid gone wrong, is less successful. He vents his fury by watching porn and repeating racist slogans at school but – since summer means fruition and completion – he is redeemed, returning to openness and imagination.
Robert’s return to decency is scripted as magical wish fulfilment – not how things happen but how we would like them to happen. Smith takes the image of a statue being restored to life from The Winter’s Tale and applies it liberally to her characters. The dead, or the almost dead, are revived; people long lost find one another, and themselves, again. Smith ramps up the obvious metaphors, revelling in the surreal: the remote goes remote; voices are lost among louder voices; there’s a running gag about an egg timer which morphs into a series of puns on time – time on your hands, a stitch in time. One of the pleasures of encountering yet another ridiculously over-egged pun (it’s infectious) is realising the tremendous fun Smith must have had writing this book, her own eyebrow raised against herself. ‘Will I get away with this? Why not? The imagination can do anything it likes!’
So we watch Smith’s flattened, caricature people become allegorical figures – or rather, since the traffic goes in every direction, we watch them flicker back and forth between caricature, character and allegory. As well as the people tricked out as Art, Luck (Gluck), Light (Lux) and Hero – literary roles we have become accustomed to in the series – we meet a set of allegorical figures who seem to have stepped out of Bunyan: Grace, Mercy and, implicitly, Faith. ‘It is required you do awake your faith,’ Shakespeare’s Paulina says to the assembled crew before the statue of Leontes’s wife Hermione comes back to life. The sentence hovers behind all the goings on in Summer. Take a leap of faith, Smith says, a leap of imagination, and art becomes life, imagination becomes reality. She goes further, in fact: ‘it is required’, it is ‘necessary’; if we don’t awaken our faith in art and the imagination we are lost. And she really believes it.
The quartet makes extraordinarily ambitious claims for art, and paints a bleak vision of a future without it. Knowledge won’t save us from a repeat of the horrors of the past; history, evidence, ‘news’ and information won’t save us. True understanding, and therefore change, can only come from the magic that is the imagination. Readers of the series will remember that we first meet Daniel Gluck through a school history project: eight-year-old Elisabeth goes next door to interview him about his memories because he’s so old. What readers may not recall is that Daniel tells her almost nothing about his past. Their relationship, almost a father-daughter bond, comes from talking about art, and playing a game describing what you can remember from pictures, not real life. (Elisabeth later becomes an art historian and we meet her again here, exhausted by her job and lonely – but Summer will restore her.)
In Smith’s novels, stories about the past always fail. In Spring the road trip takes the assorted group to the battlefield at Culloden, where the visitors get treated to an account of the battle and what was at stake. But no one really listens, and the journey ends in a car park rather than the battlefield itself. Instead, an unsettling song in Scots Gaelic, which nobody who hears it can understand, does the work of bridging the gap between then and now. Much the same applies to the history of Germany under the Nazis. ‘There is endless stuff always on TV and all over the net about the Nazis. All Robert’s life there always has been.’ It makes no difference to what we can really see and hear.
But this introduces a puzzle, because the middle section of Summer does tell stories from Europe’s past. The account of Daniel’s spell in the Isle of Man internment camp in 1940 is based on memoirs by Ronald Stent and Fred Uhlman, and includes a portrait of Kurt Schwitters. Here Smith is at her most Sebaldian:
All round the room, balanced on broken lumps of wood, some on the broken-off legs of an old piano, are the greeny-blue-coloured sculptures of heads, beasts, indefinable shapes. They are lumpy, gritty looking. Something about them is strangely familiar.
Kurt asks Daniel if he will have the kindness to put aside and pass on to him anything in the canteen or the store that nobody wants to use or to eat, the things often thrown away. Empty cigarette and toothpaste packets, chocolate wrappers. The gone-off leaves of cabbages. Also he most urgently wants any porridge that goes uneaten, if there’s any that he comes across left in a dustbin after a breakfast.
That’s when Daniel sees that the sculptures are made of solidified porridge and that the porridge they’re made of has gone so mouldy that each of the sculptures is sprouting green hair.
And then we encounter Daniel’s sister Hannah, living in France and working undercover to help Jews escape to Switzerland. She searches graveyards for inscriptions and memorises the names and dates of those who have died young, to pass on to the artists who will forge the papers to give the name a new life:
You don’t know anything, the first thing, about that person. Still, something family happens …
The dead name takes the new person on, and a live person takes the dead name on. Life happens for someone whose life will otherwise end. Life enters, graciously, with respect, the unlived life.
Several reviewers have praised these highly realised and moving passages as the heart of the novel, but this seems to me to be exactly the wrong way to read the book – to hang on to the realist thread, and search for real-life emotional truths under all the punning and allegorical high jinks. Part of Smith’s point about this small portion of a history of the Holocaust is that it doesn’t get passed on in the novel. Daniel dreams of his internment but says very little about it in the present; Hannah’s story is told to readers but not to any of the characters who live in the world of the novel. This idea of unsent messages, or messages sent to people who can’t receive them, is familiar from Spring, where Richard sends postcards to an imaginary daughter, having lost contact with his real one. This is the daughter whom readers know ‘in real life’ as Elisabeth, and who also isn’t getting sent messages about the past from Daniel, her other father.
The point of all this seems to be that information about the past doesn’t help on its own. Narrative or causal logic is useless; so, in large part, is conversation. It’s ‘being’ in itself, the presence of one being encountering another, that reveals who we are. The endless harping of the middle-aged on the passing of time (‘when I was your age’) isn’t simply tedious, it’s a brake on the imagination. Sequence and consequence are the enemies of understanding in Smith’s world, which is why children, who don’t have a past, and people without much time left – the very old or the sick, like Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke in Spring – are so often the bearers of enlightenment. They aren’t interested in sequence and story. Enlightenment happens only when now meets then, so arguably the crisis that has made next-door dad’s girlfriend stop speaking, two caricature times crashing together, is actually a crisis that can precipitate change.
This is a novel that stands in favour of thought but against learning – no one does anything in the book because they have discovered something new – and, despite the fact that the plot unfolds across linear time, against development. The emphasis on chance encounters and linguistic echoes isn’t always successful, and there are longueurs. I like swifts, but I was bored by the lengthy disquisitions on them. There’s a detour to a church restoration project in Suffolk which seems largely motivated by the revelation that the main load-bearing beam in a timber-framed roof is called a ‘summer’. You get the sense that Smith has sometimes put things in because she can and not because she must. But the magical-encounter structure allows Smith to celebrate her alternative map of the generations: families that include all kinds of next-door people, and random strangers much further away. ‘Refreshing’ is too small a word for the two fingers Smith puts up to mummy, daddy and the kids. She doesn’t even bother dismantling that complacent triangle, but simply offers us another, richer set of possibilities.
All the principal characters across the four books lose a parent or a child, but in finding alternatives and substitutes ‘something family happens’, and Smith leaves us in no doubt that something family is better than actual family. This is largely because parents, exhausted cogs in a domestic machine, have lost access to the imagination. It’s the people without children – the childless, the children themselves – who are able to maintain the grace through which a life encounters and enters another life, and that mothers like Grace (the irony) have lost. Parents are necessary, of course, or there wouldn’t be children at all. But they must be sidestepped, lost and refound. So ancient Daniel, or eightysomething Iris from Winter (a veteran of Greenham Common who here gets twinned with Grace’s 16-year-old daughter, Sacha), are the bearers of enchantment, practitioners of a dispossessing kind of love – one that gives but isn’t worried about whether it receives. The quartet is a hymn to the transformations of one-way love. Robert is transformed by his encounter with Charlotte but it’s a mistimed meeting – Robert is 12 and Charlotte in her thirties – and he worries about how ‘you find the person you found if you lose the person after finding them and then there are a lot of dark years between you’. Smith’s point is that the losing is as important as the finding. And restoration is always partial anyway. It’s clear to readers that the crowd of people who end up in Suffolk are all biologically related to one another, but the characters themselves never know they have found their lost relatives.
One of the questions Smith must have asked herself before she sat down to write these novels ‘in real time’ is what kind of novelistic structure could hope to encompass the totality of Britain now, its relationship to its past and future. She employs various realist strategies to reach for the whole: characters move around, from Scotland to Cornwall, the south coast and East Anglia; they shift back and forth between their remembered pasts and their mostly unenchanted presents; they attempt to shelter in domestic settings that have become increasingly invaded by corporate power and bureaucracy. Smith is brilliant on the sheer ambient logic of our surroundings, and the endless waiting imposed by ‘procedure’: the multiple form-filling, the queues, the attempt to send off for a passport at the post office, trying to go for a walk and discovering new barbed wire fences, the wait for the library computer terminal, the useless train information displays and the delayed trains that mean you can’t even kill yourself when you want to. We’ve all been there, or nearly. In Summer the example of bureaucratic alienation is a misaddressed electricity bill that almost ends in Grace’s eviction by operatives from SA4A (‘Safer’, which of course it isn’t), the corporation that also runs the immigrant detention centres and, Smith implies, soon everything else too. Brexit, Covid-19, climate change and the refugee crisis shift in and out of focus, but it’s in the ordinary scenes of everyday frustration that the novels seem most ‘of our time’.
But ‘now’ isn’t enough. Smith wants the kind of magical transformation that occurs when now meets then. The Shakespearean parallels offer a fittingly British version of enchantment. It’s as if George Eliot tried to write Middlemarch now and realised that the realist novel isn’t up to it in the 21st century. You can’t draw together into a single narrative an island culture wholly recalcitrant to unity. But Eliot/Smith thinks: wait! Late romance! We know it’s an art of wizardry, but it’s not coercive or falsifying, and best of all it’s our magic.
But the other ghost in the machine – never explicitly mentioned in the book – is German. In Smith’s novel Artful (2012), two women get through boring conferences by scoring ‘ten points to the first person who hears someone say the words Walter Benjamin’. The words aren’t said in Summer, but Benjamin’s idea of messianic time lies at the heart of Smith’s faith in art and the imagination. Writing in the 1930s Benjamin developed a theory of redemption through a rupture in ordinary time – a kind of lightning flash that brings past and present together. The present generation, he argued, is always potentially the messiah that past generations have been waiting for, always carries the potential for change. It was utopian then, and it’s utopian now, but Smith is asking us to look with urgency at where we’ve got to without utopian thinking. And Benjamin’s own journey, as a German-Jewish intellectual who died seeking asylum from Wehrmacht-controlled France in 1940, is present in the stories of Daniel and Hannah, and the refugees in Gatwick’s immigrant removal centre too. Whether Benjamin would be on side with Smith’s emphasis on art rather than politics as the source of the necessary revolution is a question for conferences, and one that doesn’t interest Smith at all.