But the Living Will Not be Reduced

Ali Smith, Summer

Hamish Hamilton, 400pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780241207062

reviewed by Fintan Calpin

In his classic study of The English Novel: From Dickens to Lawrence (1970), Raymond Williams wonders what was emerging in England between 1847 and 1848 during the prodigious 20 months which saw the publication of Dombey and Son, Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, Mary Barton, Tancred, Town and Country and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Of course, the answer is in the list. What was emerging, at least in part, was the novel: ‘a new kind of consciousness’. The task left for us today is to ‘see what this is, and some ways of relating it to the new and unprecedented civilisation in which it took shape’. Williams’s point here (made at length elsewhere in his study) is that novels are not simply indexes of social change, crude historical weathervanes, but a form of social change – literally, the novel form. The novel emerges in this period as a mode of social practice, which mediates between dominant social forms — gender and class as much as the Gothic genre and Romanticism, for instance — and what is active, alive, in process, the immediate feeling and experience of social existence.

Williams’s approach to the novel resists the habitual past tense of the analysis of social processes that fixes them in whole, completed forms, such that living presence is obscured. Moreover, it is just such analytical rigidity that presupposes and reproduces a ‘personal’ sphere of subjective experience that is somehow outside the known institutions, formations and positions that comprise the social: that defines the personal and subjective as ‘all that escapes or seems to escape from the fixed and the explicit and the known’. The lectures collected in The English Novel typify his approach to the ‘structures of feeling’ that in Marxism and Literature (1977) he describes pithily as ‘social experiences in solution’. Williams focuses on the theme of community, of which the ‘substance and meaning’ has a decisive bearing for this epoch of the English novel, as the ‘middle term’ through which ‘both societies and persons are knowable’. Through readings of legible, ‘knowable’ relationships, Williams is able to cognitively map those relations and forces that, though they cannot be directly represented, nonetheless have a determining influence: ‘The new sense of society as not only the bearer but the active creator, the active destroyer, of the values of persons and relationships.’

Immediately after finishing Ali Smith’s Summer I returned to Williams’s study. Partly, this was because the durational, conceptual project which Smith undertook in these seasonal novels made me think of those eventful 20 months in the mid-19th century and their fascination for Williams. Smith’s quartet is an experiment in publishing that pushes the contemporariness of the contemporary novel to its extreme — or, what is surely the same thing, the novelness of the novel. Like many others, I read these books in real time over the four years of their publication: I wrote about Autumn (2016) in my undergraduate dissertation, Spring (2019) for my Masters. In a tumultuous period, these books have kept time. It feels melancholy to write about them in the past tense. Perhaps Williams offered a way of sustaining the sense of presence and immediacy in Smith’s project. With this final book, Summer, the internal mechanics of each of the quartet can be clearly seen within the overarching structure of interlocking narratives. The longest of the four, Summer is the most accomplished in its use of these now familiar Smithian techniques: moving perspectives, overlapping character histories and choric prologues.

The narrative concerns the Greenlaw family, who have been split apart by the EU referendum. Robert and Sacha live with their mother Grace, while their father has moved next door with his new partner, who has become entirely mute in the middle of writing a lexicon of contemporary British politics. The novel opens with Grace nagging Sacha about correctly citing a quotation from Hannah Arendt for her homework, which she finds on Brainyquote: ‘Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.’ Worrying about vague moral standards like correct attribution is, to Sacha, ‘what her mother’s generation did as a displacement activity from worrying about the real things happening in the world’. But Sacha is not without empathy for ‘her many-bladed mother’ who is like ‘a Swiss army knife display unit’. Radicalised by the student-led environmental protests of 2019, Sacha, dreams of smashing ‘the glass doors of office buildings’ at Christmas to make shelters for homeless people. Meanwhile, at the tender age of 13, Robert is a free-speech monster in the making, who is fond of ‘devil’s advocating’ and publicly rehearsing Boris Johnson’s lexicon of racist slurs. The narrative works hard to redeem Robert, who represents a lost generation of middle-class white boys brought up politically by right-wing online communities.

By a coincidence involving a glass clock, superglue and the palm of a hand, the Greenlaws meet Art and Charlotte, the nature bloggers we first encountered in Winter (2017). Together they pay a visit to Daniel Glück, the centenarian from Autumn, now a mighty 104 years of age, and his friend-turned-carer Elisabeth. While in Norfolk, Grace makes a private pilgrimage to a churchyard where three decades ago as a young actor she experienced a chance meeting and a moment of high summer bliss. Robert becomes sweetly spellbound by Charlotte and, with her and Sacha’s help, makes his own pilgrimage to Roughton Heath in search of Albert Einstein — Robert’s hero, who briefly stayed there after fleeing Nazi Germany. The Greenlaws exemplify the narrative movement of each of the seasonal novels, which tend to the dispersive. Drawn from the immediately legible positions of their initial characterisations, they become entangled in the network of relations the novel constructs. They remain characters in process.

A second reason for turning to Raymond Williams was that ‘living presence’ and ‘community’ struck me as helpful models for thinking about Summer and its siblings. The book’s prologue, which I (perhaps mistakenly) read as a blog entry by Charlotte, riffs on the word ‘so’ — not as a qualifier, or conjunction introducing a question or statement, but so ‘as in so what?’ ‘So’ appears like a structure of feeling, but one ossifying into a pernicious ‘cultivation of indifference’ by a state apparatus interested in obscuring its own operations:

What I mean is, it was a clear marker, just then, of that particular time; a kind of litmus, this dismissive note. It got fashionable around then to act like you didn’t care. It got fashionable, too, to insist the people who did care, or said they cared, were either hopeless losers or were just showing off.

Instead, she provides a commentary on an image from a film by Italian director Lorenza Mazzetti. Each of the seasonal novels invokes an artist who presides over the story like a guardian angel: Pauline Boty (Autumn), Barbara Hepworth (Winter), Tacita Dean (Spring), and Mazzetti in Summer. The ekphrasis focuses very simply on the movement of a character dancing on the edge of a roof holding two suitcases. He is fast, wild, graceful, ‘so urgent and blithe at once’. Indeed, she insists on the image’s quality as movement: ‘It’s very much a moving image.’ There is a metaphor here for Smith’s project as a novelist, about her aesthetic and formal attempts to resist the rigidity of those social practices that occlude life, community and resistance itself, to keep moving and vital.

A third reason for turning to Williams is that, when reading Summer and its reviews, I was reminded that as good as any novel might be, books can’t do everything for us: they need good readers. Raymond Williams was one of the good ones. I’m an admirer of Ali Smith, so it is to my immense chagrin that as her popularity and media coverage continue to grow, her books are increasingly smothered under platitudes about liberal humanism and the healing powers of literature. I despair to see Summer reduced — in the Financial Times and Guardian respectively — to a chronicle of ‘not just what separated us from each other but what tied us together’ or ‘how, through art, we survived’. This is an anodyne, consolatory politics, assuaging the discrete feelings of the bourgeoisie: we can’t change the world, only how we feel about it. Après nous le déluge. Such a politics is entirely unequal to the present moment and feels increasingly, wilfully anachronistic in an era of mass protest and global struggle. The abstractions of ‘aesthetics’ and ‘community’ such readings reproduce are precisely the petrified categories that for Williams mystify the processual vitality of social forms, not to mention their political force.

All the more bewildering is the fact that these readings persist when Smith’s novels constantly satirise liberal politics in characters such as Grace and Art. 2019’s Spring — large parts of which are set in the Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) first alluded to behind a well-guarded barbed wire fence in Autumn — reads to me like a direct refutation of the limits of liberal politics, as well as an exploration of the limits of the aesthetic. One of its stories concerns Brit, an IRC officer who embarks on a journey of intellectual fulfilment and eye-opening compassion. In the novel’s crushing climactic moments, Brit fulfils her function in policing the UK’s border regime. Brit’s employer, SA4A, a nebulous, many-tendrilled corporation and fictional counterpart to companies like Serco and G4S that operate the UK’s IRCs for profit, is the absent antagonist of this quartet. Ubiquitous and yet constantly receding into the background, SA4A metonymically evokes those invisible but nevertheless determining forces that shape lives and communities, those reproductions of difference through and across which capital flows: economic inequality, border regimes, processes of racialisation and criminalisation. The seasonal quartet may hold the dubious privilege of including the first ‘Brexit novel’, and now, with Summer, the first ‘Covid-19 novel’, but its scope reaches out to longer historical and wider geographical processes of which these UK crises are symptomatic. Where sentimental narratives appear in the quartet, they are tellingly truncated, as with the above example from Spring. In Summer, for instance, Grace’s nostalgia trip is interrupted by the very same IRC perimeter fence. The writing is on the wall.

Activism and mutual aid have an important bearing on Summer’s narrative structure, which clearly and decisively brings together the community of disparate individuals from across the seasons. Iris, the tireless campaigner and heroine of Winter, prepares to welcome into her home detainees who have been released from IRCs due to the pandemic. Hero, a Vietnamese migrant to whom Sacha communicates by letter throughout Summer, gets its final words in his reply. His letter reveals that Iris now works with the ‘underground railroad’ of volunteers helping migrants to avoid detainment and deportation that was at the centre of Spring. Smith’s abiding abolitionist concern with contemporary detention finds poignant historical reflection in the story of Daniel Glück’s internment in the infamous Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man in World War Two. Glück is held there alongside the artists Kurt Schwitters and Fred Uhlman in a Smithian melding of fiction with historical fact. This previously unheard chapter of the character’s long life is told through Daniel’s dreams and remembrances. Smith also gives us the story of Daniel’s sister, Hannah, who struggles in Nazi-occupied France to help refugees out of the country in another underground railroad. These synchronous narratives make up the bulk of the novel and culminate in its most moving moments, when the siblings write letters to one another that they destroy before sending. The disrupted but unbroken bond between this ‘summer brother’ and ‘autumn sister’ is the beating heart of Summer, and indeed the quartet as a whole.

Activist networks and collaborative resistances are definitive for the meanings and substances of community explored in this sequence of novels, which undoubtedly register the limits of literature but also its vital contingency — a proximity to material struggle and the irrefutable demands of life. They strive to reckon with the ways in which lives are shaped and determined by invisible pressures through experiences of cognitive, affective, physical and structural violence. And yet they seek to celebrate the discrepancies between these abstract forces and the richness of lived experience: our failures, excesses, flights and dreams of freedom. The prologue to Summer’s final part recounts a brief biography of Lorenza Mazzetti that ends with these reflections:

Does a life end at the death?
    How do we define a life?
    How do we come to understand what time is,
what we’ll do with it, what it’ll do with us?
    Everybody’s lifeline is broken somewhere.

It is this pervasive feeling of the irreducibility of life — a reduction that Smith’s dispersive narrative form constantly resists — that differentiates Summer from the liberal humanism under which its reviewers try to subsume it. In Smith’s novels there is no such obfuscation of the constitutive differences presupposed and systematically reproduced by capitalist society and the ideologies of transcendental humanism; commonality is rather a matter of solidarity. These are the valences of community in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, which traces knowable relationships between people like stars in a constellation. And so Summer ends: Robert, Sacha and Charlotte ‘in a car park where Einstein himself perhaps maybe possibly once stood’, looking up at the stars ‘to point out which constellations they knew the names for and to guess at the ones they didn’t.’
Fintan Calpin is a writer based in South East London. He tweets at @fintancalpin.