Ali Smith—Scottish, 55, fearless—has already made a reputation as one of most ambitious, offbeat, and mesmerizing novelists of our time. Now she’s pushing it a step further with an unusual “seasonal” quartet. The first two volumes, Autumn and Winter, are already out, and you better hurry up and read them because you want to be ready when Spring arrives. And it won’t be long.
The novels are being rushed out, but Smith has her reasons. She wants to put her mark on current events. Most writers of contemporary fiction struggle with an age-old dilemma: Is it better to be timely or timeless? Smith is one of the few with the talent to be both.
Autumn was published in 2017, barely eleven months after the Brexit vote, and it serves partially as a novel of protest over what Smith clearly believes was a misguided decision by Britain to leave the European Union. The novel is set in a small village a week after the vote, and half of the local people won’t talk to the other half because of it. Brexit also is an issue in Winter (there’s a marvelous bit in which Boris Johnson is compared to Samuel Johnson and found wanting), but the American election and immigration policy also play big roles, with Smith going so far as to quote some of Trump’s more controversial bits.
This is not to imply these novels are mostly political protests. Yes, they capture the conflicts and struggles of the day but in a way that shows their roots in historical precedents. Smith does that, in part, with discerning references to literature, particularly the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Huxley, cleverly finding much in their time-tested novels that still applies today.
Autumn is first and foremost a novel about the friendship between Elizabeth Demand and her neighbor Daniel Gluck (And yes, every name in both books is fraught with meaning). They met when she was eight and he was seventy-six, and now, at 101, he is on his deathbed and Elisabeth has come home to sit by his bedside. Theirs is a charming, deep, friendship, filled with meaningful conversations about art, culture, imagination, and literature—the kind of friendship we can all envy. Smith artfully uses flashbacks to trace its roots. Consider their first meeting:
“‘Very pleased to meet you,’ Daniel says. ‘Finally.’
‘How do you mean, finally?’ Elisabeth asks. ‘We only moved here six weeks ago.’
‘The lifelong friends,’ Daniel says. ‘We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.’”
Daniel doesn’t appear in the opening chapter. That’s devoted to Elisabeth’s day-long effort to renew her passport, an all-too-real, hilarious episode that ends in failure because Elisabeth’s face is the wrong size. While she waits hours to be rejected, she reads Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a title taken from Shakespeare’s Tempest.
When she arrives at his bedside, Daniel greets her with the same greeting he’s used since he’s known her—“What are you reading?” Later she reads him Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a novel Smith borrows from when she describes her country’s views of the Brexit vote: “All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the county, people felt it was the right thing. All across the county, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.” (Daniel, half asleep, twists the opening line of Dickens to “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”
Shakespeare and Dickens also play prominent roles in Winter, which alternately feels like a rewrite of A Christmas Carol and Cymbeline. The plot opens with Sophie Cravens, a Scrooge-like character if there ever was one, chatting to a disembodied child’s head that dances around her like the light of Christmas past. Sophie is expecting her son Arthur and his former girlfriend Charlotte for Christmas dinner, but when they arrive (Art has actually hired a homeless immigrant named Lux to pretend she is Charlotte), Sophie can offer neither a bed (though her house has 15 bedrooms) nor food (only a bag of walnuts and a half a jar of glace cherries).
Art calls Sophie’s estranged sister Iris (aptly nicknamed “Ire”), and she soon arrives with bags of groceries to fill the fridge and rekindle her age-old battles with her sibling. It’s not long before we’re treated to the kind of dysfunctional Christmas dinner befitting a dysfunctional family (though the conversation at this one is far more engaging than at yours or mine). Lux proceeds to play the role of the uninvited guest who speaks the truth when others prefer to remain silent. (Think Paulina in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale or Amber in Smith’s earlier novel, The Accidental.)
Winter is not as powerful a novel as Autumn. There’s something more rushed about it that leaves it lacking focus, with a few too many preachy speeches and maybe a little more politics than necessary to make the point. Writing in the The Chicago Tribune, Charles Finch describes it as Smith’s angriest work. I haven’t read enough of her work to judge that, but it clearly has a sharper edge than Autumn.
Winter draws a lot from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, which Sophia notes is “about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning.” (James Wood writing in The New Yorker calls Winter a postmodern Shakespearean comedy.)
And Lux captures the essence of that when she explains to her hosts why she emigrated to England from her native Croatia:
“‘I read [Cymbeline] and I thought, if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is at the end, where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, then that’s the place I’m going, I’ll go there, I’ll live there.’”
It’s a comforting hope, but the way things are going, I fear it will just get Lux deported.