The First Rough Draft of History

Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels is being written as we live it.

Ali Smith sitting on a sofa.
Ali Smith.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Christian Sinibaldi.

In the days after 9/11, Americans’ understanding of their world was torn into bits and tossed into the air like one of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up experiments. The magazine I worked at back then hit on the bright idea of asking novelists with a reputation for reflecting on the whirlwind of contemporary life to write essays about what it all meant. We were not the only publication with that bright idea, I quickly found out: “You’re the fifth person to contact me about this,” one writer told me back then. “I don’t know what to say! I’m just as confused and terrified as everybody else.”

Once again, we can feel we’re living in perilous, tumultuous, and formative times. But we can’t see this part of history the way future generations will, from the (let’s hope) more comfortable perspective of hindsight. That view from a few steps back is the one novelists usually provide as well. One of the qualities we seek in novels is a version of our own experience shaped and ordered so that it makes better sense. But it usually takes novelists just as long as the rest of us to sort things out.

Not Ali Smith, though. We’re living in the midst of Smith’s brilliant, breathtakingly immediate sequence of four seasonal novels just as we live in the middle of the piece of history that is our present. Smith published the first, Autumn, in 2016, a few months after the Brexit vote, a political earthquake that sends shivers down to the bones of her characters. She wrote Autumn so that the story’s action would resolve that fall, about the time the book was published. Readers were meant to set down the novel with the realization that it ended at now. Winter, the next and most recent novel in the series, contains references to Donald Trump and the lethal Grenfell Tower fire in West London last summer. Smith is trying to see “how closely to contemporaneousness a finished book might be able to be in the world,” as she told one interviewer.

And yet neither Autumn nor Winter feels rushed or ripped from the headlines like the thinly veiled roman à clef of a Law and Order episode. Autumn was about the deep friendship between a young woman and an old man, a friendship formed when she was a child, and Winter recounts the Christmastime reunion of two estranged sisters instigated by the adult son of one of the women. Art’s mother, Sophia, is losing her marbles, although Art doesn’t know the half of that. Unlike her son, the novel’s reader has been made aware that Sophia believes herself to be haunted (visited? adopted?) by a disembodied child’s head that floats companionably around her house in rural Cornwall, England. This hallucination is the manifestation of the loneliness she doesn’t even realize she’s feeling, and it won’t be the last strange vision in Winter.

Sophia is winter—not just late in her life, but impatient and “unpleasantly sharp” with opticians and bank personnel. She’s also been numbed to the greater suffering she knows is going on out there in the world: “Blood-soaked men running to hospitals or away from burning hospitals carry blood-covered children. Dust-covered dead people by the sides of roads. Atrocities.” Winter begins with a bravura litany of all the things that are “dead,” which is essentially everything—God, chivalry, history, the welfare state, neoliberalism, hope, racism, TV, marriages, flowers, the earth itself. This list is the counterpart to the one at the beginning of Autumn, a catalog of the myriad ways Britons felt about the Brexit vote. In Autumn, this introduction was immediately recognizable as an accounting of a national mood, but Winter’s opener is at first a riddle. If there’s anything Ali Smith novels aren’t, it’s dead. Even her list of all the things that supposedly are dead crackles with energy, curiosity, and mischief. When Sophia enters the narrative, it becomes clear this moribund recitation describes the pall that has crept over her psyche.

Art isn’t much better off. He lives in London, works at home scanning the internet for copyright violators to bust, and writes a blog about nature full of bland, ponderous observations about such subjects as “unusual words for snow conditions.” The first-person passages in his blog are significantly fabricated because he spends most of his life staring at a screen. His much younger girlfriend, horrified by the state of the world and disgusted by his apathy (“Conspiracy theory is so last year, he said. And the year before that. And the year before that. Plus ça change”), has finally left him, smashing his laptop. He first appears in the novel sitting at a PC in the library, watching his ex post bizarre updates to his hijacked Twitter feed. Around him, “Not one other person in this room knows or cares about the things that are happening online in his name.” Yet as he watches her dismantle his internet identity, to him the damage seems utterly catastrophic. “So which is the real thing?” Art muses. “Is this library not the world? Is that the world, the one on the screen, and this, this sitting here bodily with all these other people round him, isn’t?”

Book jacket for Winter, by Ali Smith.

Like a rom-com hero, Art hires a young woman he meets at a bus stop to pose as his girlfriend, whom he had planned to bring home to meet Sophia for Christmas. The girl, Lux, is a type of character who turns up a lot in Smith’s fiction: an interloper, perhaps a trickster, of uncertain origins who will turn the other characters inside out. But unlike Amber, the title character of 2006’s The Accidental—a hostile insurrectionary who blows up the complacency of an upper-middle-class family—Lux is gentle, observant, practical. She takes one look at Sophia, who has barely eaten in days, and insists that Art call his aunt Iris, even though the two sisters haven’t spoken in years. They abrade each other the way sisters tend to do, especially because they’re so different: Sophia, a successful, conventional businesswoman, and Iris, a lifelong activist for peace and other leftish causes. It takes an outsider to bring them together, and in a pointed riposte to the xenophobia of many of her countrymen, Smith makes Lux an undocumented immigrant.

Winter is a time of dormancy, when the world seems dead, but it always comes back to life again. Human history sometimes feels like a nonstop train ride to the apocalypse, but it also has its cycles. Running through Winter is the story of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which from 1982–2000—including during the peak of Margaret Thatcher’s power—occupied the outskirts of an airfield in Berkshire where nuclear weapons were sited.
(Iris was part of the protests.) Even in the darkest periods, tendrils of life still strive toward the light. We can’t now see the form that the history of our time will take, and Smith herself can’t tell us what it all means, only that nothing lasts forever. And while this seasonal quartet has its angry and agonized passages—Winter includes many small but insistent notations of the way institutions of Britain’s public culture, from bus service to libraries, have been gradually privatized and downsized—its creator wants to remind us that the pendulum can swing back and that one day the sun will return.

Winter by Ali Smith. Pantheon.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.