Costa Novel Award Winner Ali Smith arrives at the 2015 Costa Book Awards at Quaglino's, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday January 27, 2015. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Ali Smith's revelatory Summer captures a polarised Britain

Set during the coronavirus outbreak, the final novel of Smith's seasonal quartet is complete with references to Zoombombing, Black Lives Matter and Dominic Cummings’s blog
July 18, 2020

Ali Smith’s new novel is the final volume in a four-part series conceived after she missed her publisher’s deadline for delivery of 2014’s How to be Both. That book was turned out by Hamish Hamilton in six weeks, in spite of a manuscript delivered a year late, and an unusual split structure by which the story begins either in present-day Cambridge or Renaissance Italy, depending on which of the two different (and simultaneously published) versions you happen to read.

The publisher’s quick turnaround inspired Smith to finally embark on a project she had contemplated for 20 years: a quartet of novels, each themed after a season, designed to keep pace with the state of the nation in as close to real time as the publishing process allowed. Autumn, written during the Brexit referendum, appeared four months after the vote; now, four years later, comes Summer, set during the coronavirus outbreak, complete with references to Zoombombing, Black Lives Matter and Dominic Cummings’s blog.

Chatty, allusive, punning, leaping between time frames and trains of thought, synthesising a vast amount of material from the past as well as the present, the style of the quartet could easily be described as a product of the digital age, were it not for a sense that it’s the world that has caught up with Smith rather than the other way round. Her distinctive voice was forged early in a decorated literary career that began in 1995. For an experimental writer, her appeal is broad, as became clear when How to be Both won both the Women’s Prize and the Costa Book Award, seen as more populist literary awards, as well as the Goldsmiths Prize for fiction that pushes artistic boundaries.

Summer begins in February 2020, when coronavirus was still widely treated as an overseas news story, running through to deepest lockdown in May, via the Second World War. The large cast includes teenage siblings Sacha and Robert, whose riven family (their father lives with his girlfriend next door), is connected to Daniel Gluck, a part-German centenarian first seen in Autumn. As he’s looked after by his neighbour during the pandemic, Gluck’s thoughts drift back to his internment on the Isle of Man in 1940. There’s also an elderly protester, Iris, seen in Winter, making room in her large house in Cornwall for homeless asylum seekers who, in the wake of Covid-19, have been released from an immigration removal centre run by SA4A, the fictional jack-of-all-trades contractor to whom the government outsources its dirty work.

Smith switches between direct authorial address and the characters’ perspectives. She toggles between the various time frames, between interaction and introspection, which often takes the form of mini-essays on everything from the migrating patterns of swifts to Einstein’s spell in England on the run from the Nazis. She can also do dialogue-driven scenes: with a Donald Trump rally on television in the background, Sacha and her mother argue about plundering a hazily attributed quote from the internet for her school essay on forgiveness.

At the same time, it rarely feels like you’re reading a novel. Smith’s voice is conversational. “Here’s something I once saw,” she tells us. It’s brisk, direct. “That was last night. This is the next morning.” “I can’t remember where this next quote you’re about to read is from…I copied it into a notebook some years ago and now I can’t find its source.” Smith tells us what “everybody said” and then in the next line says, “Okay, not everybody said it. I’m speaking colloquially.”

A repeated pun attempts to recuperate the word “so” as an open-minded conjunction rather than a jaded shrug (“so?”) at statements of the world’s ills. But it’s easy to wonder if what we’re reading is little more than Smith’s compositional process transmitted directly to the page. Her method of incorporating material by having characters look things up online can leave these novels reading like the result of a free association session after reading the morning’s headlines. We can be browbeaten into finding her dizzying associative leaps meaningful: when Sacha hears the panel on the gameshow The Masked Singer shout “take it off!” she thinks of how she once saw a “gang of men shouting it at a girl down near the pier.”

But at the same time, Smith’s methods can feel revelatory: there’s a vertiginous, century-spanning moment when Daniel hears a sound that reminds him of horses’ hooves on the roads as he was growing up, only to be told it’s the sound of wheelie suitcases dragged by people going to a neighbour’s Airbnb rental property.

The quartet’s theme, ultimately, is generosity. “Why would we do these things for people only when there is a virus and not all the time?” Sacha asks, considering Britain’s policy of sheltering rough sleepers under coronavirus. There’s a moral dimension to the simplicity of Smith’s language, which can be childlike, or as if addressed to a child. When she writes of a time “when London was one of the many places having to rebuild themselves in those years nearly a lifetime ago, after the tens of millions of people of all ages across the world had died before their time,” you sense it’s because she’s wary of the numbing shorthand of the phrase “World War II.” In a similar fashion we hear of an asylum seeker “beaten up by government thugs in the country he ran away from because he wrote a blog about something governmental he disagreed with”—as if to spell out the detail would only serve to distract from the essential injustice.

Smith doesn’t go in for conventional scene-setting; if she wants to tell us something, she just tells us. Rather than concoct a plot to illustrate the impact of the pandemic, she has Sacha write about “an old lady from across the road who went into a home last year, I don’t want to key in the word died, but she did, she died. So did 12 other people in the home she was in, over one weekend, and a careworker, and the healthworker who saw the careworker, who had symptoms. And one of the teachers from the primary school down the road from here. And an NHS nurse my mother knew. It is so sad.”

Sacha gets a text from her part-Chinese classmate Mel reporting how her dad punched someone who told her mum not to breathe near her children in Waitrose. There’s mention of a Romanian care worker preparing to leave Britain after Brexit, and a Michelin-starred French chef doing the same. Smith hasn’t hid her politics, criticising in an interview “the Tory inability to mend any of the social divisions that have become so visible.” Sacha’s Muslim friend Ayat is harassed after Boris Johnson’s newspaper article likening veiled women to letterboxes. There’s also mention of an English teacher using the word Bildungsroman being hit by a brick from a parent angry that he’s not using “the Queen’s English,” which seemed to me less plausible.

*** Ali Smith CBE was the youngest of five siblings, raised in Inverness by parents who in their youth had been awarded scholarships they weren’t able to take up under family pressure to earn. As a beneficiary of the 1962 Education Act, she has opposed tuition fees. She has spoken of how her family didn’t own books but borrowed them. (Later she published a collection, Public library and other stories, that argued against library closures under austerity.) As a teenager she would watch European films at her local cinema. The Brexit vote nudged her instinctive suspicion of Scottish nationalism into cautious support in recognition that Scotland did not vote for Brexit.

Smith started to write fiction after a career begun in academia ended when she fell ill with chronic fatigue syndrome. A generously teacherly spirit animates her novels. At the centre of each book in the seasonal quartet is the work of an artist. Here it is the experimental Italian filmmaker Lorenza Mazzetti, who died at the age of 91 in January (“She’s the filmmaker whose images I described earlier…”). Mazzetti was brought up in Tuscany by an aunt who was married to a cousin of Einstein; in 1944 the occupying Nazis killed her aunt and her children but spared Lorenza, whose surname wasn’t Jewish. Later she came to London, where (as Smith entertainingly relates) she turned up at the Slade School of Art demanding to be accepted; she was.

You suspect that part of what interests Smith in Mazzetti is that, in the light of Brexit, her story is a symbol of British openness to incomers as well as support for cultural endeavour (Mazzetti received state funding via the British Film Institute). We read elsewhere about a German artist who during the pandemic checks his bank account “and found €9,000. €9,000! Where did it come from? From the German government to all that country’s artists and arts workers no strings attached.”

The purpose of art is much debated in these novels. At one point in Summer, one character, low during lockdown, is told she should be writing about “a too-late response from a distracted and useless government who never thought for a minute they’d end up governing anything” and “how the people who’ve never been properly valued are all holding this country together.” The speech is punctuated by an “uh huh,” a brief flicker of weary scepticism that the novel elsewhere doesn’t really permit.

Smith is particularly careful not to satirise Sacha, who sends a series of letters about lockdown life to a detained asylum seeker from Vietnam whose name translates as Hero (he’s a virologist who warned of coronavirus). Sacha tells him that “you along with all the key workers in the NHS and the people working so hard keeping things going… are my heroes, along with the people fighting to protect climate, and every single person protesting what happened to George Floyd.”

Summer is prepared for the charge of virtue signalling. “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.”

The novel’s most interesting expression of Britain’s polarised politics perhaps comes in the character of Sacha’s 13-year-old brother, a Brexit supporter (in contrast to Sacha) who finds himself suspended from school after repeating things Johnson and Dominic Cummings have said. He resembles the baby in Smith’s short story “The Child,” in which a woman shopping in Waitrose is suddenly landed with a small child, who starts spewing forth sexist bigotry.

As a metaphor to explain the Brexit vote, this only goes so far, but Smith’s sequence has always seen the referendum and its fallout as the result of a disingenuous manipulation from a power-hungry elite. At one point in Summer someone describes seeing the subtitle of a news broadcast, the slogan “Get Brexit Done” rendered as GET BACK SIT DOWN.

Smith has said that “wishful thinking is all we’ve got,” observing that she was raised in an atmosphere of protest and regeneration. This quartet has something of the air of a rainbow tacked up in a window. Where that leaves us isn’t clear, but perhaps this is yet another sense in which this singular writer has found her moment.