Ali Smith’s Autumn, the first installment of a four-volume “seasonal quartet” that now continues with Winter, was hailed on its release as “the first great Brexit novel.”1 As any reader of the book knows, there are good reasons to connect Autumn to the UK’s continuing adventures in political self-harm: “It is just over a week since the vote,” begins an early chapter. A few sentences later we read the xenophobic graffito daubed on a rural cottage: “GO HOME.”
It’s funny, given the strong association between Brexit and Autumn, that Smith’s plans for her quartet predated the 2016 referendum by around 20 years.2 Serious work on the series began about four years ago and Smith only made the Brexit vote central to the quartet right at the end of the writing process, when she was already hard up against her publisher’s deadline for Autumn.
Smith could manage making late additions and revisions, she says, for two reasons. First, “what [she’d] been writing was already about divisions and borders and identities and, yes, slightly more historic parliamentary lies.” The other reason was that working on How to Be Both (2014)—a two-part novel in which half the editions were bound with the stories in one sequence, half in the other—taught her something about how publishers could, when they wanted to, “turn a book around quite speedily compared to the usual time it takes.” It is this, as much as Smith’s desire to comment on Brexit itself, that underpins what she calls the “contemporaneousness” of Autumn’s arrival in the world.
As Emily Hyde explained in Public Books last year, Autumn is a novel about the seasons, about how humans carry multiple times within them, and about what it’s like to feel “nostalgia of NOW”3—which is to say, to at once inhabit the present and sense that being there means learning to live with the fact of always existing in other times, too.4 But Autumn also takes a grip on the present for the practical reason that the temporal gap between writing and publication can now be significantly compressed. This is due to technical developments, of course, in the digital design of covers and page layouts and so on; but it’s also an effect of the consolidation of the book industry into a small group of multinational media conglomerates able to squeeze every ounce of productivity (and profit) from the editorial, design, production, marketing, and distribution processes.
I say this not to accuse Ali Smith of guilt by association with capitalism. We’re all of us guilty of that. I say it because one of the differences between Autumn and Winter is the way the new book enriches and extends the political critique that, in the first volume, sometimes felt spasmodic and inessential, like a late gloss on a mostly finished painting. Autumn is a book about friendship that only sometimes remembers to be about an unfriendly time. Winter is animated from the start by deep anger and anxiety about the same world of digitally enhanced private enterprise that underpins the seasonal quartet’s remarkable contemporaneousness.
In Winter, Brexit is linked to “forty years of political selfishness,” from the depredations of the Thatcher governments in the 1980s to a 21st-century scene in which social media sometimes feels like all we have left of the commons. The irony is that Winter is at once a worse novel than Autumn and a more satisfying state-of-the-nation polemic. That polemic is least successful, however, when addressed toward the multinational media ecology in which the seasonal quartet circulates and whose infrastructural innovations underpin its claim on the present.
At the nub of all this is a young Englishman called Art, a most unlikable and unlikely character. When we meet him, early in the novel, Art has been dumped by his long-term girlfriend, Charlotte, who’s finally had it with his general fecklessness. He makes a living as a kind of freelance intellectual property cop for SA4A, the diversified conglomerate that, in Autumn, had enclosed common land in order to build something like (it’s never totally clear) an immigration detention center. Art’s heart isn’t in his work. But that’s not because he’s upset about the propriety of reporting people for internet piracy. No, it’s because his true passion is the nature blog he’s writing, or mostly planning to write: the rather painfully titled “Art in Nature.”
All of this makes Art sound like an obvious stand-in for the double face of the online world: a man who pretends to oneness with nature but lives a mostly mediated life, unbothered by feelings of social solidarity. And so he is—obvious, I mean. But this isn’t what really makes Art such a terrible character, in both senses of that phrase. For Art doesn’t actually go into nature. In a metaphor for mediated inauthenticity so heavy-handed that it’s barely a metaphor at all, Art dopily reveals that his lyric mediations on the natural aren’t derived from “personal memory” but rather from “a good general sort of invented shareable memory for the people who’ll read the blog.”
Art’s vapidly symbolic dumbness persists until the novel’s final pages, when Smith eventually allows him to be less of a buffoon, such that the “Art” in nature might ascend to something like artfulness, beyond mere artifice. But before that very late half-redemption, Art suffers repeated indignities. He loses control of his Twitter account to his vengeful ex, is never short of a credulous opinion, and remains ignorant of family secrets that strangers manage to discern almost right away. Worst of all is the plot device Smith deploys to get Art; his mother, Sophia; and his aunt, Iris, all in the same place.
Winter is set in the run-up to Christmas. Having been abandoned by Charlotte, Art is faced with the embarrassment of explaining to Sophia why he has come home for the holiday without his partner. It’s not clear why this is such a mortifying prospect—Art doesn’t have much of a relationship with Sophia and, anyway, he and Charlotte were together for ages without her absence from the family scene posing any particular problem. Anyway, the point is that Art’s solution to this ordinary social dilemma isn’t simply to dissemble or to fess up—it’s to hire a fake girlfriend off the street. If he can’t bring the real Charlotte to Christmas, he’ll pay a thousand pounds to a woman he meets at a bus stop, whose only initial qualifications seem to be that she’s attractive and can sit very still while reading a fast food restaurant menu.
The individual elements of the Art plotline and character aren’t wholly bad by themselves, even if none of them is particularly original. Taken together, though, they reduce Art to the status of a repeat turn in a multi-camera sitcom—“Oh, Artie, not again!”5 The improbably comic qualities of Art’s story make him an unsuitable vehicle for Winter’s assault on the colonization of everyday life by the online world. As I write, news is breaking about Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of personal data derived from Facebook and its possible effects on the Brexit vote, as well as the 2016 US Presidential election. What ought to be among the most pointedly satiric parts of Winter come instead to feel like dull farce.
More interesting than Art, I’m glad to say, is Lux, the stand-in girlfriend. Lux is a Croatian immigrant and student of English literature, made homeless and jobless by the Brexit vote because, as she puts it, “nobody knows if I’ll still be able to be here this time next year or when they’ll decide we have to go.” Impishly refusing to play Art’s game, Lux almost immediately reveals herself to Sophia, effecting a reunion of sorts between Art and Sophia, as well as between the conservative Sophia and the lefty Iris.
The irony is that “Winter” is at once a worse novel than “Autumn” and a more satisfying state-of-the-nation polemic.
Lux is the kind of character we’ve seen before in Smith’s oeuvre: a quasi-magical person from nowhere, like Amber in The Accidental (2005), who walks into a family situation and, through ingenuous care and artful seduction, leaves things transformed. The closest Autumn had to such a character was Daniel Gluck, the centenarian Jewish refugee whose friendship shapes the life of his co-protagonist, Elisabeth Demand. Daniel is a lovely character, not least because he possesses an elfin sexuality rarely granted to old people in novels. Smith infuses Lux with some of the same sympathetic magic that animates Daniel—and, like him, she epitomizes the seasonal quartet’s humane embrace of the European.
But with a difference. Daniel’s long life in England bewilders the Brexiteers’ crude distinctions between home and away, but he spends most of Autumn in bed and beloved, while his brief moment of financial peril is settled by Elisabeth before he even awakes. In Winter, by contrast, Lux is young, fully conscious, and so alone in the world that she’ll go away with an idiotic man she’s just met in return for a thousand pounds and a temporary place to stay. Brexit simply means more to Lux, in practical terms, than it ever could to Daniel, no matter how deeply he dreams “the world’s sadness.” In Autumn, unlike Winter, the victims of English nationalism largely stand off to one side. We never meet, for instance, the people in the vandalized cottage. We just learn they’ve pluckily replied to the graffito: “WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU.”
Lux’s centrality to Winter makes the raw dangers of Brexit more palpable. Speaking to Art, she says that to live in England now “takes hard work … Real graft and subtlety. It’s a full-on education being from somewhere else in your country right now.” But for all Lux’s brilliance (she knows more about both street life and Shakespeare than anyone else), by the end of Winter she has vanished completely. This is, Art thinks, a miraculous act in this “age of everything tracked and known.” Oh, Artie! It’s probably more important to Lux that disappearing so well begins with her being fired from her job, then kicked out of her local library for the crime of trying to sleep there, out of the cold.
Winter’s broader political themes involve the “historic parliamentary lies” that lie behind, and loop around, the calumnies of the present. The novel begins with Sophia and her present disappointments. Immediately after, though, a chapter set in the summer of 1981 describes how two young women—we’ll later learn that one of them was probably Aunt Iris—pool their meager cash to buy padlocks and chains. We don’t know what they’re up to at first, just that it’s summer, they’re happy, and they’re “walking the miles towards the others.”
Soon, however, we realize that the pair are among the members of Women for Life on Earth, the vanguard group of protestors at Greenham Common, the famously long-lasting women’s protest against the presence of US nuclear weapons on British soil. Iris and her friend are going to chain themselves to the fence on the common land outside the Royal Air Force base: “We in Europe,” a protestor declares in a prepared statement, “will not accept the sacrificial role offered us by our North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.”
The women’s actions don’t stand alone in Winter. As an event in Iris’s life, and therefore in Art’s and Sophia’s, the Greenham protest connects, at the level of plot and memory, to liberal compromises with the state’s struggle against political radicals, as well as the possibility of living by different social and sexual norms, outside the circuit of the patriarchal family unit. As a protest that drew on ancient English traditions of common ownership, the Greenham anti-nuclear struggle links back, within the novel sequence, to Autumn’s lament against ongoing acts of land enclosure, often under the aegis of the security state; and it leans forward, within historical time itself, to Winter’s denunciation of the contemporary privatization of British civic spaces such as Lux’s library. Finally, as an experiment in acting selflessly—in sacrificing one’s present comfort and security in the name of Europe and the Earth—the Greenham protest reminds us that, however much Brexit may stain the character of contemporary Britain, recent history still provides us with utopian counter-narratives from which we can draw strength, even as we grieve their eclipse.
Will Ali Smith’s quartet end up associating itself with the summer of Greenham redux or the winter of Brexit regnant? At the end of this uneven second installment, it’s not yet the season to say.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames
- See, e.g., Jon Day, “Brexlit: The New Landscape of British Fiction,” Financial Times, July 28, 2017, and Sarah Lyall, “From Ali Smith, It’s the First Great Brexit Novel,” New York Times, February 17, 2017). ↩
- For this chronology, and the other assertions and quotations in this paragraph and the next, see “Ali Smith on Autumn, Brexit, and the Shortness of Life,” interview with Eric Karl Anderson, Penguin.co.uk, October 2016. ↩
- Or, as Smith’s source Pauline Boty had it, “nostalgia for NOW.” ↩
- “We do not just live or exist together ‘in time’ with our contemporaries,” writes the philosopher Peter Osborne in one of the best recent meditations on this problem in contemporary aesthetics, “but rather the present is increasingly characterized by a coming together of different but equally ‘present’ temporalities or ‘times,’ a … a disjunctive unity of present times.” See Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (Verso, 2013), p. 17; italics in original. ↩
- It’s maybe worth pointing out that there’s nothing in Autumn as forced as the fake girlfriend gambit—in the first novel, natural coincidences predominate and the one fortuitous plotline (Elisabeth’s mother, Wendy, falls in love with a TV personality she admired as a child) feels more likely and, in any case, concerns a relatively minor character. ↩