With Summer, the conclusion to the seasonal quartet of novels that began with Autumn in 2017, the Scottish author Ali Smith has completed her extraordinary goal of writing four novels in four years. Smith wrote each of the novels in the four months leading up to its publication date, with those publication dates aligning with the titular seasons. As an exercise in constrained writing, it’s an impressive feat. However, for Smith the challenge was always about more than discipline or technique.
Smith has said that, with this quartet, she wanted to return the novel to the concept of the new, of newsiness, of relevance and timeliness. (Notably, Charles Dickens’ work, which was serialised in the newspapers of its day, is among a number of intertexts recognised in Smith’s quartet.) Summer – in which we read about Australia’s Black Summer and even our apparently world-famous hoarding of toilet paper at the onset of the global Covid-19 lockdown – shows just how much Smith has achieved in this regard.
For it is novel and therefore striking, even startling, to see our contemporaneous world reflected in a work of fiction with such immediacy and intentionality. Australia may have already forgotten about its disastrous summer in an aftermath dominated by the coronavirus emergency, but Smith’s novel confronts us again with the intellectual and emotional reality of “half a billion dead creatures – meaning 500000000 individual living things dead … 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0”. Indeed, the novel insists we understand the full horror of that number when one of the protagonists, a 16-year-old girl named Sacha (who models herself on Greta Thunberg), “tries to imagine, and to respect, each dead creature individually. She lays out across a blasted plain the dead animals two by two by two by two by two million, further than any eye can see, kangaroo cinder with kangaroo cinder, wallaby ash with wallaby ash, charcoaled koala, charcoaled koala.”
Summer, like the previous novels in the quartet, also confronts readers with the individual suffering of asylum seekers, the disaster of Brexit, and the stupidity and flippant cruelty of political leaders such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. And, true to the form of the novel, it does so through the power of the personal and the specific: Sacha writes to a Vietnamese man in immigration detention; her parents are divided by their opposing Brexit votes; and she remembers Johnson describing carbon dioxide emissions as a “tea cosy” for the Earth.
The necessity of being confronted, of being startled or shocked back into attention, is thematised in the opening pages of Summer, which begins with one of the authorial reflections that distinguish this hybrid and self-reflexive quartet of novels. This particular reflection is on apathy:
Everybody said: so?
… when a government shut down its own parliament because it couldn’t get the result it wanted: so?
When so many people voted people into power who looked them straight in the eye and lied to them: so?
When a continent burned and another melted: so?
When people in power across the world started picking off groups of people by religion, ethnicity, sexuality, intellectual or political dissent: so?
Smith’s quartet explores the possibility that one way to cut through that indifference or inattention is art. All four novels find contemporary relevance in the work of writers such as Shakespeare, Mansfield, Kafka and Rilke. However, the novels also reveal a particular interest in reviving forgotten female artists. In fact, while the four books feature work by David Hockney on their front covers, the inside-cover artwork highlights – albeit with ambiguous results, given the hidden position – the work of these neglected women. Summer draws our attention to the Italian filmmaker, visual artist and writer Lorenza Mazzetti, whose extended family – the Einsteins – were killed by the Nazis during World War II. A quote attributed to Mazzetti provides one of the best lines of the novel: “while boredom was dozing reality was preparing the apocalypse”.
The allusion to Nazi Germany is not incidental. As Smith reflects at the beginning of Summer, history has “made it clear [what] happens when we’re indifferent”. To drive this lesson home, Summer – in one of its narrative threads – expands on the story of the 104-year-old Daniel Gluck, who was introduced in the first novel. Daniel is still dying in a nursing home – though he is notably removed by friends because of the threat of Covid-19 – and he is still fading in and out of the present, in and out of memory. Here he remembers how he and his Jewish father were detained as “enemy aliens” in an internment camp on the Isle of Man during World War II. He also remembers his sister, Hannah, who was left behind with their mother in Europe. Hannah’s story provides another narrative thread, and she is one of the novel’s many heroines.
Indeed, Summer presents readers with a discombobulating panoply of characters, new and old, so that readers coming to this fourth novel without the context of the previous three will find it difficult to keep track. This is exacerbated by Smith’s disinclination to provide the necessary cues for readers to visually imagine her characters and by her heavy reliance on dialogue. Readers coming to Summer fresh also won’t get to experience the sentimental appeal of the unlikely coincidences and happy connections that finally bring together all the main characters introduced throughout the quartet, especially because these resolutions are so very lightly drawn.
Perhaps the speed of writing shows in the sketchiness of some of the characterisations and conclusions, but Smith’s punchy and punning style is well suited to her urgent method of writing. There is no doubt that Smith has achieved something remarkable with this experiment. In Summer, Sacha says her “modern sense of being a hero is like shining a bright light on things that need to be seen”. If we accept that as a definition, then Smith might very well be the modern hero that the novel needs.
Hamish Hamilton, 400pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 29, 2020 as "Ali Smith, Summer".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.