Summer’s True Fictions

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side by side series of the cover of Ali Smith's Summer

In Summer, the last installment of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, the world is revealed to be the function and result of interdependence. Everything is relational and therefore relative. Nothing exists on its own terms, or, if it does, the terms are always temporal and framed by the intersection of multiple pasts—ecological, historical, and personal—and multiple selves. “Nothing’s not connected,” states Iris, a character the reader meets in Winter, and who returns, improbably, in Summer, the same and not the same, changed in the interval. In the warm season, she is a minor character in someone else’s story, appearing much as the mythological figure of Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, does—briefly, as her summer intersects with others’ summers—to demonstrate one of the larger points of the quartet: the world is itself the invention or, perhaps, intervention of our provisional selves experiencing, just as provisionally, the passing of the seasons.

“Time is nothing,” says one character’s father. Another character, Robert Greenlaw, a young boy who is at once himself and the Robert of others’ imaginations (and exists, in one extreme case, both as Hannah, the long-deceased sister of Daniel, one of Autumn’s main characters, and as that sister’s great-grandson) expresses this point slightly differently, echoing Einstein: “It’s about how reality isn’t what we see or what it seems, and you can prove it . . . and how we make stuff up all the time about reality, by lining up different coloured stones in a geometric shape and counting them. Then you add some more stones, yeah? But when you count them again it’s like you didn’t add anything because the number seems to add up to the same as it was before.” Similarly, another character insists that all of us, and artists especially, see “things as they are and as they aren’t.”

In Ali Smith’s Summer, the present, like the past, both exists and does not exist, adds up to the same thing, and proves inexorably different, altered as it is by memory, dreams, inner life, and communal and interpersonal relations. Look at the present from an objective perspective and you note the passing of a season; look at it from another perspective, and the present is what you make it (and what we make of the seasons), taking on the status of a true fiction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as Smith demonstrates, our true fictions usually involve our involvements with other selves, who in turn make fictions of their pasts and presents, and who arrive and disappear, the same and not the same. For Smith, “if we follow Einstein’s thinking and add together you plus me plus time plus space . . . . It makes you and I more than just you or I . . . . It makes us us.” It is the subjective “us,” that most basic of true fictions that we use to explain our existence in the present, and, more generally, in time, that interests Smith.

Hannah, who speaks these lines, is long dead, and one might say that the 104-year-old Daniel merely imagines that he is conversing with his sister as he speaks with Robert. In the book’s shifting present tenses, however, the past comes alive and occurs alongside the present so that such an “us” continues to be possible. We are asked to believe the true fiction that Daniel is indeed his past twenty-or-so self speaking to Hannah while his present self is having the same conversation with Robert nearly a century later. Or, stated in slightly different terms, the novel, patterned in part on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, asks the reader to believe in the “magic” of what, in the play, the allegorical figure of Time calls his “swift passage” and ability to “slide / O’er […] years.” (In fact, one of Smith’s little jokes involves swifts, the migratory birds whose return to the British Isles traditionally heralds the beginning of summer.) As in the colored stones anecdote, the two conversations of the two Daniels add up to a single event and a single Daniel, but are they one conversation or the same conversation? Can the subjective time of “us” outlast the differences that time imposes on us?

Smith asks the question over and over again. Her time-bending narrative both revels in and mocks Aristotle’s notion of the necessary dramatic unity of time and place. In Summer, time and place are unified, but they are unified by virtue of becoming subjective fictions. Despite describing contemporary realities like Brexit, the refugee crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the present time of the novel—and of the quartet—turns out to uncannily resemble its pasts (both pre- and post-war). Art, one of Winter’s main characters, acts in accordance to his name when Smith has him note, in Summer, that “times do pass. They do. But we have to choose to live through our times as mindfully as we can.” Indeed, the books are not interested in a zeitgeist; rather, the novels focus on “living,” or on how provisional selves can give time meaning and coherence in their strange, subjective-objective experience of it. As Smith’s characters discover, living has always been much the same.

The novels themselves make this point, existing in relation to other works of fiction; most obviously, they underscore Smith’s ongoing conversation with the works of Charles Dickens (they rewrite the plots of works like David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol) and with Shakespeare’s tragicomedies. It is this latter connection that seems deepest, and one may choose to read the entire quartet as a reimagining of Shakespeare’s late plays in the contemporary form and style of our anxious, media-saturated age: Autumn reimagines The Tempest, Winter reframes Cymbeline, Spring reinvents Pericles, and, as previously noted, Summer revisits The Winter’s Tale. The novels, however, are neither rewritings of the plays nor merely allusive. The questions Shakespeare’s tragicomedies ask are just as central to Smith’s project as summer—the season—is to the winter’s tale; audaciously, however, Smith also seems to be claiming that our reading of Shakespeare is enriched by our reading of her works, or, perhaps—and even more audaciously—that if we take her descriptions of time seriously, her novels anticipate the plays as much as the plays anticipate the novels. As Grace, one of the book’s Hermione figures puts it, “the Winter’s Tale’s all about summer, really. It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible. When you’re stuck in the world at its worst that’s important.” In lines such as this, literary tradition comes to seem both reversible and doubled—the same conversation and not the same conversation, the same colored stones and not the same—another way in which human beings can construct an “us.” As Hannah puts it, “time and space are what lace us all up together . . . .What makes us part of the larger picture. Universally speaking. The problem is, we tend to think we’re separate. But it’s a delusion.”

Part of Smith’s larger argument is that art is in fact impossible without an acknowledgement of this “us” and of the true fictions that turn the provisional and objective into the meaningful and subjective. In a text message she sends to Art, Charlotte recounts her experience of the COVID-19 lockdown and describes remembering how “in very early days of photography anything that was moving used to disappear because camera exposure took so long, like horses or traffic or people walking along. They became evanescent and vanished altogether or turned into a ghostly blur.” She recounts how

then i found some lockdown pictures of that street we stayed in in paris in montmartre do you remember. . . . Anyway i gasped out loud when I saw the street because the street has been being used as a location for a film set in the 1940s and when the lockdown came in they stopped filming there and just left it all done up like occupied paris all the fronts of the buildings with brown facades. . . . So then i looked up the film that’s been stopped by the lockdown. It’s called adieu m. hoffmann . . . . Stage play first, acclaimed in france and when i looked it up too voila this coincidence. The stage play was written by a man called jean-philippe daguerre. So. I began to wonder if the contemp playwright daguerre is maybe related to louis daguerre inventor of daguerreotype the man who took some of the earliest photographic images ever in many of which that vanishing effect happened.

In passages like this, Smith delights in demonstrating how the provisional, the coincidental, the historical flow of time can, in the course of conversation (and art)—and for Smith, all art is a form of engagement with an other—become both meaningful and truthful as the narrative (“has been being”) we tell ourselves and each other about our lives.

Of course, one need not make Art-with-a-capital-A in order to make meaning or to give a subjective shape to “time’s swift passage.” In one of the book’s most moving scenes, the thirteen-year-old Robert explains the nature of black holes to the thirty-some Charlotte, who has taken him to see Roughton Heath, on which, for a brief summer in the 1930s, Einstein once lived in a hut, in exile, on the run from the Nazis.

[H]e wanted to understand the architecture of light, Robert said . . . . And if you and me, I mean I, were standing on the edge of a black hole . . . . [S]ay you happened to be standing closer to its edge than me . . . And then we both came back down to earth, Robert said. Then I would’ve got older faster than you would’ve, because I was standing further away from it, and by the time we got back to earth we might’ve been able to catch up on an age difference.

Of course, as Smith gently points out through Charlotte’s polite skepticism, that is not how time works, at least not in our daily experience of it. Robert will never catch up to Charlotte. And yet, “they decided to walk as far round the outside of the building as they could to maximize the possibility of walking where Einstein possibly once walked.” The walk is an acknowledgment of the importance of the very provisionality that, despite their different backgrounds and their age difference, has brought them to a dark heath at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a place where in the middle of the last century someone who had a “brilliant mind” and “a face like a lamb” stood looking up at the same stars. It is their way of making meaning out of improbability. And even if Robert insists that “I didn’t say it . . . Einstein did,” Charlotte responds that, “you said it for now . . . Knockout punch.”

For Smith, it matters—“knockout punch”—just as much that Robert has reformulated Einstein’s idea for himself, as it does that Einstein once thought it up. The novel is not endorsing plagiarism (in fact, in the opening section, Sacha, Robert’s sister, and their mother, Grace, have a heated debate on correct citation and whether it matters that Hannah Arendt once said or did not say something which the internet simply attributes to “Brainyquote”). Rather, it is making an argument for the importance of understanding how we shape our very personal experience of reality. As Summer demonstrates over and over, it is crucial that we appropriate new/old ideas for ourselves, that such ideas be always new and old again, even if one has not thought them up, or if what we do with them is not Art-with-a-capital-A. If “‘what all the peoples of the world’”—living in all eras, as she demonstrates—“‘really have in common is so many similar ways of doing humiliating and painful things to each other,’” then it is just as important that each individual make sense of their own lives and understand the universality of this impulse and of our forms of meaning-making. If it “matters” that Grace discovers the “source” of the line from Dickens which she quotes over and over again —“whether or not I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else”—it also matters that she has turned the word “hero” into the word “heroine,” and that she has made the line her own by doing so. Smith sets this kind of meaning-making in opposition not only to plagiarism but to the various ways in which language can be used to give our lives a false sense of coherence.

She places the kind of “spiritual property” the characters in her novels possess—in all senses of the word but most importantly in the sense of memory—in opposition to the various ways in which individuals seek meaning outside their own scope of creation and rely on others to provide it for them. Most humorously, she offers readers multiple versions of Paulina—the character who in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale tells the king, Leontes, that it is “required” he “awaken” his faith” and believe in the transformation of the statute of his supposedly deceased wife, Hermione, into the living, breathing woman. Among these versions of Paulina is a character named Mercy Bucks, a televangelist and founder of the “Church of the Spirit,” whose videos on YouTube all “have the word white in them” and who asks her audience if they are “more dead than alive? are you a ghost of yourself, a wraith? then listen because God sayeth through me, it is required, it is required . . . . awake your faith.” In opposition to such injunctions, she offers us various figures whose belief—in the possibility of redemption, in helping the stranger, in saving the planet, in caring for one another, in making art—allows them to make sense of their existence, creating an opportunity for the truly miraculous. As individuals refashion their temporal, provisional lives into true fictions, for example by acting in a play, “it’s also supposed to be possible that a wonder of wonders is happening and a statue that’s been carved to look like me in later life comes to life.” For a moment, in thoughts such as this, the character Grace truly becomes Hermione, the character she is portraying. The transformation is both true and fictive; in short, a miracle.

Smith’s seasonal quartet rejects the ideas that such true fictions can be found online, or on television, or on social media; that they require wealth, or fame, or even artistry; that they are the domain of writers rather than schoolchildren, housewives, misfits, or “undesirable aliens.” This is why Smith also rejects the idea that she can tell us what summer or any of the other seasons might mean. The last book of her quartet offers many ways of thinking about this warmest of seasons, but none take precedence over the other. “Summer’s like walking down a road just like this one, heading towards both light and dark.” It is also “what the lintel in a building gets called” and “the light gold, dark gold of the fields spreading back away from the sea, and the green of everything, green, dark green, the trees ahead down the road throwing long English shadows.” It is the “immortal summer” of youth, and the endearment (“summer brother”) one might call a sibling whom one sees rarely. It is “the kind of warmth that once when she was really small [Sacha]’d asked her mother about because it felt so nice and her mother’d said that’s your inner summer.” Most poignantly, it is an opportunity to make sense of time, or, as the young Daniel, interred in a camp for German passport-holders on the Isle of Man, puts it in a letter that his sister, Hannah, will never read, it is one of time’s doors that open into our true fictions of the past and present: “‘We have been here,’ he stresses, ‘behind the wire, all through the bright open door of the summer.’” The vista that stretches beyond depends on how one interprets the pun.