Winter by Ali Smith: a pause in the disconnect

‘Ali Smith writes about memory and truth and belief and delusion and nature and protest and distance and disbelief and lies and the possibility at once for both hope and sadness.’ These are the notes I scrawled into my notebook in a coffee shop on Saturday morning. I was up early for a rubbish reason and had carried Winter around with me in my bag all week yet barely started it. I left later on having read it furiously to the end.

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Let me start by saying that I am a big Ali Smith fan. If you met me at any point during my final year of university, you probably saw the anguish on my face as I told you about how badly my dissertation was doing or fell asleep as I raved on about Hotel World and There but for the.

The first book I read of Smith’s was Girl meets boy, a short redo of Ovid’s myth, in which she explores gender as a fluid concept, the book flowing with imagery of water and picky with its language. The novel blew me away and I knew from the moment I read it that I wanted to write about it for my dissertation. In the end, I chose two of her longer novels and never wrote about gender but Girl meets boy still remains one of my favourite books ever.

Please remain patient as I try to explain why I love her writing so much because I struggle. Every time I start one of her works, I feel as though she’s written it for me.(Unfortunately she hasn’t.) But I adore Smith’s mastery of language, the way she goes off at a tangent to dissect a word or a phrase, the seemingly infinite vocabulary and the self-reflexive use of simpler or more complex words at certain times. Her works ground themselves in references to pop culture from the last 70 years, to literature from hundreds of years ago, and revel in the collections of epigraphs at the start of every novel because just one quote isn’t enough to sum up everything this work could be. This is, I think, the main reason I love her writing. It reveals the complexity of each life, the much-ness that is everyday existence, and she takes apart each moment, examining it on a micro level whilst placing it in the macro context of everything else. Smith allows me to see the beauty in the little-ness of life when sometimes it is easy to take these things for granted.

In her more recent writing she’s taken on neo-liberalism and challenged our meek acceptance of invasive technology into our lives. She’s advocated for public services, community spirit and appreciation of art and nature at a time when those things are regularly undermined, cut and devalued. Autumn, published last year and written in a few months in reaction to Brexit, was the first instalment of a four-part planned series, the Seasonal Quartet. To me, this work was disparate, and nostalgic and as more time passed since the day of the referendum and my anger, although not gone, has faded, it is easier for me to look back on that time and understand the collective shock that was reverberating through our country at the time. Smith captures that sense of loss and conflict pervading the country at the time as well as the sense that no one quite knew where we were going next. In Winter, some time has passed. The novel feels like a pause. Centred around the Christmas period, the tradition of family reunions around this time forces characters into addressing the disconnect they have shown towards others.

… it’s like the people in the play are living in the same world but separately from each other, like their worlds have somehow become disjointed or broken off each other’s worlds. But if they could just step out of themselves, or just hear and see what’s happening right next to their ears and eyes, they’d see it’s the same play they’re all in, the same world, that they’re all  part of the same story.  (201)

In true Smith fashion though, there is so much more going on in this text than I could ever include in one blog post. As in Autumn, time is played with, taking the reader back through the lives of the three family members via flashbacks. We piece the stories together but are still left with conflicting memories, each sister passionately advocating for their side of the truth. Of course, written in the post-truth era, the reader can’t help but relate to Art here, the piggy in the middle, the one who is trying to seek out facts but is bombarded with two sides telling a different story.

Art is seeking truth in nature through his blog posts but due to the emptiness of what he sees as political writing, his girlfriend has broken up with him. We become aware of Art’s ignorance of real issues, refusing to talk about politics and instead espousing about a childhood memory of puddles (which we find out never even happened). Social media enables Art to create a ‘reality’ that does not exist. Similarly he feels sadness about the gap between the idea of what Christmas should feel like and what his experience of Christmas is right now. Smith’s exploration of this among other widely held beliefs seems to beg the question ‘what is a real Christmas?’ Very few people in the UK actually experience the white Christmas, roaring fires and country walks we’ve been told is tradition, thanks to living in cities, global warming and central heating. In this case, Art’s perception of what should be or what he believes to be fails to match the reality.

Technology is something Smith tends to treat with some scepticism. Social media, although supposed to connect us all, can easily be used to distance bloggers from their readers (when Charlotte tweets incendiary nature-related tweets under Art’s name). But towards the end of the book, it is also used to connect Art with his mother and aunt, creating a group chat with both of them and asking them philosophical questions each day, encouraging debate and possibly antagonising them yet nonetheless forcing interaction where previously there had been none. This gives me hope that when technology like social media is used in the right way, it can be positive. It can keep us connected.

Smith’s deft handling of her characters mean that we sympathise with all of them. Just like in Autumn, Hotel World and There but for the, for example, the characters are complex. She refuses to allow either ‘side’ to be painted as perfect or flawless, instead presenting them as human beings capable of mistakes and of hurting each other, regardless of political alignment. What matters – at least, what I always take from Smith’s writing – is that we do not disconnect from each other. That we have a cosmopolitan obligation to others around the globe.

“You’ll never stop, will you? his mother is saying. But she is saying it fondly.) You’re going to chip chip chip away at the unchippable edifice all your life. Be truthful. Don’t you ever get fed up? You know it’s hopeless. Your life. A work of endless futility.

Oh I’m much less ambitious these days, Iris says, now that I’m so much older, wiser, stiffer of limb. These days, since we’re talking truth, I see those signs that say keep out, access forbidden, CCTV in operation, and I realize I’d be quite content just to be a bit of moss in the sun and the rain and the time passing, happy to be nothing but the moss that takes hold on the surfaces of those signs and greens over their words.” (Autumn, p. 298)

In my opinion, Smith is writing to wake us up, to force us to look around and see what’s going on, by reflecting the insular lives most of us live right now. It is too easy to switch off. The blurb describes this novel as ‘shapeshifting’ and I would agree; jumping from time to time, Smith holds our lives up to a light and refracted are pieces that she examines to understand where we are at. The tasks at hand seem insurmountable – the sheer amount of causes Iris and her fellow protesters fought for in their youth are enough without the further problems created today. Smith references systemic oppression, capitalist exploitation and the inhumane treatment of fellow human beings fleeing their war-torn countries for aid and being met with hostility, violence and death.

In one of the most powerful stories told throughout the book, Smith consistently returns to the story of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. This female-only protest lasted 19 years and began with 36 women chaining themselves to a fence at a RAF base camp in protest of nuclear weapons. Word spread, more joined and these women faced violence and threats for powerful institutions. But in the end they changed the course of history, just by “sit[ting] in the mud”. She prods the reader into acknowledging what they are ignoring and what they should be standing up for, just like those ordinary women who did so then and do so every day. Go out, do your bit, make your mark on the world like the flower pressed on to the page of Shakespeare’s folio and you can cause change.

The last part of the book is about Donald Trump. It had to be. Smith ends with Trump’s intention to reclaim ‘Merry Christmas’.

In the middle of summer it’s winter. White Christmas. God help us, every one. (322)

The world is upside down. The seasons don’t matter, order is gone. Blessings are meaningless. We need help and to help everyone else, no matter who they are. Keep going. Spring is coming. We’ll start again.

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