21st century writing | 21st century approaches

“The great connective”: Contemporaneous Storytelling and Emergent Seriality in Ali Smith’s Seasonal.

Alex Calder

The first three parts of Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet, Autumn (2016), Winter (2017), and Spring (2019), respond to the contemporary moment through an innovative approach to serial fiction. In contrast to short-term political conservatism, identity politics, and social othering, Seasonal posits the connective value of storytelling and intersubjective relationships amongst societal upheaval. During her Goldsmith’s Prize lecture, Smith argues that the novel “allows the time’s articulation to be layered, complex, full of all our paradox and ambiguity as a human race, laced with the possibility of transformation” beyond prejudice. Smith’s serial is a significant literary experiment that responds to events in current British politics and deploys polyvocal narrative techniques to explicate the role of art in perceiving contemporary reality. While much of the extended intertextuality throughout the texts is beyond the scope of this article, here I focus upon how Autumn navigates the immediate post-Brexit referendum context and on the progression of the series into Winter and Spring. Responding to socio-political and environmental crises, the serial experimentation of Seasonal gestures beyond despair and engages with the contemporary situation in its attempt to realise compassionate perspectives.

Smith’s concept behind Seasonal is to devote a series of novels to the seasons themselves: “Four books, written close to their own publication (in the old Victorian mode, published practically as soon as written)” which function “as a sort of time-sensitive experiment” of “not just their own times, but the place where time and the novel meet”. Smith states in an interview that after Brexit she decided that Seasonal “has to meet the contemporary head-on or there’s no point to this sequence of books”. Through its fast publication and serialised format, Seasonal recalls Charles Dickens’s method of publishing instalments in magazines and not knowing how his twisting plots would end, made explicit from the first line of Autumn which alludes to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” (3). However, Seasonal differs from magazine serials in its publication of discrete novels, published as complete texts with seriality indicated through the thematic exploration of each season. Autumn works to produce a “step-back motion […] borrowed from Dickens”, according to Smith, which moves between immediate and retrospective narrative registers to “to allow readers the space we need to see what space we’re in”. Smith references this effect on the reader when Elisabeth encounters A Tale of Two Cities in the text, as reading the book “released it all, in seconds” for her by making “everything happening stand just far enough away” (202). Through intertextuality and metafiction, Autumn represents the conditions of the present while simultaneously reflecting on them from a distanced perspective through encounters with artworks.

The collage form of Seasonal is underpinned by intertextuality, in its inception and as a formula for each text. Both the epigraphs and plots of Seasonal’s texts allude to the late plays of Shakespeare, consecutively The Tempest, Cymbeline, and Pericles. The serial performs “the generosity in the workings of Dickens’s plots” which are “backed by the source of Shakespeare’s most powerful forms of magic and coincidence in his late plays […] that fuse category to defy category” as Smith discusses in her series of lectures Artful (169).  This confluence of Shakespeare and Dickens informs the project’s attempt to mediate contemporaneity and advocate art as a means of activating transformative perceptions. This is evident in references to visual artists within each text: the pop art of Pauline Boty in Autumn, Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures in Winter, and the contemporary practice of Tacita Dean in Spring. James Wood has questioned the mutability of Smith’s style as “inhabiting a world of postmodern Shakespearean comedy […] at the expense, perhaps, of mess, despair, and sheer human intractability”. However, Smith’s narrative techniques attempt performatively to mediate between the immediacy of contemporary crises and their aesthetic representation. Seasonal depicts the vulnerability and peculiarities of the lives of others through textual play and intertexts, deploying a self-conscious narrative style precisely to emphasise dialogue and compassion.

The fragmentary narrative of Autumn is a form of temporal experimentation in the face of upheaval and urgency. Published just a few months after the Brexit referendum, Autumn has its finger on the pulse on recent political developments. In an anaphoric chapter about reactions to Brexit, Smith represents how “All across the country, the country was divided” (61). Autumn incorporates the ignorance and bewilderment of those who “looked up Google: What is EU? […] Move to Scotland” and how “politicians vanished […] promises vanished […] money vanished” (59-60). The chapter presents a snapshot of the detachment and disenfranchisement of many across the UK, showing the amplification of “racist bile”, anxiety about national borders, divisions across countries, and incredulity at how seemingly “everything changed overnight” (60-61). Yet, Autumn is critical of the situation’s underlying austerity politics, where “the usual tiny percent of the people made their money out of the usual huge per cent of people” (61). Autumn focuses on the effects of politics on ordinary people amongst the noise of a divisive referendum. This is pertinent in a scene where Elisabeth and her mother encounter a fence across common land, leading her mother to articulate her exhaustion at “the news […] the way it makes things spectacular which aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly happening” (56).

The text functions as a counternarrative to the frantic speed of contemporary news by slowing down events and reflecting on the past and present. Throughout the text, Smith juxtaposes contemporary realities and the mediation of political events, particularly through a narrative strand about Pauline Boty’s connection to the Profumo affair in the 1960s: her “image of an image” of Christine Keeler allows these events to “be seen with new objectivity, with liberation from the original” (226, original emphases). Autumn reframes perceptions about now into a fictional narrative that allows for an artistic recontextualization of political developments. As Olivia Laing writes, Autumn suggests that “an accelerated news cycle requires accelerated art” in which “all the nightmarish news of [the] summer has filtered into a narrative Smith initially planned as a farce about an antique shop”. From“very small children” washed up on the beach recalling the image of Alan Kurdi (12), to the murder of Jo Cox (38), Autumn reproduces the shock of contemporary news cycles. However, Smith acknowledges how even scandals such as a far-right terrorist attack on an MP have become “old news now” (38) and stipulates close attention to the connections between events in contrast to outrage culture and disenfranchisement.

Mural of Alan Kurdi in Frankfurt, Germany; image by photoheuristic.info under CC BY 2.0.

Central to Autumn’s aesthetic is its premise of renewal through contemporaneous storytelling. Through its nonlinear narrative and allusive connections to the art of Boty, the Profumo sex scandal, and the Brexit vote, Autumn interweaves stories and voices to suggest how art can access the depth of subjective experiences beyond the surface of contemporary discourse. Harald Pittel writes that  Autumn’s shifts “between past and present as well as life and death” combine to present “an intersubjective sense of truth” beyond political partisanship (63). By positioning the contemporary moment in relation to history and the seasons, Smith attempts to recontextualise the present and focus on what really matters amongst the cacophonous divisions of British politics:

in the end what survives of us are the stories of people’s lives, how we live through the history we call the present, through the cycles of another year and another […] Always look to story for the real plot. Look to dialogue, always, for the life.

Seasonal illustrates the connective possibilities of storytelling as a challenge to ubiquitous disengagement from local and global issues such as ecological decline and refugee crises. It requires readers to take time to consider other perspectives and encourages a careful consideration of other histories and subjective experiences. Sara Upstone argues that Autumn’s metafictional form suggests “that all is fiction, and therefore open to the endless possibilities of hopeful revision: the guarantee that despite the bleakness of the present there will always be more story” (5.42-6.01). The publication of Seasonal is premised on this concept: as political events unfold and divisions mount, storytelling provides counternarratives that explore complex histories and engage meaningfully with the experiences of others.

Detail from Pauline Boty, “Colour her gone” (1962); image by scrappy annie under CC BY-NC 2.0.

From Winter through to Spring, each text functions as a standalone novel while the interconnections of the series become more perceptible. For example, Daniel Gluck, the old man who enchants Elisabeth as a child with the possibilities of critical perception in Autumn, appears in the other texts in Seasonal. From a conversation in Autumn, we learn that Daniel “sold his old Barbara Hepworth piece of holy stone” (214). In Winter, Sophia, a retired entrepreneur hardened into a conservative worldview in contrast to her sister’s activism, recalls an impulsive, romantic holiday with an older man in Paris who has “a piece of [Hepworth’s] sculpture at his house” (251). His name is revealed as “Danny” (269), and the scene accords with Daniel’s memory in Autumn that he had been “in the middle of Paris in the 1980s” with “Sophie something” (Autumn 9-10). Additionally, a character resembling Daniel with a passion for Charlie Chaplin appears in Spring as an inspiration for a film by the radical screenwriter Paddy (59). These relations between the texts, among other significant plot points, suggest a continuity between the collage narratives of Seasonal and offer nuanced portrayals of characters of opposing worldviews.

Beyond ephemeral details between stories, metafictional elements of Winter and Spring also form connections between the texts. In Winter, Art breaks up with his girlfriend Charlotte over the apolitical detachment of his nature blog (58-59), and then later chapters feature political content and the phrase “Art in Nature”, which is how he signs the end of his blog posts (186). A reading of these chapters in the structure of Winter – they occur at the end of each of the text’s three parts – suggests that Art’s nature blog posts recur in the other texts of Seasonal, which are also arranged into thirds. This sequence is evident in Winter during passages about political events in “January”, “April”, and “July” (89-91; 219-220; 321-322). In Autumn, we can apply the insight retrospectively to chapters with the same structure, providing a human context for these elliptical sections about nature itself (85; 177-178; 259-260). Spring follows the same pattern (113-115; 217-220; 335-336) but also includes more diverse content with reflections on etymology, art, and myths since “Art in Nature is now co-written by a communal group of writers” (Winter 318). The emergent seriality of Seasonal is enacted through links in relationships and personal histories, which position the experiences of the characters in Autumn, Winter, and Spring as contemporaneous.

David Hockney, “Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos” (2011); image by rocor under CC BY-NC 2.0.

In Spring, Smith continues illustrating “other ways of ordering relations between experiences” through what Adam Smyth describes as “an almost explosive vitality that stems from its restless relation to its own form”. Smith’s polyphonic narrative techniques and the collage aesthetic of Seasonal contain the possibility that its formal composition is a relational framework of the writings, memories, and thoughts of its own fictional characters. Spring also features another writer within the text, Florence, whose notebook further complicates and illuminates the layered structure of Seasonal. Florence, a precocious child who has a penchant for subversion, is part of Spring’s plot and intertextual revision of Pericles. Justine Jordan writes that “her inclusion in the novel is a beautiful piece of synchronicity” considering the social context of “schoolchildren currently leading climate change protests”. Within Spring, Florence echoes the rhetoric of Greta Thunberg: “Given that I am twelve years old, and there are just twelve years left to stop the world being ruined by climate change, I’d say there’s an urgency the age of me to do something to stop it” (233-234). Smith here references developments in social discourse through a disruptive stranger or child, a device that is typical of her other fiction. However, when Brittany finds Florence’s notebook “full of little written pieces in schoolgirl handwriting”, Smith appears to refer to the chapters that interrupt the main narrative of Spring (199). These passages can be read retrospectively as written by Florence, who suggests that “[e]ven a schoolgirl can see through a lot of what’s happening in the world right now” (199). These chapters include stories about the voice of the earth threatening humanity for destroying the climate (7-9), how data companies can manipulate users of social media (119-123), the facelessness of those racially othered (125-127). This discovery applies backwards to chapters in Autumn and Winter as it is possible that the polyvocal arrangement of the other texts includes sections from Florence’s notebook as well as from Art’s blog. For example, the “All across the country” passage in Autumn could have been written in Florence’s notebook in response to the Brexit referendum (59-61), much like Art’s nature writing about a particular month at the end of each part of Autumn. Beyond metafictional games, these connections suggest dialogue between the juxtaposed narratives that reverberate across Seasonal and represent a web of human relations across the texts. Following Emily Horton’s argument that Autumn “gesture[s] towards a new type of political novel”, the serial form of Seasonal uses “affect as a means towards rereading political realities, connecting these to alternative notions of connectivity and possibility” (323). Seasonal experiments with mutable storytelling to narrativise the contemporary moment, foregrounding the possibility of connection with others’ stories and the possible connections between stories through its serialised form.

Greta Thunberg addresses climate strikers in Denver, Colorado; image by Streetsblog Denver under CC BY 2.0.

While other research has focused on textual analysis of the individual novels in Seasonal, predominantly Autumn, this article has opened a discussion of the emerging seriality across Smith’s texts. While the final instalment Summer is still being written and the current form of Seasonal is anything but conclusive, patterns within Smith’s elliptical collage-like fiction are becoming apparent. References to intertexts and other artworks provide self-conscious insights into Smith’s methodology and require further sustained research to fully appreciate the intricacy of Seasonal’s design and ambition. From Autumn’s mediation of a divided nation through inventive prose to the shape of the series that emerges through the successive texts Winter and Spring, Smith attends to the depth of subjective experience and dialogue beyond and through difference. Not yet complete, the project of Seasonal realises a fluid form of storytelling for contemporary times premised upon the possibility of renewal.

Citation

Calder, Alex J. “‘The great connective’: Contemporaneous Storytelling and Emergent Seriality in Ali Smith’s Seasonal.” Alluvium, Vol. 7, No. 5 (2019): n. pag. Web. 19 Dec 2019, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.5.04

About the author

Alex J. Calder has recently graduated from an MSc Literature and Modernity programme at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include artful forms of contemporary literature, precariousness, feminism, and intertextuality in twenty-first-century fiction.

Works Cited

Begley, Adam, and Ali Smith. “The Art of Fiction No. 236.” The Paris Review, Issue 221, 2017: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6949/ali-smith-the-art-of-fiction-no-236-ali-smith.

Cobain, Ian, and Matthew Taylor. “Far-right terrorist Thomas Mair jailed for life for Jo Cox murder.” The Guardian, 23 November 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/23/thomas-mair-found-guilty-of-jo-cox-murder.

Horton, Emily. “Hope.” In The Routledge Companion to Twenty-First Century Literary Fiction, Ed. by Daniel O’Gorman and Robert Eaglestone, London: Routledge, 2018, pp. 321-331.

Jordon, Justine. “Spring by Ali Smith review – a beautiful piece of synchronicity.” The Guardian, 30 March 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/30/spring-by-ali-smith-review.

Laing, Olivia, and Ali Smith. “‘It’s a pivotal moment… a question of what happens culturally when something is built on a lie.’” The Guardian, 16 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/16/ali-smith-autumn-interview-how-can-we-live-ina-world-and-not-put-a-hand-across-a-divide-brexit-profu.

Pittel, Harald. “Fiction in Dark Times: The Brexit Novel and Ali Smith.” Hard Times, vol. 101, no. 1, 2018, pp. 58-67: https://hard-times-magazine.org/index.php/Hardtimes/article/view/11/10.

Smith, Ali. Artful. 2012. London: Penguin Books, 2013.
Autumn. 2016. London: Penguin Books, 2017.
— “Ali Smith’s Goldsmiths Prize lecture: The novel in the age of Trump.” New Statesman, 15 October 2017: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2017/10/ali-smith-s-goldsmiths-prize-lecture-novel-age-trump.
Winter. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2017.
Spring. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2019.
— “‘I thought it would be about the seasons’: Ali Smith on writing Autumn.” The Guardian, 21 September 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/sep/21/i-initially-thought-it-would-be-about-the-season-ali-smith-on-writing-autumn.

Smyth, Adam. “Reviews of Spring by Ali Smith, The Porpoise by Mark Haddon: Play for Today.” London Review of Books, vol. 41, no. 20, 2019, pp. 49-51: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n20/adam-smyth/play-for-today.

Upstone, Sara. “Metamodernist Brexit: Ali Smith’s Autumn.” AHRC Metamodernism Research Network, 2nd Symposium, Keele University, May 2018: https://ahrc-metamodernism.co.uk/papers-from-the-2nd-symposium/#more-125.

Wood, James. “Review: Winter by Ali Smith: The Power of the Literary Pun.” The New Yorker, 22 Jan 2018: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/29/the-power-of-the-literary-pun.

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