18 September 2018

According to some, the novel is dead. But Ali Smith has other ideas. Winter, the second book in her seasonal quartet of contemporaneous novels, begins with a list of things that Google pronounces dead (art, music, radio, philosophy, and so forth) but Smith queries this, especially when it comes to fiction: “It makes me laugh out loud when people say that books are nothing to do with life, or that the notion of being a reader isn’t crucial to us as people – how else do we read the world? Fiction is useful because it reminds us how stories are told, it reminds us of the structures of fiction, and how to read them, to choose to go along with or not go along with that particular structure. Those things aren’t dead, and that information is just not true.”

Truth, and how we decide what is true, is central to Winter, as Smith’s cast of characters muse on who they are and what they stand for, and conversely, what they don’t stand for. In the midst of Brexit, and Trump, truth may seem to be something that is more up for debate than usual, but one of Smith’s literary influences was Cymbeline, a lesser known Shakespeare work: “It’s a play where people just tell lies about each other and the lies wreak havoc. Fake news and all the use of power and abuse of power, and the poisonings of what we know, all of this is ancient. It’s all in Greek tragedies and it’s all in Shakespeare.” 

Ali Smith

There wasn’t any getting away from the dark that we were coming into, and I suppose what the book was doing, was pointing that out.

While fake news may be an old chorus, we have new technology at our disposal to sing it, and Art, one of Winter’s protagonists, is the writer of a nature blog that proves to be less than authentic: “The internet is just a tool. It’s just technology, it’s just tools, we will always use them for the good or the bad. But we’ve been being asked, for a couple of decades now, to flatten ourselves out, to be more surface, to act on the surface of the screen as it were. The word tells us exactly what it is, it’s screening us from something. It’s the same for words like net and web, why call it that if we didn’t think we were going to get caught in it. The temptation to flatten out everything else, to have tweets as politics, to make very complex things into simplistic tags, to not think dimensionally because it’s all flat surfaces, that means that cartoon people can come to power.” Smith wrote Winter between May and August 2017, during which time the snap general election happened, when the Conservatives narrowly lost their majority: “The very notion that there was hope, that people wanted something else, and that they weren’t particularly sold on what Theresa May had decided we were sold on, and what her government thought they could get away with doing to us. But then watching in dismay in the hope that didn’t deliver; the money given to the DUP, all those sneaky tricks, those politically expedient rhetorical lies.”

In many ways, Winter feels an apt season to have coincided with this period of history: “It feels bleaker than it’s ever felt in my lifetime. But in winter we can see structures for what they are. There wasn’t any getting away from the dark that we were coming into, and I suppose what the book was doing, was pointing that out. But there’s still a light - we can change our minds, we can change things we’re doing. There is a possibility of change, even when we’re up against it and we’re hardwired not to.” And as always with Smith’s work, these ideas are played out in the broad and the specific, so while the novel is set against the backdrop of seismic societal change and breakage, her characters are grappling with smaller, personal evolutions of identity and truth: “I suppose that’s deep in the novel, what the catalyst for change is, and what living against it will do to us and what living with it will do to us. In the dark is where we work out what the light is, and in the winter is where we work out why we want spring, and in the lack of hope is where we make hope.”  

Ali Smith
Ali Smith

In the dark is where we work out what the light is, and in the winter is where we work out why we want spring, and in the lack of hope is where we make hope.

And so, spring must follow winter, with the next book in the quartet due to be published at the end of March: “I have to trust that whatever Spring is, it’s already forming itself. I’m hoping it will just do what the other two did, which is be there. So that’s what we can do. We can be there. It’s what the books ask, it’s what all books ask, all books ask us to be there, they ask us to be present. I love books which ask us to be present in the way that we are active in them as readers, that we find ourselves so involved with them that we make them as we read them. We can be here, rather than choose not to be. That’s what reading is.”

Smith committed to this series of contemporaneous books before the EU referendum had even been announced, and while she’s embracing the timing, she doesn’t see herself as an official or formal chronicler of history or politics: “My only responsibility is to the story, I’m just telling the story of a time. It’s about what has made the fabric of the time we share in the country at this particular time. It’s about listening properly to the story, which is the same as listening out in the world as we wander about in the world. The story takes us on its path, we don’t get to choose that. What we have to do is just make sure that the path is well enough made so that other people can walk it too.” Referencing Brecht, Smith says: “There will be singing in the dark times - what else are we going to do? We live through it, we knuckle down, and we sing the songs of whatever the dark times are.”

 

Winter by Ali Smith is out now.  

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