“Oh wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” One of the intrigues of Ali Smith’s proposed quartet of novels, of which this is the second, is how the narrative arc will reflect the emotions we impose upon the seasons, given that at the same time she is cresting across the contemporary in a manner few novelists can manage. Spring – let alone summer – implies something getting better, warmer and kinder. It is hard at present to see what that might be. Certainly, Winter opens with a capriccio of melancholy. “God was dead: to begin with. And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead. Modernism, postmodernism, realism and surrealism were all dead.” What is not dead is allegory.
The plot involves a nature writer, Arthur, whose ex-ish-girlfriend has taken over his social media accounts to bemoan the fact that he is more concerned with “collecting unusual words for snow conditions. Blenkish. Sposh. Penitentes”, than engaging with politics. As Christmas is approaching, he invites a complete stranger to impersonate his girlfriend as they visit his mother. His mother is called Sophie – derived from the Greek word for knowledge – and Arthur is often abbreviated to Art. His aunt, Iris, is brought to the sprawling house and she and her estranged sister, Sophie, have a decidedly frosty relationship, in keeping with the season.
Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow, and the rainbow in Judeo-Christian thought is the sign that God promises never to destroy the world (by flood) again. Iris has been a protester all her life, most conspicuously at Greenham Common, while her sister is a successful but unfulfilled entrepreneur, who has more than a shade of the Havishams about her. Although the young woman attending with Art initially accepts taking the role of “Charlotte”, she eventually reveals her name: Lux. Culture, Light, Wisdom, Hope all stuck in a ramshackle place trying to celebrate Christmas and thoroughly loathing each other.
In some ways this is classic Smithery. We have an outsider in a claustrophobic situation – just as in The Accidental. There is her signature wordplay: often words are broken like conker-shells to reveal double-meanings – ahead becomes a head, “I’m nobody’s child” becomes “I’m no body’s child”. Art is a son with two potential mothers and two fictional fathers, one of whom is literally a cardboard cut-out of himself and a few clips on YouTube, the other a secret not to be revealed.
Smith has always made the family dynamic problematic; here she explores it as a kind of awful static, in both senses of that word. It is, in a way, always Christmas and never winter, to mangle CS Lewis. The description of the dinner that day is one of the most ghastly things I have read this year.
This series of books have always been cuspy, if I can coin that word. The fact that Grenfell Tower, the Syrian refugee crisis, Libya and beyond, and, of course, the Groper-in-Chief, Trump, are mentioned is not coincidental. But the genuine politics is the deep politics here. It is encapsulated when Lux recites the plot of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline – “A play about a divided kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poison and self-poisoning”. It is very Smithesque to note that the poison is directed both internally and externally. “And you can’t see for the life of you how it will resolve in the end, because it’s such a tangled-up messed-up farce of a mess” quips Lux.
Smith has several epigraphs, but the one that came to me throughout was: “But man at war with man hears not / The love song that they sing.” There are no resolutions here, no bows on the package as it were. It ends as sadly as it begins, with a glimmer of hope, but no consolation.
The first pair of this quartet has also been about reclaimed history. This time round it is Barbara Hepworth – not an artist needing to be restored to the canon, or so one might hope. But Smith’s intense look at her work is splendid: fierce, ambiguous and unsettling. It does not seem shoehorned in. Winter may be more raggedy than Autumn but its throwaway glories more than compensate.
Winter is a novel in which the cold also reveals clarity. Things crystallise. They become piercing and numbing at the same time. It is a book about being wintry in the sense of supercilious and hibernal, in its sense of wanting to shut the world out. The characters have to deal with both impulses, and deal with them in different ways. But the end result is a book that makes one think, and thinky books are rare as hen’s teeth these days.
In some ways, Smith resembles Iris Murdoch more than any other novelist, in both her glee and her insight. How will Spring compare? Given the state of the world, any uprising whatsoever might be a change for the better.
*Winter, by Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, £16.99