Ali Smith Spins Modernity Into Myth in Winter

In the second novel in her seasonal quartet, the British writer crafts a fanciful concoction of Shakespeare, folklore, and contemporary news.

David Hockney's Winter Tunnel With Snow, March (David Hockney / Royal Academy)

Nothing is more cyclical in Ali Smith’s half-finished quartet of seasonal novels than history, condemned to repeat itself over and over. In both 2017’s Autumn and this year’s Winter, Arthurian legend foreshadows Shakespeare, which predicts the horrors of World War II, whose traumas portend the anti-immigrant sentiment that led to Brexit. Somehow, though, there’s comfort as well as despair in the patterns of humanity. Arthur, a character in Winter, at one point cites the story of Cymbeline, “the one about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” If darkness is a constant in history, so is renewal.

Smith is conducting a remarkable experiment: responding to current events in something like real time, and creating works of fiction that are also kaleidoscopic investigations of British art and identity. Autumn, the first work in the quartet, was a dazzling, modernist feat of a novel, set amid the turmoil in Britain following the 2016 vote to leave the European Union, but jumping back and forth in time to explore the platonic relationship between Daniel Gluck, an elderly aesthete, and Elisabeth Demand, an art-history lecturer. Winter is set later that year, after the election of Donald Trump, in a political climate that seems even more chaotic. “God was dead: to begin with,” is how Smith begins. Romance is also apparently dead, as are chivalry, poetry, jazz, realism, history, decency, and family values. This bleak introduction is soon revealed to be one of Smith’s authorial tricks: She isn’t lamenting the state of modern civilization so much as tabulating results that come up for different search terms on Google. (Type “God is” into your browser and see what comes up.)

It’s a whimsical beginning that sets the tone for the rest of Winter, which leaps from surrealism to myth to the mundane (an early scene features a visit to the ophthalmologist) in discombobulating fashion. Just a few pages in, the character Sophia Cleves wakes up on Christmas Eve and says good morning to a disembodied head, which has been hovering in her presence for the last four days. The head is gentle, nonverbal, but insistent, bobbing around in Sophia’s sightline and tapping on the window when she tries to shoo it out of the house. It is “the size of a real child’s head, a smudged, dusty child streaked with green,” and when it sleeps, “lacy green growth” settles around its mouth and nose. Sophia, a cantankerous old woman, isn’t afraid of the head; she treats it with infinitely more kindness than she does any of the attached heads in her sightline.

Is this A Christmas Carol? Has the head come to Sophia to shock her out of her miserly ways? (During her successful career as a businesswoman, Sophia made a significant amount of money importing and selling new goods designed to look old, “household stuff that looks like it has a history”—another of Winter’s subtle hints that everything that goes around comes around. ) Partly, but partly not. Smith draws on a vast number of cultural works in Winter: Dickens and Cymbeline, but also Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Elvis Presley’s G.I. Blues, the paintings of Cézanne, the legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and, most significantly, the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth. There are so many clues and allusions and unattributed inclusions that it’s tempting to spend days trying to decode them all. There are also significant ties to Autumn: Arthur, Sophia’s son, works for S4A4, the mysterious security company building 10-foot-high fences in the earlier novel, and in one fragment of memory, Sophia has a profound encounter with a man who—judging by the Hepworth sculpture in his living room and his tender, puckish demeanor—would seem to be Autumn’s Daniel.

The idea of an Ali Smith universe, like the shared world Marvel superheroes inhabit, is an enticing one. And it presents fascinating opportunities for Spring and Summer, which might further explore the ties between her characters. Winter is a triumph of imagination, riddled with wordplay, puns, and double entendres, but it lacks the emotional core of Autumn, whose redemptive elements of love and friendship seem to be in hibernation. Arthur, known as Art (“Art, in London, is on a worn-out communal pc in what was once the Reference bit of the library,” Smith winks by way of introduction), has broken up with his girlfriend, Charlotte, at the beginning of the novel because he finds her despair at the state of the world to be overwrought and attention-seeking. In the library, he encounters a young Croatian woman, Lux, whom he pays to accompany him to Christmas at his mother’s house rather than face Sophia alone.

Smith’s choice of names appears intentional: Arthur (art) and Lux (light) descend upon Sophia (wisdom) at her home in Cornwall. Finding her in a worryingly fragile mental state (Sophia doesn’t mention the floating head, but she’s dangerously underweight and largely nonverbal), they call Iris (meaning rainbow, a biblical symbol of hope), Sophia’s estranged sister, who rushes to help. Iris is a genial aging hippie, a dropout who spent years living in ethical-anarchic-alternative housing and campaigning for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s at Greenham Common, near where the British government was manufacturing cruise missiles. She and Sophia represent dueling extremes of boomer womanhood—campaigner versus capitalist, Remain voter versus Leave. “I bet you read that bullshit in the Daily Mail,” Iris tells her sister at one point, who has the grace to blush (she had).

What this all leads to is a Christmas dinner in the grand tradition of British soap operas, which is to say drunken, riven with disagreements, and excruciatingly uncomfortable. Art, at one point, hallucinates that a giant rock crashes through the ceiling, as mysterious, verdant, and intrusive as Sophia’s floating head, which has itself turned into a kind of stone. Are the mother and son conjuring Hepworth sculptures? Smith never tells. You could interpret Art’s rock as the extreme manifestation of the shadow hanging over the dinner table, conflict as old as the earth itself. Sophia’s bobbing head could be her maternal guilt embodied in ghostly form. Smith, meanwhile, fixates on the word head throughout the novel, considering why intolerant ideologies throughout history always go “for the head or the face,” vandalizing saints and decapitating Madonnas.

Winter is a spry, fascinating book, but not a wholly agreeable one. It’s almost too clever, too comfortable with the information it’s withholding. Sophia is crankily impenetrable, Art tends toward absurdity (his blog, Art in Nature, is written about moments in wildlife experienced via Google Maps), and Lux is a paragon, the impossibly erudite and unfailingly kind immigrant sent to remind the Cleveses of the true meaning of Christmas. “How is it okay,” she asks them, “okay in any way, to be wishing everybody peace, peace on earth, goodwill to all men, merry, happy, but just for today, or only for these few days a year?” Art replies that it “gestures to hope.” But hope is in fleeting attendance in Winter, which ends in an unusually dark mood, with President Trump addressing the Boy Scouts of America in July 2017, telling his audience they’ll be able to say “Merry Christmas” again. “In the middle of summer, it’s winter,” Smith writes. “White Christmas. God help us, every one.”

Even an off-tempo Ali Smith, though, writes leaps and bounds around anyone else. Her prose is too luminous, her humanity too irrepressible, to be clouded over. There’s hope, too, in the constant examinations of the fragility of peace and the persistence of nature (in one particularly dispiriting scene, as a Kings Cross station screen projects messages of anger and intolerance, a buddleia is growing in the roof above the old platforms, peeking through the decay). If winter is here, spring is around the corner. Even this particular moment of perpetual crisis, with its racism and ugliness, its women’s marches and barking MPs, is likely transient. That’s what winter is,” Art thinks outside the library, right before he runs into Lux. “An exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.”