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‘Ali Smith is just the best’: A fire-side chat about Winter

In the heady days immediately before Christmas, Jan@whatIthinkwhenIthinkaboutreading (one of my favourite bloggers but whom I’ve never actually met) and I decided to do a joint review of Ali Smith’s most recent book Winter.  We read the first of her seasonal quartet, Autumn, at around the same time (see here for that review), both loved it and through instant messaging found ourselves having something akin to a fire-side chat about Winter.

As a result of the time it took to get the internet connected in my new house (think of light years), I’m only now able to post this.

As you’ll read, at the time we chatted I was knee-deep in moving house, starting a new job, living in a new town for half the week, with patchy internet. As a consequence my thoughts are sketchy and superficial. Meanwhile, Jan poured forth insight after insight about Winter.  She puts me to shame.

The fact that I was in Melbourne and Jan was in her native Manchester added an interesting layer to how we each appreciated Winter. We also chatted about A Christmas Carol, Christmas shopping strategies, Brexit (of course), summer storms, SI units and whether Smith is a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’. And we both come to a similar conclusion about whether Winter lives up to Autumn

 

Hicks

Good morning/good evening, Weezelle! I’ve just finished reading Ali Smith’s Winter. I was really pleased when you suggested that we do a joint review, and I’m looking forward to finding out what you thought of it, both as a book in its own right and as part of a sequence.

 

WeezelleGood evening to you! I’m slumped at my computer with a glass of quickly warming white wine, having been packing all day. I can hear the crickets outside and the fans in the other rooms whirring…

So, I took some time today to think about Winter; I finished it about a week ago. It’s funny reading it now, in the southern hemisphere where it is clearly *not* winter. But after I read Winter, I read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (which I highly recommend by the way) and I think Smith was partly influenced by that. There are a lot of similarities between Scrooge and Sophia – she too has been obsessed with money and has grown old alone, and now is comically bitter. I wondered though if you thought there was any redemption for her at the end, like there was Scrooge?

HicksI imagine that it is still strange, the whole December being summer thing where you are, when you’ve experienced December being winter in Glasgow. It’s interesting that you picked up on A Christmas Carol. I didn’t work that out until well into the book. I was busily thinking about how Sophia reminded me of Clarissa Dalloway, but a more engaging version of Mrs D, in the way she thinks about her past, present and future, mixing them together, letting them tumble over each other. It was while Sophia was lying in bed, hearing the church bells repeatedly strike midnight in the village and remembering scenes from her past that I realised that Smith was retelling A Christmas Carol. The repeated midnights never turn into Scrooge’s final midnight and his realisation that he’s lived his life all wrong, got his priorities wrong, though. Sophia is still Clarissa Dalloway, but experiencing Scrooge’s Christmas Eve haunting. I think she did get some sort of redemption towards the end.

There was a key moment for me, when Winter links back most strongly to Autumn, that made me fall in love with the book and feel more kindly towards Sophia. She’s still largely an idiot, but Sophia has to be Sophia and her sister Iris has to be Iris, as is the way with siblings. You’ve made me realise that Lux is Tiny Tim in this scenario, as well. Because my head can be quite sciency, I’d enjoyed how her name is the SI unit for how much light something produces, how much it illuminates, and Lux is the character who shines light on the idiocy of Art’s family and the idiocy of Brexit Britain.

You left the UK before just over half of the nation who could be bothered to vote chose to inflict disaster on the rest of us in June 2016. Brexit is all over this novel and Autumn. How do you feel Smith deals with the subject?

WeezelleI’m impressed you picked up the A Christmas Carol thing whilst reading the book. Took me a week after! Of course, the bells. What a stroke of genius.

I love your insight into Lux in terms of her scientific name – that can only have been intentional. She not only shines light on idiocy, but also warms up/ makes better the people around her – perhaps also sheds light on the better part of their personalities too.

In terms of Brexit, you’re right I wasn’t in the UK by that point, and at that exact moment I was on holiday in Queensland, which is surreal enough in itself, even without the time lag and the bizarre outcome. Was especially vexing because of the way Scotland (and other parts of the UK) voted, yet was voted down. But this book has Brexit running through so much of it (Autumn did too although it seems much stronger in Winter); the sisters Iris and Sopia are excellent counterpoints to this. I loved this aspect of the book, that it captured such contemporary issues (like the Grenfell Tower fire and Trump).

Did Smith say anything about Brexit or Trump or modern politics at her talk? I can’t imagine that she wouldn’t have touched on it…

HicksAh, A Christmas Carol was a fundamental part of my childhood. I had an illustrated children’s version of the book and there was either a film or a TV adaptation on telly every Christmas, so it’s as much a part of the season as the Nativity and Santa Claus in my mind. I can see that, if you haven’t read that particular Dickens before, it would be less obvious.

Now. Brace yourself, there’s an essay coming.

I’m a bit like (a lot like) Iris in the novel, in that I politicise pretty much everything! I agree that Brexit is a stronger theme in Winter than it is in Autumn. In Winter, Smith seemed to me more forthright about the anti-immigration reasons behind the Leave vote. She attempts to reveal the reality of life for economic migrants and asylum seekers who come to Britain thinking it’s a place of opportunity and safety and are then cast as a threat to the British way of life. As though “British” is something pure and not the result of millennia of cultures mixing. The way Smith captured the world inhabited by economic migrants who don’t get the experience they thought they would moved me. As much as Lux shone light on the better aspects of Art, Sophia and Iris’s natures, I thought Smith used her very well as a character who also sheds light on the less positive migrant experience. The hope for a better life, the badly paid jobs, the having to give up on further education, the sleeping in public spaces and the places they have found work, the way the British are surprised when someone who travels here and takes on the work we don’t want to do is intelligent and knows more about our precious culture than we do. The way sometimes an individual will touch the lives of those who bother to look beneath the crust of immigration that society has baked onto people, only for ‘their’ immigrant to disappear. The way the lives of the economically insecure are expendable.

Art and Lux are talking, at one point, about what happens to the old technology we use so unthinkingly, after we have upgraded and Art suggests they’re reconditioned and sent to other countries. You could say the same about the people who come to live and work in Britain for all their different reasons. We use them so unthinkingly in our economy and then think we can ship them off somewhere else when we don’t want them anymore.

When I went to see Ali Smith in conversation with her good friend Jackie Kay, I broke my rule of not going to see artists I admire so that they can’t disappoint me or influence the way I respond to their work. Neither woman disappointed me. They were as warm, witty and delightful as I thought they’d be. And of course both of them were political. Smith said something very interesting about the EU Referendum, something that I hadn’t appreciated. She talked about the Scottish Referendum, and how that had been the result of years of preparation, debate, looking at the pros and cons, with the Scottish people informing themselves and feeling as though they were equipped to make such an important choice. She compared it with how rushed the EU Referendum was. It was announced in February and we voted four months later, without any real debate or period of informing ourselves fully about the implications. She also spoke about how the 18 months following the result has been shambolic, because the decision to have a referendum was so ill thought out that no plans were made for what would happen if the result was leave.

They didn’t really talk about Trump beyond referring to the US election as part of the whole political weirdness we’re living through. There was more of a focus on feminism and protest, and particularly the women of Greenham Common. Smith talked about the need to find new ways to protest, that engage those who have no recollection of previous struggles and no understanding of what was won and is now at risk of being taken away again. I’m a socialist, so I always paint the Conservative Party as the party that does the most to curtail the rights of the people, because of everything Thatcher did to break the power that organised labour had gathered through unionisation. Smith reminded me that it was a Labour government that progressed the curtailing of rights by bringing in laws that regulate how people can gather to protest following the marches opposing the Iraq War.

What you say about the way Smith captures really contemporary issues in Winter led me to wonder about how she is writing this quartet. If I’d read Winter before I went to hear her speak, I would have asked her. I’d have asked if she has the story all plotted out as one big novel, but is releasing it in seasonal chunks, or whether she’s writing them in real time, to capture the mood of the nation and the actions of the state, to document as much as imagine. There are things about each of the books so far that suggest it’s both, that she has a frame laid out, a stretched and prepared canvas and she’s adding in the detail as it happens. I’d like to know whether she feels any pressure, knowing that she has set herself this task of documenting Britain in the aftermath of the EU Referendum Result, either pressure to write and publish quickly or pressure to meet the expectations of her readers.

Is there anything about the book that you’d ask her, given the opportunity? One of my favourite things about Smith’s novels is the way she inhabits her characters so well. I’m curious to know whether any of the characters particularly resonated with you, good or bad.

WeezelleOne of my favourite parts of the novel is the scene where Sophia come into see Iris, and Iris lays out a monologue about the refugees arriving in Greece:

‘We’re all having a fabulous time. Thousands of holiday makers arriving everyday from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, for city break holidays in Turkey and Greece. And the people from Yemen who’ve nothing to eat, they head for their holidays into Africa, where there’s loads to go round for everybody especially in countries where people are already starving, though more sub-Saharan holiday makers tend to head for Italy and Spain…’

And at the end of this speech, the two estranged sisters cuddle under the duvet together like they used to when they were kids, and then declare their hatred of each other!

There’s just so much going on here, but most importantly she has creatively retold the refugee experience in a way that speak powerfully and ironically, and brings it back to the influence of UK and how we could do something about it if we chose. How does she do that?

Along the same vein of anti-EU sentiment and economic migrant – my most favourite parts in the book is from Sophia to Lux where she magnanimously declares her liking for Lux:

I am from a more open minded generation and will accept you, since you are Arthur’s partner, as every bit as English as myself’. Thanks, Charlotte Bain said. But I’m not. English. You are to me, Sophia said (and put her hand in the air to stop further remonstration).

In terms of whether Smith has a grand narrative plotted out – I would love to ask her that too. But I feel (irrationally and with no foundation) and she is a ‘pantser’, and that each book is going to come along as its own piece. I’m supposing that she has an overall theme and vision for the quartet, but that Spring and Summer will materialise as she writes.

The more I chat about this book with you the more I’m loving it, and am realising that she is properly a genius. I’ll come to your question about characters that resonated later today…

HicksThat’s such a great scene, isn’t it? So tender and so true to how siblings interact. How the ways we’ve been close as children are still the ways we’re close as adults, when we allow ourselves to be. Iris was consistently my favourite character in the novel. Her willingness to see the humour in her most passionately held beliefs. Sophia I struggled with, even though I found her grandiosity hilarious, until Smith opened a door just enough (through another interaction between Sophia and Lux that demonstrates how much Sophia accepts her) for me to understand Sophia through a moment in her past that has had a rolling impact through her life. Hearing your appreciation for Sophia makes me warm to her more, as well.

I had to look ‘pantser’ up. It’s not a term I’ve come across before! I think you’re right. One of the things that struck me about seeing her, more than hearing her, at the Manchester Literature Festival event, was just how ferociously clever she is. She was responding in the moment, willing to see where things went, interested in where she and Jackie Kay would end up. She seems to me to be the kind of adult who has managed to hold onto her childlike curiosity and utilises it to reveal fundamental truths about us as a species.

I’m finding that our chat is giving me more food for thought about the book, too. If I’m honest, I was slightly disappointed by Winter. I loved Autumn. It had a profound effect on me. It unlocked a few things in me that I’d had squirrelled away for too long. I wanted Winter to do the same, but it’s a different book about different people who see the same things through a different prism, and I’d felt more remote from the characters. It’s still brilliant but, for me, Autumn felt true to the other works I’ve read by Smith, whereas Winter felt less complete, the characters less whole, her beautiful craft given less time to breathe. Now that we’re exploring the book together, my initial feelings towards it are changing.

HicksDon’t apologise! Moving house is a full time job on its own. I’m about to accompany th’usband into town so he can finish his Christmas shopping. Oh joy!

 

WeezelleIf I’m honest, I did find Winter slightly less brilliant than Autumn. I know it was rushed to the printer. So if it was intended to capture a moment in British history and to pass commentary on that moment, then I think it succeeded. And if it forms a quarter of a very strong quartet that works as a visionary whole, then she is a very smart woman. I think perhaps what she sacrificed in that ‘rush to the printer’ and ‘capturing the moment’ (to quote myself – and why not?) was more time and effort in the actual bigger narrative piece. I think Autumn kicked some serious narrative arse, as I really cared about the characters and loved that constant loop between the past and the present. There were shades of that in Winter, but it felt like she had given less love and attention to this in Winter. The end result was exactly what you said – I too felt more remote from the characters and absolutely, a feeling of ‘less time to breathe’ (to quote you – and why not?).

I don’t accompany anyone shopping, let alone go on my own. You are truly a heroic figure, and I do admire the dedication to your marital vows… Tally ho.

HicksI’m an Olympic standard Christmas shopper. He started back in November. I blitzed it on a Sunday afternoon. You’ve gotta have a plan! I’ll mull over your thoughts on why Winter worked less well for both of us than Autumn did as I follow him on his scatter gun trajectory. Perhaps I’ll have a mulled wine to help.

 

WeezelleI like your style. The mulled wine sounds like an exceptional way to travel.

 

 

HicksThat’s interesting. I didn’t know about Smith having to rush the novel to the printer. It explains a lot. Imagine being so on it as a writer that your rushed-to-the-printer novel is as good as many writers’ best work. I think, as well, based on the evidence of what she talked most about at the In Conversation, Winter is an angrier book.

Looking back, the vote to leave the EU was the beginning of a whole slew of awful occurrences. Initially, I thought it had merely allowed the bigotry and hate that has always bubbled beneath the surface in recent British history to break through into the daylight. But then Trump won the presidential election, followed by an increase in terrorist attacks across the world, and the horror of Grenfell Tower happened. Autumn is about those early days of the aftermath of Brexit and the weird feelings of not knowing what might happen next, wondering if anyone you knew voted the other way to you, vaguely worried about the long term consequences. Winter is about the rage that has come to the fore, and about how we interpret the world around us, how we describe it to ourselves to fit with our beliefs, how we don’t bother to find out whether facts support our hypotheses.

I also felt that Winter was a book about choices, about whether to protest or whether to accept the status quo and comply with what the state says is best for the country. It’s a book that draws together protest and increasing state control by governments who claim to be about the opposite of state control, and provides context for the way we can and can’t make our own effective choices in the present. It marries up with Autumn in that respect, but where Autumn was that first change from the dream of Britain being an inclusive place into the realisation that we’re a decaying, suspicious society, Winter is about how we survive that transition so that we can emerge again, renewed.

As someone who has lived in the UK but wasn’t born here, I’m interested to know more about how you view the way we’re dealing with the referendum result, as someone looking in. You’ve mentioned finding the result surreal, bizarre and vexing. Do you think Smith has been, or indeed could be, objective about it in Winter?

WeezelleYour last question is a really interesting one and I’ve been pondering it quite a lot. First, I need to fess up- since the vote was declared back in 2016, it’s been hard to keep up in the in and outs of Brexit. Partly this is because I ‘m now focussed on Australia’s own broken political landscape (like our postal survey on whether to introduce same sex marriage). But also it’s because the aftermath of the Brexit vote doesn’t seem to be reported in any great detail here. This is odd when I compare it to coverage of the Trump shenanigans. Although I’m even less interested in that, we get so much detail about all Trumps mistakes/ misdeeds/ hirings/ firings. This imbalance in world reporting is particularly odd when you remember that the majority of people in this country have some kind of family in the UK.

Anyway, what all that means is this: I think you took a much stronger view of the book being ABOUT Brexit, whereas I saw it as one PART of the book. For me, the book made a strong statement about women’s vital role in protest and social change, the lack of recognition of female artists (like it did in Autumn), about the dynamics of families and how the past is never buried, and also about the terrible time that economic migrants can have in western countries. (I think Lux’s story could have been told here in Australia, although she would be more likely to be a refugee given our appalling policies). I also took from it the nostalgia people have for the ‘good old days’ – Sophia made her money selling at a hugely inflated price ‘household stuff that looks like it has a history’. In amongst all that was of course a narrative thread about Brexit. So my reading of Winter could have course be all about *my* very personal reading, but I wonder if international reviewers would see it in the same way as British reviewers? I’m away to google that and I’ll be back…

So it doesn’t seem like there is all that many reviews! But here is one from the Financial Times which mentions Trump disproportionately I think: Winter by Ali Smith — season of discontent.

Which is all by the by in the end, because we each take what we need from the books we read. But it’s just interesting as the fact that I read this in Melbourne during a heat wave has to mean that I took something different from it than if I was in Glasgow during a particularly cold winter.

Reading a few of those reviews though, what does seem to be a common thread is that Winter doesn’t live up to Autumn. Reviewers are different in by how much it lacks comparatively, but it doesn’t seem like we’re alone that’s for sure. I would still strongly recommend it, and maybe it would work better if the books were read some distance apart.

 

WeezelleSo, it is approaching midnight and the removalists are coming in 8 hours. I feel like I haven’t been as diligent as I would have liked with this exchange. Not having power on Sunday night and not having the internet last night did put a bit of a dampner on things. But I also woefully underestimated my capacity to do this at this point in my life; so I apologise. I have really loved this conversation though and when things are back to normal (ish) I’d love to do this again.

Talking through the book with you has really made me appreciate it more, particularly in terms of the characters. I liked Sophia from her very first encounter with what I imagine is a hapless Specsavers assistant. I know she is horrible, but I admire her tenacity in being horrible. Until you pointed it out, I hadn’t realised that we hadn’t actually met Charlotte – she seemed so vivid and real. And I think this can be said of all the characters. I really did like all the characters as I thought Smith did an excellent job of making me feel like she intended to make me feel. So while Art was categorically a drip, I could empathise as he had Sophia as a mother. I felt that Smith painted her characters well, but also explained in various ways why they were as they were, which gave them a real humanity and therefore, for me, relatability.

Yeh, I don’t get the Cymbeline thing either. It didn’t make a huge impact on me because I’d not heard of it, let alone read it. So that allegory really was lost on me. I do very much like that Tweet, by the way.

So, m’dear, I need to head to bed. I truly admire the insight that you give to books – you’re such a well-read reader and you bring so much to each book. Thanks for chatting with me! Feel free to post this stuff anytime you like, by the way. I may not get to it til after Xmas at this rate.

Hicks I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, too. I have too many thoughts, I’ve realised! I will pare back on the next one we do. I hope that the move goes well and your new home is a happy one. Have a good old rest over Christmas!

 

 

 

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it's hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.

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