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…
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.
Good 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?
I 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?
I’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…
Ah, 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.
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.
So, 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.
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!