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January 23, 2018

Winter, by Ali Smith

I walked through a blizzard to buy Winter a week and a half ago, the new release by Ali Smith that I’ve been looking forward to since rereading Autumn in the autumn. A novel that helped me so much through the political turbulence that was 2017, contemporary events as rendered by literature so that they were just enough at a distance–it was clarifying, and gave me hope. And so it was strange to pick up Winter, the second book in Smith’s seasons sequence, and see that everything wasn’t okay after all. That one book is not going to cure us of what ails us, and the trouble continues through winter, a season during which nature settles down to sleep:

“God was dead: to begin with. / And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead. Modernism, postmodernism, realism, and surrealism were all dead…”

The novel opens the day before Christmas, with Sophia Cleves who is haunted by a disembodied head. Interestingly, this being an Ali Smith book where surrealism is so often present, it doesn’t occur to me until later when we see Sophia through the eyes of other characters, that there is anything unusual about a woman being haunted by a disembodied head. Autumn had the weirdness of people turning into trees, and the head spectre is the strangeness of Winter, and usually these are points that would make me want to give up, but so much else makes me go on. Autumn opens with the absurdity of a character’s engagement with a bureaucrat at the passport office, and Winter does a similar trick with Sophia Cleves’ visit to the bank before they close at noon on Christmas Eve—the insanity and banality of these kind of engagements with the state and/or corporation, the robotic interaction between a human being and a person who’s just doing their job—presumably a human being as well.

Sophia Cleves is not the centre of Winter (the dead of?), which is instead her son Arthur, Art. Who writes a blog called Art in Nature, about stepping in puddles and bird sightings. Art who I was all prepared to sympathize with, all set for him to be my hero—and then we realize that as a hero he’s terribly flawed. His furious girlfriend berating him for his lack of engagement with the world around him, for believing he’s doing his part through his blog posts (which are totally made up; Art never leaves the city), and not seeing what’s going on around them. He tells her, “We’re all right… Stop worrying. We’ve enough money, we’ve both got good assured jobs. We’re okay.”

“Forty years of political selfishness…” she continues. Political divides, the rise of fascism, plastic bags, etc. And he dismisses her, all of it. It’s the way it always been, he tells here. These things are cyclic. Whatever, whatever. We’ll be all right. It’s all fine.

I am Art. This revelation occurred to me around page 58. This, and the fact that I’m a climate change denier, which is a revelation I had on Friday when I got in an argument with my dad about why we see robins around in the winter. “It’s totally normal,” I say, because I read it somewhere once. “Climate change,” says my dad. “It’s getting warmer, it’s scary.” And I become a bit hysterical. I don’t want to be scared. I know climate change is real, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do about it in my tiny little life, and so to preserve my sanity I cling to signs that everything is normal. For example, about how when I bought this book, I walked through a snowstorm. A blizzard. In the winter. Things are fine.

The story takes place over Christmas at Sophia’s, when Art comes to stay with his girlfriend, who is not his girlfriend (who has just broken up with him due to his political selfishness) but instead a random woman he meets on the street, an immigrant from Croatia via Toronto with a penchant for Shakespeare who is struggling to get by. When they arrive, it becomes clear that Sophia is not okay, and so they call her estranged sister Iris to come and help, Iris the old hippie, who’d protested against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common, Iris who is the living embodiment of another way to face the world, a way that’s different from Sophia and Arthur’s denial—of seeing, of engaging, and doing her part to change the world. Insisting that, via Greenham Common, she really did.

But it’s not as simple as that, of one way being the good way to live, and the other being bad. There is a moment when Iris and Sophia say to each other, “I hate you.” “I hate you.” And then embrace, and lay down together in bed, and there it is, what has to happen. It isn’t easy. It isn’t neat. But somehow these characters, “see its the same play they’re all in, the same world, that they’re all part of the same story.”

That last line a reference to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (which I’ve never read or seen!), the play that makes Arthur’s not-girlfriend come to England, in fact. “A play about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning”…. “I read it and I thought, if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is in the end where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, then that’s the place where I’m going.”

Art is how we get there, is Smith’s thesis in this novel. Through Shakespeare, yes, but also by seeing what happens when we put real things in fiction—things like Brexit, and the Grenfell Tower fire. What happens to books when we put the world in it is a question that’s addressed in the most wonderful way, Arthur’s not-girlfriend (whose name is Lux) telling the story of an old copy of Shakespeare kept in a library with the imprint of what was once a flower pressed between the pages. “The mark left of the page by what was once the bud of a rose.” She’d called it, “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen… it was a real thing, a thing from the real world.”

Which was exactly what had made Autumn so powerful to me, and otherworldly too in the ways in which it did engage with the world. It was why reading it again in October was such a big deal, to be present in the novel’s moment. It was why it was especially meaningful to keep reading and discover that the Shakespeare play Lux refers to is housed at the Fisher Library here in Toronto, right at the end of my street. Uncanny, isn’t it? The line between life and fiction blurred in the most fascinating fashion.

My favourite thing about Winter was everything, but I especially loved its connections to Autumn, which are lovely, subtle, and so unbelievably perfect. Except I read somewhere that Spring’s not out until 2020, and how am I supposed to wait that long?

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