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Ben Masters on Ali Smith

With Summer bringing Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet to a close, Ben Masters takes the long view to assess the novel’s contribution to Smith’s entire oeuvre:

All great stylists are idiosyncratic, and Smith is one of our greatest. Few writers today can make a more compelling claim to singularity of innovation and sustained brilliance. Antically digressive, linguistically dexterous, tonally playful, learned but unpretentious, everyday but lacking condescension, and fundamentally romantic, Smith somehow pulls off the feat of tracing the unique quiddity of her characters while always sounding like herself. Her writing is both fluid and possessed. But all true stylists run the risk of self-pastiche. It is just a matter of time. And time is what Smith’s Seasonal novels — AutumnWinterSpring and now Summer — are all about.

Following, to my mind, her two finest works (How To Be Both and Artful), the Seasonal quartet marked a watershed in Smith’s career; it has also presented various perils. First there has been the immediate challenge of writing to the moment, dealing with the events of today in real time. These novels are set against an expanding backdrop of current affairs (Brexit, Donald Trump, fake news, environmental disaster, refugee crises, Covid-19) and in doing so they exude an awkward self-consciousness. The main question Smith has faced is how to turn the immediate real world into art while staving off the threat of obsolescence. More intimately, such a project, with its method of rapid response, risks at the very least emphasizing (at worst exhausting) the aesthetic possibilities, or limitations, of a writer as distinctive as Smith.