Postcards From a Moving Image

Anna MacDonald reviews Ali Smith’s Summer

Ali Smith, Summer.
Hamish Hamilton, £16.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

In Ali Smith’s Spring, Paddy tells her friend and fellow filmmaker Richard to take his daughter to see a show. Go to the theatre, says Paddy. Take a holiday, see a film, look at some art. Do it together. Richard’s marriage dissolved years ago and since then he has lost sight of his daughter so completely that it is as if a hole has opened up inside him, leaving an eleven-year-old-shaped space where she had once been. Richard is, therefore, perplexed: “But how?” he asks. “Use your imagination,” is Paddy’s Smithian response. “Believe me your child will be imagining you too wherever she is in the world. So meet each other imaginatively. … And tell her to send me a postcard whenever you do go to see things or places. Just so I know you’ve taken me seriously.” Richard does take Paddy seriously; he knows her worth. So he also takes his imaginary daughter, quite seriously, to see Hockney and Leonardo, to visit Rome and the Millennium Dome, to see all the Shakespeares (I imagine more than once). And from each outing, Paddy receives a postcard.

Paddy dies in 2018, leaving another grief-filled hole within and all around Richard, this one Paddy-shaped. Paddy was, no, Paddy is expansive. I can say Paddy is even though some people might claim that, being imagined, Paddy never was. “That’s one of the ways art deals with our mortality,” writes Smith of the permanent present of art and artists in her ‘True Short Story’ (2008). That’s also one of the ways Paddy and Smith and Richard’s imaginary daughter deal with our imaginations. They have the chutzpah to see that our imaginings are: “My darling, you’re imaginary,” Richard says to his imaginary daughter from his own permanent present (give or take a few lapses into memory, the first third of Spring happens in the fifty minutes from 11:09 to 11:59 on a Tuesday morning in October 2018):

Yeah, I know, she says.

You don’t exist, he says.

And yet here I am, she says.

Go away, he says.

How can I? she says. I’m you.

Shortly before Paddy dies, Richard’s imaginary daughter sends her a postcard from Tacita Dean’s ‘Landscape’ exhibition at the Royal Academy. The picture on the card is one of Dean’s clouds: Dear Paddy, it goes, A message from the clouds. Having a lovely time. Wish you were here. However, there’s another postcard from this excursion, one written but unsent. It’s a picture of one of Dean’s mountains, on the reverse of which Richard has circled the dimensions of the image (366 x 732 cm) and written: Everything that a mountain can mean. … Having a lovely time. Wish you were here.

(Which is the front, and which the back of a postcard? Image or word?

“Which game would you rather play?” Daniel Gluck asks Elisabeth in Autumn. “I’ll give you a choice of two. One. Every picture tells a story. Two. Every story tells a picture.”)

Everything that a mountain can mean, Paddy says to Richard earlier in the year when they are discussing a film Richard has been asked to work on, an adaptation of a novel that imagines Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, passing strangers, in a Swiss hotel in 1922. “God help them there in their Swiss village, [Paddy] says, and those great jagged shark teeth of God all round them like they’re already on the tongue of a giant mouth. In Switzerland, the so-called neutral zone, and there in the air too, as airborne as Spanish flu, the spores of the next dose of imperial fascism.” At the Royal Academy, Richard is “stopped in his tracks” by “a mountain picture so huge that the wall became mountain and the mountain became a kind of wall. There was an avalanche coming down the mountain picture towards anyone looking at it, an avalanche that had been stilled for just that moment so that whoever saw it had time to comprehend it.” That’s one of the ways art deals with time. It stills the turning, churning world for just a moment. And even if whoever sees that stilled image struggles, still, to comprehend it, it nevertheless creates an art-shaped space from which to take account of the turbulent world.

What forces are airborne in Dean’s avalanche? (I won’t say spores, “spores” and “airborne” and “Spanish flu” bear the weight of other meanings since Dean pictured her mountain, and since Smith pictured it new.) Dean’s is a 2017 image; a year I’ve come to associate with Olivia Laing’s riotous real-time representation of its events in Crudo. (This is one of the ways I deal with art, via association.) 2017: a year to which Ali Smith gives a wider historical perspective, incorporating not just the time-space of the years on either side of it (although of course she does do that), but also the entire European twentieth century. In this crucial way, Smith’s chronicle of the years 2016 to 2020 differs from similar projects that also turn to look at the turbulent world, now — projects such as Laing’s Crudo and Jenny Offill’s Weather. Smith, like Valeria Luiselli in her pair of books Tell Me How It Ends (also 2017) and Lost Children Archive (2019), takes a long view of the present moment she has distilled into Autumn (2016), Winter (2017), Spring (2019), and now Summer. Like Paddy, Smith sees an image of Mansfield and Rilke in a comfortable Swiss hotel in 1922 and extrapolates a history of twentieth-century fascism. She takes the experience of indefinite detention in Brexit Britain and looks back to Britain’s First and Second World War-time internment of “alien enemies”, forward to global lockdown in response to Covid-19.

I’ve stopped calling these novels a quartet. A quartet, it seems to me, implies some kind of unnatural conclusion. Here’s Smith in Autumn:

I don’t like it when the summer goes and the autumn comes, [fourteen-year-old Elisabeth] said.

Daniel took her by the shoulders and turned her round. He didn’t say anything. But all across the landscape down behind them it was still sunlit blue and green.

She looked up at him showing her how the summer was still there.

Nobody spoke like Daniel.

Nobody didn’t speak like Daniel.

And again, this time in Summer:

… summer’s surely really all about an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something. We’re always looking for it, looking to it, heading towards it all year, the way a horizon holds the promise of a sunset. We’re always looking for the full open leaf, the open warmth, the promise that we’ll one day soon surely be able to lie back and have summer done to us; one day soon we’ll be treated well by the world. Like there really is a kinder finale and it’s not just possible but assured, there’s a natural harmony that’ll be spread at your feet, unrolled like a sunlit landscape just for you. As if what it was always all about, your time on earth, was the full happy stretch of all the muscles of the body on the warmed patch of grass, one long sweet stem of that grass in the mouth.

Carefree.

What a thought.

Summer.

Last night, I dreamt that the lockdown and the curfew and the roadblocks, the army and the navy on the streets, the masks and the hospital-grade hand sanitiser and the Permitted Worker Permits had been packed up and stored away. In their place, we unfolded the map of Victoria on the lounge-room rug and planned a summer road trip, circling all the places we’ve missed during the last six months, planning excursions to secondhand bookshops, river swims, lakeside walks. We were going to stretch the muscles of our bodies and our minds. We were going to read and swim and walk in the sunshine. We were going to send postcards to the people we love, saying Having a lovely time. Wish you were here. We were going to lie back and have summer done to us. We’d earned it, surely. And then, still inside the dream, the realisation that none of these places was safe. The knowledge that, given the way summers have been going, every one of the towns and the national parks, every patch of warm and tinder-dry grass, was likely to be ablaze come late spring. Summer’s done to us differently these days. Sure, our imaginings are, but they’re not the only ones. And that promised picture postcard sunset? It’s a

photo of Australian people with no summer daylight standing breathing red dust air on a beach under a red sky, sort of hanging like puppets nobody can work the strings of, and a chestnut horse just standing there in the middle of them, bewildered, grave, like proof of blamelessness itself, while the ball of fire spread on the horizon behind them like a melting butter sun.

That’s Ali Smith in Summer. That’s also summer in Mallacoota, in the state where I live. Summer, here and now: it’s not the end we had looked forward to. (Although we’ve earned it, surely.)

But seasons don’t end, not abruptly anyway, and not according to clock or some other metronomic time. (Early in Autumn, Daniel throws his wristwatch into a canal to demonstrate to the teenage Elisabeth that time flies. “She remembers the thrill, the absolute not-doneness of it.”) As in Smith’s seasonal novels, the boundaries between the seasons are blurred. Summer bleeds into autumn, autumn into winter, winter into spring, spring into summer and so, cycling on. Of course, there is the real threat, as Florence tells (her machine) Brit in Spring, that the seasons will converge into a single, continuous “nuclear autumn”. But if we get our act together (together), and if we’re lucky, the seasons might keep turning even if they turn in an as yet unfamiliar way.

If Dean’s avalanche is coming down the mountain picture towards anyone looking at it — which it is, because imaginings are — isn’t it also coming down the mountain towards anyone who isn’t looking at it? Imagine, just imagine, turning your back on an avalanche (even a picture one, even one that’s — in this moment — still).

Having a lovely time. Wish you were here.

In Artful (2012), Smith writes that “[t]he novel… is bound to and helplessly interested in society and social hierarchy, social worlds; and society is always attached to, in debt to, made by and revealed by the trappings of its time.” (Even societies that refuse to think of themselves as such. Margaret Thatcher in 1987: “And, you know, there’s no such thing as society.” And in Autumn 2016: “Thatcher taught us to be selfish and not just to think but to believe that there’s no such thing as society.” Theresa May in 2016 and again in Winter 2017: “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”)

Is it correct to say that “I deal with art”, even via association? More often I feel as if art is dealing with me. But better still, think of a deal that allows us to imagine the world together. “Art is always an exchange, like love, whose giving and taking can be a complex and wounding matter.” That’s Ali Smith, again, in Artful.

I imagined that I knew the familial and other intimate connections between the characters in this cycle of novels. I twigged early on to Daniel and Sophia and Art in Winter. It was a postcard that did it — the photograph taken by Édouard Boubat, petite fille aux feuilles mortes jardin du Luxembourg Paris 1946­ — the one that in Autumn, Daniel wishes he’d kept, which in Winter, Sophia associates both with her son, Arthur, and with the child stone she pilfered all those years ago from Daniel’s Barbara Hepworth, and which, in her will, she stipulates that Arthur return to Daniel, which he does, in Summer. I had my suspicions about Richard and (his actual daughter) Elisabeth in Spring. I was happier than I can say to meet Daniel again in Summer. (Daniel is 104; his life — like Smith’s cycle — spans almost the entire twentieth century). And, at this imagined end, to find Art and Charlotte and Iris and Elisabeth, and Daniel’s sister Hannah, and to encounter for the first time Grace and Sacha and Robert. It was the Krzysztof-Kieslowski-Three-Colours moment I had been hoping for.

But something else twigged while I was reading Summer, an association I hadn’t thought to look for. It happened when I was reading the story of Lorenza Mazzetti, an Italian filmmaker who, in the early 1950s, travelled to Britain to work on farms and ended up working on the postwar imagination instead. Mazzetti is the artist Smith turns toward in Summer; like Pauline Boty in Autumn, Hepworth in Winter, Dean in Spring. Now that I think of it, though, this new association had begun to take shape before then, when Smith describes Ashley, the girlfriend of Sacha and Robert’s father. Ashley is — well, until recently Ashley was — writing a book about political lexicons called The Immoral Imagination. But now Ashley has fallen silent. She no longer speaks or makes any other kind of sound, at all. Among other works (films, novels, all sorts), Mazzetti makes a film in which two deaf-mutes walk the war-rubbled streets of London in passionate, signed conversation. When I read this, I was already thinking about Wittgenstein: partly because Smith had told me to (“The limits of my language are the limits of my world, the man [Art] says. Wittgenstein. I think.”); partly because I was — no, I am — also thinking about W.G. Sebald (with whom I associate Wittgenstein and the limits of language), about his representation of the Holocaust as one in a long history of human atrocities, and likening it to Smith’s representation of indefinite detention. But there’s something about Smith’s picture of Mazzetti’s own horrific history, of her transposition of that history onto London’s postwar landscape, and something about Art (art) being Daniel’s son and Sacha and Robert being Hannah’s great-grandchildren, and something about Daniel’s internment on the Isle of Man during the Second World War, and Hannah’s death in occupied France, and their father’s internment in Britain during the First World War, which crippled him for life — there’s something about all of these things that makes me pause in my reading and turn to Ali — not Ali Smith, this time, but the Ali who is at this moment in the other room sifting through the three thousand pieces of a Stage 4 lockdown jigsaw puzzle depicting ‘99 Beautiful Places: Europe’ (a lot of mountains, no avalanches, at least, no avalanches yet) — and ask, “Was it Adorno who said ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’”? To which Ali says, “He did, but then he qualified it later. He was talking specifically about lyric poetry and art’s response to the instrumentalisation of humans under capital.”

On the news this morning, shirt-fronter, onion-eater, former Australian Prime Minister, and as of August 2020, adviser to the British Board of Trade, Tony Abbott:

So far… governments have approached the pandemic like trauma doctors instead of thinking like health economists, trained to pose uncomfortable questions about a level of deaths we might have to live with. … Even if mandatory shutdown [in Australia] really was all that avoided the initially predicted 150,000 deaths, that still works out at about $2 million per life saved.

Compare Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), in which the Little Tramp bears the full weight of twentieth-century industrialisation in America, with John Berger’s Into Their Labours trilogy (1979, 1987, 1990), a chronicle of twentieth century peasant life in a small village in the French Alps. Each represents a society that tells time — and is trapped by it (in the Tramp’s case quite literally) — in a different way. To borrow from Berger, the first imagines a culture of progress (via the mechanisation of labour and the use of labour-saving — intended to be time-is-money-saving devices), the second a culture of survival (via the repetition of particular acts, in ways learned and passed down over generations, and performed at the same, seasonal time of the year). Both cultures are under threat. But only one of them — and it isn’t the Alpine one — has its back to the avalanche.

Having a lovely time. Wish you were here.

Chaplin: “The film star, [Daniel says to Sophia when they first meet, in Winter]. The tramp. The wanderer. The first modern hero. The outcast who got people all over the world to laugh out loud together at the same things at the same time.” Chaplin who, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, like the works of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, recurs in Smith’s writing, and not just throughout these seasonal novels.

Usually, about now I’d reach for an architectural metaphor. I’d write something like: “The works of Chaplin and Ovid and Dickens and Shakespeare are cornerstones of Smith’s practice.” But Smith has given her seasonal cycle its own architectural (and other) metaphor: summer.

In the end, which is also a beginning, Grace and Sacha and Robert accompany Charlotte and Art to Suffolk, where Daniel is living with Elisabeth, Elisabeth’s mother, and her mother’s partner. As a young woman, Grace had spent a summer in Suffolk with the acting troupe she was then a member of. One day, in Summer, she walks away from rehearsals and discovers a church where a man is repairing a wooden pew. They fall into conversation, they share a cup of coffee, the man — John — lets Grace stain the new wood to match the old, they imagine that this pew and this church will last forever. “The best thing is, it’ll last, [John] says. … Simple pleasures.” Another pleasure, smoking roll-ups “in the cool stone shade”:

Summer, he says.

Summer, she says.

You know it’s also what the lintel in a building gets called? he says.

What is? she says.

Summer. The most important beam, structurally, he says. Holds up a floor, a ceiling, both. There’s one, there, look.

He points behind them at a little balcony hanging as if in mid air.

Now that’s what I call a lovely summer, he says. …

I never knew that, she says.

It can take a great weight, a summer, he says. …

Funny, she says. … Like, how we overload summer most out of all the seasons, I mean with our expectations of it.

Nah, he says and nips the end of his rollie with a finger and thumb till it’s out. Summers can take it. That’s why they’re called summers.

That’s one of the ways art deals with all our expectations: our expectations of art, but also our expectations of the world. When it’s good, I mean, when it’s Ali-Smith-good — and you don’t need me to tell you that nobody writes like Smith, that nobody doesn’t write like Smith — art bears the weight of the world. It holds up a floor and a ceiling both. Holds it so that it appears to be hanging there in mid-air. The thing about holding something up — in space, say a balcony, or in time, say an avalanche — is that you can get a better look at it. Because that’s the other way art deals with the world: it bares it to us, in a way that is — sometimes only just — bearable.

In Autumn, in the lead up to the Second World War, Hannah (who lives in Germany) writes to Daniel (Dani, her summer brother, who lives most of the year in England) and says:

It’s a question of how we regard our situations… how we look and see where we are, and how we choose, if we can, when we are seeing undeceivedly, not to despair and, at the same time, how best to act. Hope is exactly that, that’s all it is; a matter of how we deal with the negative acts towards human beings by other human beings in the world, remembering that they and we are all human, that nothing human is alien to us, the foul and the fair, and that most important of all we’re here for a mere blink of the eyes, that’s all. But in that Augenblick there’s either a benign wink or a willing blindness, and we have to know we’re capable of both…

Now, in Summer:

But what if you’re a mix of all the things [foul and fair]. And it’s not possible to be just one of them? Robert said [to Charlotte]. What does that make you?

Human? Charlotte said. Like, you know, someone who’d stick a glass thing to his sister’s hand? With superglue?

It wasn’t just glass, Robert said. It was so much more than just a glass thing.

What was it, then? Charlotte said.

It was time, Robert said.

Daniel Gluck throws his watch into a canal to show Elisabeth that time can fly.

Robert Greenlaw superglues an hourglass to Sacha’s palm so that she will always have time on her hands.

Ali Smith speeds time up: “Time-lapse of a million billion flowers opening their heads, of a million billion flowers bowing, closing their heads again, of a million billion new flowers opening instead, of a million billion buds becoming leaves then the leaves falling off and rotting into earth, of a million billion twigs splitting into a million billion brand new buds.” There’s twenty years gone in the blink of an eye. She slows time down until it’s almost — almost — stopped. “In the middle of the night the village church bell rang midnight. Again? But midnight was already well past. Wasn’t it? Sophia got up. She went downstairs. [time-lapse] Sophia, back in bed… heard the village bell toll twelve. Again? [time-lapse] Twelve. Midnight again, for Christ sake.” Midnight can be like that.

Having a lovely time. Wish you were here.

Always, Smith specifies time and place. She regards our situation; here and now, with an undeceivedly seeing eye on the million billion heres and nows that led us here, and now.

That bit at the beginning of this essay? about Richard being full of holes, daughter-shaped, Paddy-shaped? I’ve just realised that the holes aren’t mine. That I’ve borrowed them from Ali Smith.

Art believes that his father is Godfrey Gable. It’s true that Sophia and Godfrey did marry, but it was a marriage of convenience. Sophia was pregnant (to Daniel and unbeknownst to him), Godfrey was plagued by the tabloid press about his sexuality. Aside from a family portrait here and there, Art hardly knew Godfrey when he was alive. And now he’s dead. In Winter, Art tells Lux: “I think of the word father, and it’s kind of like there’s a cut-out empty space in my head. I quite like it. I can fill it any way I like. I can leave it empty.”

In Autumn, at the care home where Elisabeth is visiting Daniel who has gone deep into a period of increased sleep, she notices the empty spaces, the unfinished sentences of the care assistants when they mean to speak of death: “The pauses are a precise language, more a language than actual language is, Elisabeth thinks.”

Barbara Hepworth, Daniel thinks in Winter, “puts holes through what she makes, because she wants people to think about… time, and ancient things, but also because she really just wants them to want to touch what she makes, you know, to be reminded about things that are quite physical, sensory, immediate.”

“It would be good to be full of holes,” Sophia says in Summer. “Then all the things you can’t express would maybe just flow out.”

Which game would you rather play? I’ll give you two choices. One. Every silence tells a story. Two. Every story tells a silence.

So many empty spaces, so many eloquent silences in this cycle. And I want, so much, to say that a grief-filled hole has opened up inside me, one the shape of Ali Smith’s seasons. But I can’t say that: partly because seasons don’t end and from here, in the south, summer is still coming (bringing with it who knows what); partly because to do so would be to despair and it’s impossible to despair within even remote proximity to Smith’s bared, made-bearable world; partly because I’m nowhere near done with these novels yet because, my god, for all those spaces and silences (and because of them) there’s so much story here. So much sensory play. So much exuberance of word and image. So much passionate conversation. So much joy. So much love. So much of life.

Also, I’m having a lovely time and I wish you were here.