Great novelists see things that we don’t, perhaps, but the best novelists see things even they themselves may not understand.
In 2014, Ali Smith, the brilliant, mercurial, occasionally exasperating Scottish writer, started a quartet of novels whose volumes would each be named for one of the seasons. Key to her idea was to write and publish the books very quickly, so that they would still have the peach fuzz of current events on them — “by design,” Smith’s agent recalled recently, “this very tight turnaround would be an integral part of the creative project.”
But who could have predicted that there would be so many current events! Smith began the first of the novels before Brexit, before the election of Donald Trump, before the pandemic, before the worldwide protests this spring. She must have sensed a strange pulse quickening in the world as she began; perhaps it was partly luck. What’s clear either way is that with the release of the fourth and final installment in the quartet, “Summer,” Smith has completed what must be considered both one of modern fiction’s most elusive and most important undertakings.
Like its three predecessors, “Summer” is brief but crowded. Its central characters are Sacha and Robert Greenlaw, a pair of precocious teenage siblings. Sacha is an ardent progressive, painfully attuned to climate change especially. By contrast, Robert, a few years younger at 13, is an infuriatingly clever redpilled boy, scornful of foreigners and liberals; his arguments are wrongheaded, but on their narrow ground hard to refute — Smith captures perfectly the irritation of his sister, knowing these beliefs aren’t really who her brother is deep down, but unable to make him admit it. (In America we call that Thanksgiving.)
“Summer” sketches in the Greenlaws and their family, then pulls them into the lives of characters from earlier in the quartet. There are Art and Charlotte, the young idealists from “Winter” — Robert’s infatuation with Charlotte offers a glimmer of hope for his redemption — and, movingly, Daniel Gluck, 101 in “Autumn,” 104 now, and still sharp, though prone to falling into lifelike remembrances of the British internment camp where he and his father were confined during World War II.
Smith is a gifted storyteller — the whole quartet is highly readable — but story is only half the point of her work. As she planned from the start, the characters in “Summer” seem uncannily contemporaneous, agonizing over COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd. At the same time, though, Smith uses these events as a launch to glide up into thinner air, particularly long meditations on art and time, her twin obsessions — including, in this book, reflections on Einstein, “A Winter’s Tale,” the filmmaker Lorena Mazzetti, and swifts, subjects she explores with the poet’s constant willingness to break forward in the direction of a new idea.
This is Smith’s method in the seasonal quartet: to force the timely and the timeless together, like the wrong ends of two magnets. If she were even an ounce less talented it would fall apart. But she isn’t. She’s a great writer, quite possibly bound for a Nobel Prize; 20 years ago it seemed certain that Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Ian McEwan had lapped the field, but assess again today and it’s instead Hilary Mantel and Smith (gay, working class, and by way of Inverness rather than a posh public school, for what it’s worth) who seem the most consequential British novelists of their generation.
That’s not to say that her work is perfect. Her weakness for bad jokes (“the naked eye! Can an eye even have clothes on?”) may be the single most reliable constant in her career as a writer, and as often as she catches onto the tail of a great thought, others fizzle out. She’s weakest when she addresses her themes directly — describing summer, for example, as “the briefest and slipperiest of seasons, the one that won’t be held to account,” which seems dangerously close to nonsense.
But much of this is the hazard a great writer risks by working fast. You would be hard-pressed to find matching inelegances in McEwan’s work, for example — but equally hard-pressed to find Smith’s fierce, cleansing anger about politics (“The people who’ve never been properly valued are all holding this country together,” an old activist says in the latest book, “holding all our lives in their hands”) or the moments of transcendent, enigmatic beauty that can only truly be understood by reading the books.
What Smith has really achieved with the seasonal quartet is an advance in form. Her earlier work — “How to Be Both” is the finest of her other novels — too often veered into the saccharine or vague. But by grounding this quartet both in the immediacy of politics and in her insights about a series of specific artists, from Pauline Boty to Barbara Hepworth to Katherine Mansfield, she has allowed her gift for abstraction to gleam here and there from within the rock face of the factual, rather than leading with it.
The result is sublime. As the characters of “Summer” entwine, like branches over a road, I had the feeling that no novelist has come closer to describing the particular sad informed madness of our times. How that feeling will age is hard to say — but then, how will any of us age, who have lived through this? Sooner or late the season will arrive that tells us the answer.
By Ali Smith
Pantheon, 400 pp., $27.95
Charles Finch is a novelist and critic. His most recent book is “The Last Passenger.”