By Juul Kruse
Summer sometimes feels like a long day that will never come to an end. During those never-ending days, sitting in the sun whilst my shoulders burn and my hair is still wet from the water, I can’t imagine – and I mean that in a very literal sense – that it will ever be dark and cold again. When cursing the heat at 3 in the morning, turning on a fan even though I can’t stand the sound, and keeping the door open to my tiny bedroom even though my housemates will wake me at all times of the night, I forget what feeling cold is like. What, I wonder, as I wipe the sweat off my forehead, does it feel like to shiver? To truly feel cold to the bones? During the first wave of the pandemic we were scared and uncertain of what the summer would bring, but at least as February ended and morphed into March, we had longer days ahead of us. Hot days filled with nothing but swimming with friends and reading a good book in the shade of a tree were just as much waiting for us as the government measures were.
But summer must, like all other things, come to an end.
As I am writing this, summer has already come and gone. Leaving me alone, in a cold room (September will forever feel too soon to turn on the heating). But just before summer ended, Summer, the highly anticipated final novel of Ali Smith’s ambitious series was published.
In 2017 Smith published Autumn, in 2018 Winter, in 2019 Spring, and in 2020 there was Summer. The previous three novels circled around themes like climate change, Brexit, wildfires, and other things that were going on right at that time. They were all very well received; Autumn was even shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Each novel was written and published in just a few months, giving future readers an in-depth look at what the end of this decade felt like, without the usual luxury writers enjoy: letting things settle for a while, and see where history takes the human endeavour.
Reading a novel that centres on issues that were happening at the time of writing and are still happening at the time of reading feels special to me. Brexit will, no doubt, prove to be an important event of the early 21st century in history books to come, but, whether the refugee crisis, with people being detained in special centres eerily similar to prisons will also prove to still be relevant in fifty years feels less certain. But to Smith this was important. So, she wrote about it. Getting to read about it in Autumn whilst it is still happening all over Europe felt special and validating to me.
The last novel of her series expands on themes from the three preceding novels, it shows the developments that have been made with these situations and lets some characters from the earlier novels return. Again, there is a storyline about refugees being detained. Daniel Gluck returns, as do his dementia-induced flashbacks to when he himself was a detainee in a camp, to set the present in perspective with regards to the past.
Mr. Gluck now lives in with Elizabeth (from Autumn) and is visited by Art and Charlotte (from Winter). New characters are the young Sacha and Robert, and their mother, Grace. In a modern solution to their divorce, their father has moved into the house next-door, and now resides there with his new girlfriend, whose research centres around the power of language, but who has stopped speaking herself. Sacha is woke (with sentences like: “but lockdown is nothing compared to the unfairness of life for people who are already being treated unfairly”). Robert is at the same time a mini version of Nigel Farage and Albert Einstein’s biggest fan (with sentences like: “in one of my quantum lives I am actually in school right now”). These two meet Art and Charlotte when Robert glues an hourglass to the inside of his sister’s hand (“know how worried ur about how theres no time left so this woz best present I cud imagine from now on u always have time on ur hands”) and it shatters, leaving a bloody mess.
As the narrated months go further and further along, a new, overarching theme emerges as the time passes. It is mentioned by Sacha, who tells the visitors Charlotte and Art about her friend of Asian descent, who gets accosted in the street for possibly having the ‘Asian virus’. Sacha is outraged. I am reminded of reading news articles about this exact thing happening all across the ‘Western’ world. It scared me then and it scares me now how racism will apparently feel like a logical response to fear.
The character’s responses to the first news about the Covid-19 virus remind me of myself, in February. I distinctly remember watching videos online, seeing the news, and reading the papers about how the situation in China was developing. I remember feeling strange about it, feeling worried for those afflicted. But honesty compels me to say I was not really worried for our country, for this part of the world, conditioned as I am to believe that this world I live in, ‘the Western world’, is untouchable to these kinds of disasters. People dying because there isn’t a vaccine ready to be distributed by a rich government is a thing that I only knew from zombie films and the eight o’clock news.
The months went by, and I, just like the characters in Summer got very well acquainted with a new world in which ‘a new normal’ was established. The vocabulary of the novel changes, words that were previously only used in medical settings or apocalypse novels like: ‘medical testing’, ‘pandemic’, ‘lockdown’, ‘quarantine’, ‘global crisis’, and ‘closing of borders’, first rolled off the tongue in a weird, unfamiliar way. Now those words are a normal part of my regular life. Even my father, notoriously dyslexic, can spell ‘quarantine’ without a second thought.
At the end of Summer, Art’s aunt Iris is reintroduced from Winter. She and Charlotte now live alone in the big house, but, in the face of a global crisis, they won’t be alone for long if it’s up to the old activist. Three out of the four major responses to the Covid-19 crisis that I’ve noticed are displayed well here: respond, think, or ignore (the fourth is deny). Upon hearing that people are being released from the detention centres due to health risks, with nowhere to go, Iris jumps into action, getting the house prepared for its visitors. Whilst she is getting thirteen rooms ready for people to sleep in, Art is pondering on how to reflect on living though a crisis like this one. And whilst Art is uttering sentences like, “times do pass. They do. But we have to choose to live through our times as mindfully as we can”, Charlotte is stuck.
She doesn’t know what to do, at all. Whilst Iris, at least twice her age and a seasoned activist, is preparing for the end of the world – or at least a few months of severe distress – Charlotte goes up to her room, locks the door, and assumes a lockdown of her own. Art wants her help with thinking and then writing about what’s happening around them, Iris wants her help with changing what’s happening around them, and she, she doesn’t know what she wants or needs to do. She sits in her room, does nothing, and attempts to use her blanket to ward off any loneliness that she feels settling in.
Charlotte’s response is a familiar one. I saw it all around me when the first measures to stop the spread of the virus started at the beginning of March. I saw it in friends and family, in the famous people I follow on Instagram, in the panicked articles of newspapers and magazines, and I saw it in myself.
At the beginning of the lockdown I, like so many others, made lists:
- clean out your closet
- make that zine you’ve been planning to make for forever
- finish that one novel that’s been on your reading list for a few months
- watch that documentary
- write that short story about the dog and the woman
- sew a dress
- draw more
- write that one poem
- plant a garden
- clean out your other closet
- journal more
- go for a run at least three times a week
- paint your walls
As the weeks passed by, I crossed off more and more things off my list. I added more things, I crossed more things off. But I never got to cross off any of the writing related ones. Where my fingers could easily draw a woman, paint a dog, feed fabric to my sewing machine, they became stuck when it came to writing. I couldn’t write about the before (it seemed too trivial), I couldn’t write about the now (my fingers wouldn’t move), I couldn’t write about the future (would there even still be one?). I had, like Sacha, all the time on my hands. Yet I couldn’t make it work.
On the cover of my edition of Summer is a painting by David Hockney, showing us a beautiful summer day, birds flying against a blue backdrop, not a cloud in the sky, but where the pictured road will go to, I don’t know, and neither does Ali Smith. As the temperatures are going down and the days are becoming shorter, the number of cases is skyrocketing, again. More and more I find myself standing in front of my window and staring at the tree just outside my house. Its leaves have started changing. First a slight yellowing around the edges, now the brown has started to take over. There are still some green leaves left, but it won’t be long until they are all gone, and summer will truly be over.
My inner Charlotte is struggling with it all. My room is cold, I have to turn the lights on at 6 and the appeal of hiding away in the corner of my room, blanket around my shoulders, is getting bigger by the day. I know I should find my inner Iris (“be pro-active!” I shout at myself when I see the state of the world around me), or at least my inner Arthur (“don’t just let this happen to you, think, process, this is a uniquely strange time that will never happen again!”), but it is hard, and I can’t help admiring those who have found them.
To write about what is happening right now must have been incredibly difficult and heartbreakingly strange. To read about what is happening right now is disruptive and illuminating. By writing Summer Ali Smith did what I could not, and with each letter she typed she showed us not just a world, but the world, my world. Now, summer is officially over, the long hot days spent with friends in a park are gone, and in its place is coldness and even more uncertainty.
Juul Kruse is a co-founder and editor for ParatextMAG, an online magazine that focuses on the writing of students and other young people. Currently, she is pursuing a Master’s degree in Literary Studies at Utrecht University. Her research interests developed during her BA have been taken into her MA, including feminist literature and the interplay between the visual and literary within fiction.
Smith, Ali. Summer. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2020. Print.