Ali Smith’s ‘Summer’ Ends a Funny, Political, Very Up-to-Date Quartet

Ali Smith’s ‘Summer’ Ends a Funny, Political, Very Up-to-Date Quartet

Along the way there is a good deal of talk about evanescence — of summertime and everything else. “You can’t put a pin through a summer,” one character says. Leave it to Robert, the malcontent, to compare summer to “the smell round a rubbish truck as it moves through the city and like you’re stuck on a bike behind it going way too slowly down a too-narrow street.”

This novel made me laugh, quite a lot, as the generations wage war. There’s a moment when Sacha wants to use BrainyQuote, the egregious quotations website, as the source for a Hannah Arendt quote in a paper she’s writing.

Grace sets her straight about the importance of solid sourcing. But Sacha gets her “OK boomer”-style digs in anyway. “Worrying about stuff like this was what her mother’s generation did as displacement activity from worrying about the real things happening in the world,” she thinks. She says: “Return yourself forthwith to the age of pointless educational pedantry.”

Grace gets the last word, and if Smith’s seasonal novels have a motto, it is spoken here: “The level of attention I’m talking about is necessary for everything.”

The pandemic sneaks in at the margins of this novel. The drawings of the virus, Sacha thinks, “all look a bit like little planets with trumpets coming out of their surface, or little worlds covered in spikes of growth, a little world that’s been shot all over its surface by those fairground darts with tuft tails from the old-fashioned rifle ranges, or like mines in the sea in films about WW2.”

Smith’s seasonal novels can be pretty on-the-nose, politically. Sometimes they veer into the saccharine. The water, here and there, turns brackish. But as with a strong river, their motion is fundamentally self-purifying.

“Summer” is a prose poem in praise of memory, forgiveness, getting the joke and seizing the moment. “Whatever age you are,” one character comments, “you still die too young.”

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