Wild Authors: Ali Smith

by Mary Woodbury

This month we’ll look at Ali Smith, who is not a new author, but whose “Seasonal” quartet I just began reading. Smith is a Scottish author, playwright, academic and journalist. See a complete bibliography at Wikipedia.

For the purposes of this article, I will focus on her Seasonal series. The first novel, Autumn, was published in October 2016. The next novel, Winter, came out in November 2017. While Autumn has been described as the first Brexit novel, The Nation has a beautiful article by Namara Smith titled “Omens of Disaster: Ali Smith’s new novel examines the ecological and political disintegration at the center of our world,” which goes into the climate change aspects of the books.1

The Nation argues that, first, novels depicting climate change often borrow from the disaster genre, which has a rigid narrative. And that, second, viewing climate change as a disaster event limits it to something that is a technical issue, something that can be managed. The article points out that climate change storytelling often depicts one or more apocalyptic events, when, in reality, global warming is a “war of attrition whose consequences have accumulated slowly enough to be almost imperceptible and through the repetition of millions of individual actions.” And, instead of looking at the disaster as something technical, it is really “an existential question that concerns us all.”

Ali Smith’s Seasonal series rises above the problematic genre symptoms by having “ordinary” events, as The Nation says.

Rather than large-scale catastrophe, Smith is interested in the dissonant moments that break into the awareness of people whose lives are not immediately threatened by environmental disaster: plants flowering out of season, winter days that feel like spring, the steady creep of coastal erosion.

The article also points out that these changes caused by climate change are becoming common in contemporary fiction. My take-away from this is that it’s interesting to see how authors are writing about global warming, but to try to prescribe one genre for climate change novels is tough. As with every literary and ecological parallel in the past, global warming tropes and themes become so commonplace that they begin to spill over into everything else – just like climate change has done and will continue to do so.

I was drawn to the novel for two reasons: the idea of seasons becoming out of whack has been a focus of mine for a while, especially after seeing changes firsthand where I live. Another is that in the novel an old man, Daniel Gluck, is facing death, and his time spent in a nursing care facility – where he has endless dreams in which we think he is probably reliving past events – reminds me of my dad somewhat.

When approaching the idea of climate change in fiction, when I published the anthology Winds of Change: Short Stories about Our Climate, I contributed a short story, under pen name Clara Hume, called “The Midnight Moon” (available at the Dragonfly Library for free). This was a take on a Twilight Zone episode called “The Midnight Sun” and featured an autumn in Chicago, where two women reflect on life cycles. Writing this short story was based upon real observances of variable plant changes where I live, specifically one summer where a rowan tree blossomed very early, but I had also recently talked with Emmi Itäranta about her novel Memory of Water, which looked at the disappearance of cultural and ecological continuity in our years of changing climate.

I could identify too with the old man, 101-year-old Gluck, in Ali’s novel. I had a similar circumstance in real life, often sitting with my dying dad in the nursing home. My dad was a brilliant man who developed Parkinson’s, which ravished his genius mind. He began signs of dementia a couple years before his death, and at some points could not distinguish dream from reality. Almost hauntingly surreal were the dreams he relayed to me in vivid detail, which were bizarre on every level, and which quite frightened him. One dream was even about a beach, but instead of seeing drowned refugees float up to the shore (as in Smith’s novel), my dad saw bloody heads hanging from the “ceiling” (the sky).

When my dad’s mind was all there, he was a math teacher as well as a writer, and he loved poetry. When we grew up, he would read the great poets to us, and I specifically remember him talking to me about Keats, and how dad was entering the autumn of his year. The Autumn novel starts out with Keats’ famous ode.

Smith’s novel touches close to home, not only personally for me but at a level that is wide-reaching to all humans on this Earth. The Nation states:

An epigraph informs us that, due in part to the severe floods of the past several years, so much topsoil has been eroded that “Britain may have only 100 harvests left.” Brexit, which now looks like the opening shot in a prolonged period of global instability, has marked not only the end of Britain’s partnership with an integrated Europe; it has also cast doubt on the possibility of addressing climate change within our existing economic and political system.

The idea of 100 harvests left is one way to look at climate change. Smith’s wit and non-linear (collage) writing style also help us to perceive climate change at an intimate level. It is not far out there. It is now. It has been. We can view it in every perspective, past and present and future. It becomes more real with each passing generation. And 100 harvests puts a time-stamp on continuity. It’s an extinction of ritual, both ecological and cultural. When I think of it, I feel a slow burn and think of my own father and the way he taught us to be outside, to celebrate the elements, the wild, the seasons. I see time passing fluidly, quickly, like quicksand. Yet on a daily basis, it is slow and sometimes tedious.

The novel explores time, and even no-time, as well. The Guardian states, “Autumn begins in a wild region of no-time, as Daniel Gluck dreams that he is young again, or dead.” Elisabeth Demand, another main character in the novel, is reading Adolph Huxley’s Brave New World,waiting in a post office. The clock on the wall is broken. No-time. The Guardian says:

The clock has stalled; miserable people queue alongside her, staring into space. “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY”, thinks Elisabeth, citing Huxley. Inevitably, when she reaches the front of the queue, her application is rejected. Her photograph is “the wrong size”, the man says. “He writes in a box … HEAD INCORRECT SIZE.” Then, he “folds the Check & Send receipt and tucks it into the envelope Elisabeth gave him with the form … He hands it back to her across the divide. She sees terrible despondency in his eyes. He sees her see it. He hardens even more.”

The relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth crosses time as well; they met when she was a child, and she has since adopted him as a surrogate father. In between these nearly three decades, they have had occasions to reunite a few times. The things along time come and go: “Ignored. Lost. Rediscovered years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered again years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered ad infinitum.” Time is the essence of mortality, but it can be slow or fast. It can eclipse. It can end.

What’s next? Winter. The Goodreads description sounds fascinating:

Winter? Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. The shortest days, the longest nights. The trees are bare and shivering. The summer’s leaves? Dead litter. The world shrinks; the sap sinks. But winter makes things visible. And if there’s ice, there’ll be fire.

(Photo downloaded from Topping & Company Booksellers.)

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Eco-Fiction.com on April 10, 2017.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Eco-Fiction.com and Dragonfly.eco, sites that explore ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent MagazineEthnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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