“God was dead: to begin with.”

So begins Ali Smith’s Winter, echoing Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in the same way Autumn used the cadences of A Tale of Two Cities’ famous opening in its own first words. Smith’s choice of the out-of-fashion Dickens as one of the uniting factors in her quartet of seasonal novels is both inspired and appropriate. Dickens was, after all, a political novelist, concerned with all levels of society. He may seem a strangely old-fashioned bed-fellow for Smith, but both share a love of language and word-play and a sharp but uncynical eye.

Shakespeare is the other English writer Smith has turned to – specifically his late plays (here it is Cymbeline; in Autumn it was The Tempest). In her description of them (in an interview with Foyles) she perhaps reveals something of what she, too, is aiming for:

“The late plays are what you might call the most integrated of his works in that they cocktail together comedy, tragedy, history and the unexpected, unthinkable, always miraculous-seeming potential for rebirth that’s both literal and of the spirit, and they also produce, each time, a pure new kind of myth, a refined and transcendent storytelling completely of its time and its individual imagination yet simultaneously made communally from all the stories taprooting across the world’s literatures.”

Dickens, the essentially English; Shakespeare, a reminder of the international appeal of English art; and, in case anyone feels Smith has forgotten her own roots, Muriel Spark providing a further epigraph, from her most overtly political novel, The Abbess of Crewe, which set the Watergate scandal in a nunnery. (Autumn was also prefaced by a quotation from a Scottish expatriate, W S Graham, suggesting a further pattern).

The word ‘dead’ also features frequently throughout the novel, from the rampant opening where mortality ends everything (though not ghosts); to Art’s Google searches where he types ‘X is d…’ and time after time the word ‘dead’ to appears as the top search; to the sound of the church bells chiming at midnight, which, in another Dickensian flourish, they seem to do more than once:

“Midnight again, for Christ sake.”

It is, of course, in T S Eliot’s words, “the very dead of winter.”

All this would be very little without a story, however, and here we have one about a mother and a son, a sister and a stranger. Family and hospitality: the very essence of Christmas. Brexit, among others things, has been accused of highlighting a generation gap, and both Autumn and Winter are concerned with relationships across the generations. Sophia, the mother, is identified as having voted Leave, but her nostalgia for a ‘better’ past seems to have begun much earlier, as a memory from 1977, when she spends Christmas in a squat with her sister, Iris, suggests:

“That red post-box on the front of the Radio Times: why does it mean so much and at the same time so little? She wants it to mean again like meaning used to mean.”

Smith, here, seems to be tapping into the craving for blue passports, perhaps also reflected in Sophia’s business where everything her shops sell is made to look old:

“That’s what people like buying just now… Things that look like they’ve got a history, reclaimed looking things.”

On closer inspection, however, Art is not unlike his mother. Her artificially distressed furniture is not dissimilar to his ‘Art in Nature’ blog where his ‘personal’ stories turn out to be economical with the truth. In one of the novel’s funniest scenes (because Smith is always, like Dickens, at heart, a comic writer), Lux, a young woman he has paid £1,000 to pretend to be his girlfriend, Charlotte, while he visits his mother, questions him, about a particular entry:

“What kind of car was it? Lux says.
How do mean, car? he says
What I say, Lux says. Car. The one you drove to the puddle in.
I haven’t got a car, he says.
So you hired a car? she says. Borrowed one?
I can’t drive, he says.
How did you get to the village in the blog, then? she says. Someone drove you?
I didn’t actually go anywhere. I looked it up on Google maps and on an RAC route planner, he says.”

Similarly, Charlotte is a modern version of Iris, who has spent her life protesting. (“I was never good at keeping quiet,” she says.) Her resentment of Art is a mirror image of Sophia’s resentment of Iris. Smith spends time in the novel recounting the history of the protest at Greenham Common, a deliberate attempt to reclaim some forgotten history (that whole era – another example being the Miners’ Strike – is still largely missing from literature). This allows for an interesting reversal of the accusations that are now frequently levelled against her generation (what Charlotte calls “forty years of political selfishness”) when she says to Art:

“Me, me, me… It’s all you selfish generation can talk about. I’m going to tweet about it in a long scroll rolling itself out of my mouth like in an illustration of a dandy by an eighteenth century satirist.”

In this way Smith undermines the idea that the problem is generational. Art, perhaps unsurprisingly, offers hope for the future when he discovers his dual inheritance, the time he spent with Iris as a child which his mother has always denied.

Smith’s art also exists in the balance between the prosaic and the poetical. In a novel so grounded in reality that there are references to events which took place as recently as last summer, there are also surreal, transcendent moments such as when “a slab of landscape roughly the size of small car” suspends itself above Art’s head. Similarly, Sophia is haunted by a head – “the head of a child, just a head, no body attached” – like Marley’s head on the door knocker, the beheaded Cornish saint Newlina, the heads of the guillotined in the basket. Smith transforms this head throughout the novel, eventually linking it to art itself, the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth. It is this ability to transform and transcend which makes Winter a novel of hope. As Lux says of Cymbeline:

“…if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is at the end, where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, that’s the place I’m going.”

That this reasoning seems both naïve and profound is very Dickensian. One day, I suspect, someone will read this novel and feel the same.

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