Tuesday, January 09, 2018

An exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again

Ali Smith's Winter is an easy, beautiful thing.

By easy I do not mean simple. Winter has a lot of depth, but the writing is so effortless, so at ease.

It's Christmastime. Art is committed to visiting his mother, Sophia, for the holiday. He's expected to bring his girlfriend, but they've broken up (she's holding his Twitter account hostage for control of his blog, "Art in Nature" — blogging is dead, don't they know?), so he hires someone (an immigrant) to act her part. When they arrive, they find Sophia not quite herself, so they invite her estranged sister Iris (they're polar opposites) to help.

Sophia has had a disembodied child's head following her around. She's not telling anybody about it, but she doesn't know what to make of it. It's not haunting her, but she seems haunted by it; she's shutting down.

What ensues is late-night conversations at the kitchen table: some Brexit talk, old resentments, family secrets, past love, all the related wounds, a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth ("It would be good to be full of holes, she says. Then all the things you can't express would maybe just flow out."), and a great love of Shakespeare. In other words, a perfect family Christmas.

All the deadness that so hooked me at the novel's opening turned out to be quite a clever trick. What "is dead" is Google autocomplete.
Thinking about Charlotte is also a waste of valuable energy and to free himself from it and from her he is now going to go out into the streets of this city and find, wherever he can, a handful of earth
(is dying
is divided into twenty four
is doomed
is destroyed
is dead)
so as ceremonially to hold in his hand nothing but soil, a handful of it breathing at its own rate, slow and meditative and completely itself through all the anger and the rot, earth itself, to remind him of it stilling to hard and frozen when the temperatures fall and thawing back to pliant again when they rise. That's what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten stat it brings you. So gentle Art will look for literal earth. City earth. He'll look in the places where the city trees meet the pavement; sometimes there are patches of earth round them if they haven't been rubbered in under that bouncy plastic stuff. Nature is adaptable. Nature changes all the time.
This is the first book of Smith's that I've read, and I hadn't even finished it before I placed a hold on her other novels my library carries. You don't have to read Autumn to appreciate Winter.

Nesting Stones, by Barbara Hepworth
Reading Winter was like reading Doris Lessing at her finest — just the right blend of political activism and domesticity. And art and love and feminism, a fantastical element or two, and, you know, life.

Winter is real.

Some insightful reviews
Financial Times:
Yet Smith, for all her characters' dismay at "post-truth" culture ("like walking in a blizzard all the time"), never becomes a slave to topicality. Her many-layered artistry softens rage or sorrow. These novels seek to bring our time and deep time together. "That's one of the things stories and books can do," says the sort-of-hero as, flashing forward, we glimpse him reading Dickens's A Christmas Carol to his child: "they can make more than one time possible at once".
The Scotsman:
Winter is a novel in which the cold also reveals clarity. Things crystallise. They become piercing and numbing at the same time. It is a book about being wintry in the sense of supercilious and hibernal, in its sense of wanting to shut the world out. The characters have to deal with both impulses, and deal with them in different ways. But the end result is a book that makes one think, and thinky books are rare as hen’s teeth these days.

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