On Loss, Time, and Hope: My Year of Reading Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet
Sara Batkie Reflects on the Past Year of COVID-19
September 15th to September 18th, 2020
The day I open the first book in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, smoke from the wildfires ravaging the West Coast reach Chicago. It feels like a decidedly Smith-ian touch, both absurd and sad, that some of the damage is traced to a device set off at a gender reveal party. It’s been that kind of year. Autumn begins with both of its main characters in limbo, which has some uncanny resonances with our pandemic present: Daniel, a centenarian, finds himself in a literal nightmare while Elisabeth, a 32-year-old adjunct, is trapped by the more bureaucratic snags of the Post Office. Even though this one isn’t run by Louis DeJoy, its service is still sub-optimal.
First published in 2016 the book unfolds in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, which honestly feels like decades ago at this point, but Smith mostly keeps the churning anxieties of those early days of disaster at the margins, limited to outbursts on radio shows and moments of doom scrolling, “Go Home” signs on fences and a suddenly outdated EU marking in a new passport. She’s more interested in sustaining a mood, and specifically the sense of impending loss that comes with the year turning towards its end. “Somehow this wasn’t the same as melancholy,” she writes. “Things just happened. Then they were over. Time just passed… It was a kind of relief.”
Impending loss hovers over the novel: Daniel isn’t just trapped in a nightmare, he’s trapped in his own body, confined to a bed in a care facility where Elisabeth comes to visit him. The two don’t speak so much as meet in one another’s imaginations. Smith captures the permeable border between the present and memory, the ability we all have to time travel where we sit, which feels all too familiar to me six months into a quarantine with no clear end. The characters bond over books, underappreciated pop artist Pauline Boty, reality shows about antique shopping. They speak about the hope of being seen by the people who love us, and the importance of forgetting something for a while so we can fall asleep. It feels at once like a replication of life and an improvement on it, to be surrounded by people who can articulate their loneliness with such wit. It’s as if Smith knew what was coming and wanted us to have good company.
When I close the book the autumn equinox is still four days away, but its chill is already in the air. I fear what the months ahead might bring, but they will come regardless. It’s, as Smith says, “an old story so new that it’s still in the middle of happening.” Except now in this story Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead.
December 18th to December 22nd, 2020
I start the second book of Smith’s quartet about nine months after Chicago instituted its first lockdown and one day after my sister, a pediatric anesthesiologist, texts to let me and my parents know she got her first dose of the COVID vaccine. Even in normal times, this is a season of hauntings, when we begin to look back on the year that was and think about what we hope for in the one ahead. But it’s particularly true of 2020, when so many of us have experienced unfathomable loss and are contemplating spending the holidays without loved ones.Even in normal times, this is a season of hauntings, when we begin to look back on the year that was and think about what we hope for in the one ahead.
The characters in Winter are similarly daunted by the idea of togetherness, though their reasons are a little more idiosyncratic than most. Art, an amateur nature blog writer, has just paid a young woman he met at the bus stop to pose as his estranged girlfriend Charlotte for the Christmas holidays. His aunt Iris was banished from the family decades ago due to her involvement with a radical anti-nuclear protest group and now works with refugees. And his mother Sophia, who lives in the Cornwall estate where they’ve all gathered and has recently begun seeing things. Time in the house seems unstable, flexible, the past and present knocking against one another like figures in a darkened hall. A clock outside keeps chiming the same hour; a night stretches beyond its credible boundaries. Much like its predecessor, this 2017 book vibrates eerily with our indeterminate present.
But Christmas does come eventually for the characters, as it will for anyone who celebrates it in 2020. As often happens at family gatherings, there are arguments about the Internet, which Sophia calls a “cesspit of naivety and vitriol,” and who voted for what, and everyone is “pretending to be someone or something else,” as the fake Charlotte puts it. Smith’s prose seamlessly mimics the elliptical ways that people who know one another well have conversations, how stories and jokes mutate depending on who is telling them, how a commiseration can turn to an insult in the span of a second, how a long-held secret can be brushed aside without a thought. How a memory from the past can live beside a moment that has yet to happen. Such things feel especially possible in winter, which isn’t now like it used to be; Art, in particular, reflects on this often. He has been waiting for the first snowfall of the year to write a blog post about ice crystals, but it hasn’t been cold enough.
The temperatures where I am promise bitterness in the coming days but we won’t have a white Christmas either. Winter ends without much resolved, but that feels appropriate for the season. As Smith writes, “a coming back of light was at the heart of midwinter equally as much as the waning of light.” Reflecting on the year that was, so much of it still seems shrouded in darkness to me, uninterpretable and vague. There are no accomplishments I can pick out, or resolutions I want to make. I’ll simply trudge onward, as I did in the winters of my childhood, when the snowbanks could reach to my armpits and just getting to the end of the driveway was a triumph. The day I close the book lasts just a little longer than the one before.
March 19th to March 21st, 2021
It’s almost a week on from the “leap forward” of Daylight Savings Time when I pick up the third volume of Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, but my sleep schedule hasn’t quite caught up yet. At least that’s the excuse I give myself for feeling so addled, though the state of the world certainly doesn’t help. In between the bursts of joy at photos of friends and loved ones getting the vaccine in my feed, there’s the news of another mass shooting in Atlanta, which law enforcement has so far brushed off as the perpetrator having “a bad day.” I was thirteen when Columbine happened, and watching these tragedies unfold always takes me instantly back to that confused and frightened headspace, even as information comes much faster and more furious now. It’s a sad reminder that a return to normalcy in this country doesn’t always mean good things.Winter ends without much resolved, but that feels appropriate for the season.
Richard, the lead character of Spring, is also experiencing destabilization; a director of television docudramas, he’s recently lost a friend and collaborator to terminal illness. Grief has cut him loose from his own life, the cumulus forms of his memories drifting through the narrative, giving it an elusive shape. He wanders like an Orpheus who keeps looking back, hoping for a different outcome. At one point he finds himself on a platform in Kingussie, Scotland with a clock that doesn’t seem to be working, stuck in an unending present defined almost entirely by what it lacks. Smith captures Richard’s depression with her trademark elegant and wry simplicity: “He breathes in. It hurts. He breathes out. It hurts.” He contemplates putting his head under the wheels of the next arriving train and almost succeeds in his attempt.
Instead of Richard’s skull, it’s the book itself that splits open. A new central character materializes, a woman in her early twenties named Brit who has no clear connection to Richard aside from also being somewhat unmoored. She is employed as a DCO at an IRC, which stands for a “Detainee Custody Officer” at an “Immigration Removal Centre,” where she has systematically been dulling her empathetic instincts towards the “deets,” as the officers call the teenaged migrants confined there. One morning on her way to work she crosses paths with a uniformed schoolgirl trying to get to Inverness by train on her own. Brit decides to tag along, in part because she suspects the child is the same one who recently walked into the boys-only IRC where Brit works undetected and convinced staff to clean the toilets.
What unfolds between them plays out like a microcosm of the central narrative construction on which Smith has built her entire career: to tug gently at the connective strands we use to make sense of the world, not to demonstrate their inauthenticity but their ingenuity. Like a benevolent god, Smith eventually grants these three characters the grace of time together; as Richard’s dead friend Paddy says, “Sometimes we’re lucky… we get to be more than the one thing or the nothing that history’d have us be.” A life is saved, maybe more than once. A child might be lost; a mother might be found. An ending gives way to a beginning. Clouds form from pieces of the past and move on, revealing the sun. The day after I finish the book, there will be another mass shooting in Boulder.
June 18th to June 20th, 2021
The day I open the final book in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, the expected “real feel” temperature in Chicago is ninety-four. Not as devastating as the week-long drought currently wreaking havoc on the power grids of the southern states, but uncomfortable nonetheless, especially for someone without an air conditioner in her apartment. I lament on the phone to my mother how the temperatures of the seasons no longer seem incremental but fanatical, rushing from one extreme to the other. “Didn’t there used to be longer stretches of 75 degree days?” we moan rhetorically to one another. Our cities are reopening but the weather is too enervating to enjoy it. Sacha, one of the first characters we meet in Summer, is also lamenting the effects of global warming, and what it means for her own future. “Why would you bring a child into a catastrophe?” the teenager wonders, an eerie echo of conversations I’ve had recently with friends.
While I’ve understood intellectually as a reader how Smith constructed each of these books with immediacy, it’s not until this volume, mentions of masks and “the virus” haunting its margins, that it hits me emotionally. For Sacha’s splintered family, the reality we’ve known and grown accustomed to this past year is only just beginning. It’s difficult not to read these early sections, as her younger brother flirts with internet nihilism and her mother willfully denies the desperate state of the world, without a dread for what’s coming creeping in. When two characters from Winter reappear, we learn that a third has since passed away and it seems like an omen.
But then, like the swifts whose return to Brighton each May marks the unofficial start of the season, Summer takes flight. As the second part of the book begins, another familiar face emerges: Daniel, the centenarian from Autumn who readers in real time wouldn’t have seen for four years. He is still under Elisabeth’s watchful eye, but the fog of his memories has thickened. He is having difficulty separating the present from a painful period in his past, when he and his German father were interned on the Isle of Man during World War II. We learn of his sister, Hannah, who was a resistance fighter in Vichy France and left a child behind there. The siblings, so often apart during their lifetimes, wrote to one another but burned the letters before sending them. It’s unclear if Daniel knows he ever had a niece.
It seems at first as though Smith is building towards a moment of great significance as these three groups of characters—Daniel and Elisabeth; Charlotte and Art; Sacha, her brother, and mother—converge one weekend. An “ah ha” moment that will finally knit the disparate volumes of this series into a resonant whole. “Summer,” as Smith notes, “comes from the Old English sumor… meaning both one and together.” Readers who want to tie everything up neatly can do so; Smith leaves every thread needed dangling. But she also understands enough about modern life to gift her characters with confusion and omission, too. Sometimes we understand one another, and sometimes we don’t. Entire families, and countries, can fracture over a single vote. Some people can remain; others must leave. But as Sacha’s mother Grace contends, “Another world is possible. When you’re stuck in the world at its worst, that’s important. To be able to say that.” She’s talking about a Shakespeare play, but she might as well be describing the book she’s in.
Families reform, often unexpectedly. Countries can too. Summer ends with a letter from a prisoner in the detention center from Spring, written to Sacha who learned of him from Charlotte. Recently released and welcomed into Charlotte’s home along with other migrants, he can see the swifts Sacha told him about from his new window, heralding the start of the season. I too can see birds from my window, and people out in the streets. The outdoor patios on Division are teeming again with friends and families, starved for more than just physical sustenance. I’ve been in Chicago for almost two years, but in moments like this it’s like I barely know it at all. It’s an odd feeling, isolating on some days and inspiring on others. Today is one of the latter. There is still a little bit of light left in the sky. It will last, it lasts, it lasted.