Cambridge Literary Festival celebrated the culmination of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet with an online ‘illustrated conversation in a lockdown landscape’ between Smith and journalist Alex Clark. We were promised a “unique event using images and voices, curated by Ali Smith and filmmaker Sarah Wood.”
Wood’s images, both moving and static, provided a restful backdrop to the literary chat. Switching between Cambridge and Kilkenny, Smith and Clark’s respective homes, the audience could browse their bookshelves and paintings before moving outside to admire their tomato plants and Smith’s sleepy black and white cat. A refreshing change from Zoom’s relentless in-your-faces.
“You’ve done it!” began Clark, “you’ve got to the end!” Smith said that when she began writing Autumn (published 2016) she was as unprepared as everyone else for the seismic shocks of Brexit and Covid 19 that would inform her four novels. But she remains hopeful: “the novel will always tend towards the humane.” Smith believes that all art forms are about internal and external renewal, that “the novel form, in particular, is about structure, consequence … continuance. It will always be about society, the ways we relate to each other over time.”
Smith read an extract from page 7 of Summer, in which Grace and her daughter Sacha argue over a quotation for a school essay: “Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.” Sacha doesn’t much care who wrote it (Hannah Arendt) or that she got it from a website called ‘Brainy quote’, while her mother cares about attribution: “Context. It matters.”
Clark responds by asking “who do we trust? What is the voice of authority? Do you write something because it sounds good? How do you know what the truth is underneath?”
Smith said that she had a writer friend in Orkney who “shouts out each sentence, so that he gets the rhythm right. Rhythm is around us – the information-led madness whose rhythm is like a heartbeat way over the level … you need to calm down … you need a beta-blocker … Sacha is on her own rhythm, while her mother’s is not her own … a reflecting rhythm – with dialogue life starts to happen. As the short story writer Grace Paley said, the source of life is in that dialogue. There’s something excitingly electric about it. And we long for it.”
Clark: “You’ve written about isolation, aloneness, climate change … surveillance and you allude to all manner of arts across the centuries …”
Smith: “The unprecedentedness at this global level [of the pandemic] … has brought out divisions and hierarchies … who’s got the money to do anything, notions of political division are bristling away … the number of people who are losing their lives … this is a really nasty virus [but also] a complex gift from nature … the clear skies of the lockdown showed that if we needed to change things, they could be changed.”
“Writing at the end of January, something wasn’t quite gelling … then this. It’s about understanding that there is a rhythm happening beyond this time. And if we listen back we can hear the rhythm of the future too.”
Clark: “We now talk about the ‘before times’ … the pandemic has created immense division. For example, over the liberty of wearing a mask. How far can these books go out into the world and show people what life is like?”
Smith: “I began this before Brexit was a word and I’ve ended it now Covid is a word. This novel continues to relate a story of a people at a time … it’s a very hopeful form … (there will be a time after) … allows you to open a stone and make the light come through it … it’s been an extraordinary revelation working with another shape.”
She read another extract from Summer: In the 1940s Daniel is taken off to an enemy alien camp on the Isle of Man, ‘the poor man’s Riviera.’ Through the wire he talks to a boy who doesn’t understand why he is there because he’s not a German. “A prison is always a prison, even in August when the sky is blue.”
Clark: “There are lots of artists in your books. Tell us a bit about Lorenza Mazzetti.”
Smith: “She was an Italian who came to London in the 1950s, part of the Free Cinema movement [with Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson] … She talked her way into the Slade School of Art by standing there and shouting ‘I’m not leaving until I see the Director. I want a place at this school because I’m a genius!’ The Director agreed and she got in … the first thing she did was find a cupboard full of filming materials and started making films. She hadn’t done this before … Her film Together won a prize at Cannes in 1956. Mazzetti was one of the mould-breaking Brit Postwar filmmakers.
She died this year. Have you heard of her? Almost no one has … she was also a painter and puppeteer … one of those people who breaks the mould. This book has the friendship of her images throughout.”
Clark: “You’re fascinated with makers of art …”
Smith: “None of the art forms exist without others; they flow into each other like a massive river … its’ source is such as giving source … I aspire to the point at which all art forms meet. No novel exists without previous writers … we constantly renew ourselves … the force of hope keeps us going.”
Clark: “This Quartet is an enormous achievement …”
Smith: “Thank you for shepherding me through it … we’ll do this again. We are human and we continue. I’m sending love to everyone out there now.”
Ali Smith finished by reading Clark’s favourite extract from Summer:
But that’s summer for you. Summer’s like walking down a road just like this one, heading towards both light and dark. Because summer isn’t just a merry tale. Because there’s no merry tale without the darkness.
And summer’s surely really all about an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something. We’re always looking for it, looking to it, heading towards it all year, the way a horizon holds the promise of a sunset. We’re always looking for the full open leaf, the open warmth, the promise that we’ll one day soon surely be able to lie back and have summer done to us; one day soon we’ll be treated well by the world. Like there really is a kinder finale and it’s not just possible but assured, there’s a natural harmony that’ll be spread at your feet, unrolled like a sunlit landscape just for you. As if what it was always all about, your time on earth, was the full happy stretch of all the muscles of the body on a warmed patch of grass, one long sweet stem of that grass in the mouth.
What a thought.