Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
It is Christmas Eve and Sophia is sitting at her kitchen table in her sprawling house in Cornwall.
…and here instead’s another version of what was happening that morning, as if from a novel in which Sophia is the kind of character she’d choose to be, prefer to be, a character in a much more classic sort of story, perfectly honed and comforting, about how sombre yet bright the major-symphony of winter is and how beautiful everything looks under a high frost, how every grassblade is enhanced and silvered into individual beauty by it, how even the dull tarmac of the roads, the paving under our feet, shines when the weather’s been cold enough and how something at the heart of us, at the heart of all our cold and frozen states, melts when we encounter a time of peace on earth, goodwill to all men; a story in which there’s no room for severed heads;
Winter is the second of Smith’s dazzling seasonal quartets, a unique project she completed this Christmas with the publication of the final book in the sequence, Summer. These novels span four years, from just after the vote for Brexit in the summer of 2016, culminating on 1st July 2020 with the world in the grip of a pandemic. They are meditations on a world grown more bordered and exclusive, and they incorporate current events in works of fiction that are grim and sad, yet also funny and hopeful, teeming with literary references, puns, and connections.
Each novel was written and published swiftly in order to be as up to date as possible. But long after the news cycle has passed, they will remain current with their universal themes of grief, injustice, love, art, and truth. They work as stand alone books, but readers who tackle all four will appreciate their shared themes and symmetries and the way central characters in one book will reappear in cameos in another.
The quartet reveals in no uncertain terms that we are in a mess. Autumn (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) begins with the divisions exposed by the EU referendum and was hailed as the first Brexit novel. At the Edinburgh international book festival, the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon interviewed Smith and read a passage from Autumn that she said, ‘sums up for me the sense of division and dislocation in our country and across the world today better than anything I’ve read, fiction or non-fiction, since the  referendum’:
All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All the across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland.
Sturgeon chose to stop there, ‘I liked that bit particularly’, she said. Smith answered:
We are living in a culture that insists on lying as its delivery of how we are living. It insists on telling us information about which we are left wondering whether it is true or not … Fiction and lies are the opposite of each other. Lies go out of the way to distort and turn you away from the truth. But fiction is one of our ways of telling the truth.
The strife of Autumn carries over into Winter, started in 2017 just as Donald Trump was about to come into power. There are references to the Women’s March, Trump’s deranged address to the scouts, the Grenfell Tower fire, and in post-Brexit Britain, a government inflaming people’s anger, using their ‘rage for its own political expediency’.
Winter tells the story of ultra conservative ex business woman Sophia Cleves, elderly and alone; her estranged, rebellious sister Iris; her nature blogging son Art, and a young woman he brings along to his mother’s house in Cornwall at Christmas. Art has just broken up with his girlfriend Charlotte, coming to blows over the changing world order which fails to interest Art and enrages Charlotte. He pays Lux, a young immigrant he finds at a bus stop, to join him at his mother’s and stand in for Charlotte. In Sophia’s almost derelict 15-bedroom house, all four wrestle with current issues, thoughts, dreams, themselves, each other. Lux is a familiar trope of Smith’s: a person so wise and true that she cuts through fake news, secrets and lies, and has a transformative effect on the others.
An overarching theme of the quartet is connection and its opposite. Smith is constantly on the watch for connections, be they superficial or profound; they are points of intimacy, communality and belonging. Even though the politics of our times divide and fracture us, nature and life work differently, intuitively, to connect us. The seeds of spring begin in autumn, with the shedding of the leaves to make way for new buds; each season contains elements of all the others
‘Only connect,’ as E.M. Forster wrote in Howard’s End. ‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.’ Living in such a divided world, Smith believes ‘we need the human factor more than ever and we need to protect it and honour it’.
Some of her characters split over differing ethical stances, yet others come together. Some are willing to lose their freedom (sometimes their very lives) to fight right-wing nationalism, xenophobia, Nazism, and now climate change. Smith mentions the last time she saw John Berger speak, when he defined fascism as one group of human beings believing it has the right to decide about the worth or the rights of another set of human beings. ‘I think this is the bedrock for this Winter book.’
The visual arts and literature are central to these novels. Art and literature console, providing fresh perspectives on the mess of our times. Smith says,
[they]…ask response. They ask for our thinking, feeling presence. The visual arts do it with an immediacy we think we’re used to…but we’re never used to art, which will always shake us out of ourselves and into new, renewed selves.
Each of the seasonal books is twinned with a different novel by Dickens. For Winter it is A Christmas Carol. Sophia is as life-denying as Scrooge. Her sister Iris calls her ‘an old miserly grump who had nothing in the house for your son and his girlfriend for Christmas except a bag of walnuts and half a jar of glacé cherries’.
Before the guests arrive, Sophia talks to a disembodied head that merrily bobs about like the dancing light of Christmas past. Sometimes it takes the form of a sweet-faced child, then a Green Man, shape shifting like Scrooge’s ghostly visitors. Slowly, as its hair falls out, and its features disappear, it becomes a stone boulder resembling one of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures. Sophia, frozen and disconnected, is unable to feel for the people involved in atrocities that she sees on television, or people on her local streets who look ‘ruined, Dickensian, like poverty ghosts from a hundred and fifty years ago’. Yet she can feel for this head. It is the beginning of her thawing out.
Smith introduces presiding artistic spirits in each of the works, all of them lesser-known female artists. For Winter, the artist is Barbara Hepworth, known for her Modernist sculptures, among them abstract stone or wooden pieces pierced with holes. Many were inspired by the land forms of Cornwall, her home for more that twenty-five years. Smith believes Hepworth ‘knows how the physical universe and the human world come together and come apart.’ One of the characters in Winter observes that these holes are designed to make people ‘think of ancient things’ and be reminded of touch, of the sensory immediacy of things. They give us something to hold onto when everything goes awry.
One of Shakespeare’s late plays is woven into the text of each of the books. In an interview with Penguin, Smith says:
I’m lucky in these books. When I began writing Autumn it’s ‘The Tempest’ that walked along the road beside it, companioned it, without me asking, and I began to understand that maybe the four last plays of Shakespeare – the plays in which he mixes to a whole new form a fusion of tragedy, comedy and history, ‘The Tempest’, ‘Cymbeline’, ‘Pericles’, ‘Prince of Tyre’, and ‘The Winter’s Tale’, three of which I’ve loved since I was in my teens and one of which is still new to me, read last year for the first time – might kindly let me shelter under their oxters [Scots for armpit] with these seasonal books.
Smith chose Cymbeline as the companion play for Winter. It is about the Roman vassal king of Britain, who banishes his daughter Innogen’s husband, and sets in motion a trail of deceits and power plays that wreak havoc.
Core to Winter is the notion of truth and what we decide to be true. Smith is adamant that truth is not relative – when truth suffers, we all suffer – and that fiction is a way to reach truths that are hidden or difficult to verbalise.
As with Cymbeline, Winter is full of mistaken identities and people who are lost and found. Smith’s novel adds tumultuous world events to the mix such as Donald Trump’s ascent to power. As she says,
Fake news and all the use of power and the abuse of power, and the poisonings of what we know, all of this is ancient. It’s all in Greek tragedies and it’s all in Shakespeare.
Despite this ominous literary echo, in spite of the mess and the lies that make it impossible to see how there could possibly be a resolution, one does emerge by the end of Shakespeare’s play. As one of the characters in Winter remarks, after the ‘poison, mess, bitterness’, balance is restored, ‘lies revealed’, ‘losses compensated.’
The balance is restored to some extent in Winter too, leaving us with the sense that, as fractured and dire as life may feel to us now, in time the pendulum will swing back from destruction and division to regeneration and reconciliation, from darkness to light, from winter to spring. These are givens. And we can turn to literature to discover such truths, and age-old cycles. We have ‘transcendent storytelling’, an ‘endlessly giving source’ from the past that sheds light on our present.
Cornwall receives a cursory mention in the book. Perhaps it was chosen to incorporate Barbara Hepworth into the characters’ conversations, since Hepworth’s former home and studio in St Ives are located near Sophia’s house.
What the book captures so well is climate – the chill of winter, the direness of the political environment and the varied psychological states of the main characters.
A seed of optimism can be found in the depth of winter. One of the characters observes that just four days since the shortest day, there was a new quality to the light. There was a ‘shift’, a ‘reversal’ from dark to light which ‘revealed that a coming back of light was at the heart of midwinter equally as much as the waning of light.’ This fact about winter registered for the first time for Smith while she wrote the book. And, as she points out while interweaving the changing seasons with contemporary times, the
short view and the long view meet and remind each other about context, continuance, consequence, cycle, and above all the fact that time passes, will pass…winter still means both freeze and its aftermath, thaw, both of which it holds in its power.
Ali Smith grew up a ‘proficient, happy, versatile child’ in a large family in Scotland. She was the daughter of an Irish mother and an English father, a child of the United Kingdom in the truest sense. From an early age, she knew she would write, and she read constantly. Although her parents knew the value and importance of books, they had little time to read and there were few books in the house. Yet they passed on oral traditions. Her father told wonderful stories about ghosts that he swore were true. And her mother would wrap her up in a towel after her bath and suddenly turn into other imaginary characters, using utterly different voices: ‘It was absolutely terrifying.’
The public library was her first entry point into the world of books. She calls libraries ‘division melting places’, where people come together to share books and break down boundaries. Later, bookshops opened in her town and she spent her money and her time there. On Sunday nights, films from all over the world were shown at a local theatre where she saw the work of Tati, Varda, Truffaut.
From primary school on, Smith was writing plays, poetry and short stories. When she was twenty she won a competition run by the Sunday Times. The editor added a line in pencil at the bottom of his letter to her, to let her know that one of the judges, Beryl Bainbridge, had particularly liked her story. ‘Oh I was chuffed’, she said.
When asked about her preference for writing about the poor, the traumatised, those living on the margins, Smith says,
I grew up on the margins, I inherited all the value of the margins. I know from all my reading and living that extraordinary things happen on the edges—the changes happen, the rituals happen, the magic, for want of a better word, happens on the edge of things. Everything is possible at the edge. It’s where the opposites meet, the different states and elements come together.
She studied at Aberdeen and then Cambridge, where she met her partner, the artist Sarah Wood. Smith never finished her PhD, nor did she make it as an academic: ‘I’d stand up to lecture and I’d feel sick – physically sick.’ As a result she pursued her own work instead.
Smith’s writing is described as experimental or modernist but she dislikes labels, pointing to the fact that the term ‘novel’ itself, means new. She detests any type of ‘ist’ but her work does have the feel of modernism in the way it pushes the boundaries of prose writing. She plays with different structures and shatters sequence by jumping back and forth in time. In Winter her characters make passing reference to this, as in the quote above from Sophia, who would prefer to be ‘a character in a much more classic sort of story’ and Art, who says, ‘That’s one of the things stories and books can do, they can make more than one time possible at once.’ If she were to confine herself to any description, Smith claims it would be the type of modernism Katherine Mansfield achieved, ‘a sly, laughing modernism that doesn’t really commit itself’.
She has grown tired of film and television that fails to challenge us, is all ‘too easy’, and drowns us in a sea of sentimentality, avoiding deep and tough emotions. It fosters an impression that solutions are simple, that there is closure and that life contains a beginning, a middle and a happy end. It fails to prepare us for risk. ‘Do you come to art to be comforted, or do you come to art to be re-skinned?’, she asks Jeannette Winterson in an interview. Winterson responds by saying that Smith’s writing offers an antidote to all the easiness:
She pushes us into a situation and gives us no way out. Her work is cathartic because it is painful in the proper sense. Our feelings are engaged, measured, challenged, and released. This is what art is supposed to do, and still does, far away from phony violence or bathos.
The books began as an experiment. They came about because Smith handed in the manuscript for her novel How to Be Both very late, yet Penguin managed to pull out all stops to publish it within a record six weeks to meet their publishing schedule. This made her think about how she might write a series named after the seasons, a desire she had had since beginning to write. Discrete yet linked, they would be about time, reflecting contemporary issues, and they would be published as close to the time of their writing as possible.
Simon Prosser, Publisher at Penguin, liked the idea and sounded out the rest of the team. From editors and proof readers to the people involved in printing, distribution and publicity, all were up for it, even though the project would require enormous focus and energy from them over the course of the next four years.
To gain a head start, the covers were designed right away. A series of paintings by David Hockney called ‘The Tunnel’ was chosen, depicting the same length of Yorkshire road in each of the seasons. Art Director Richard Bravery came up with a design incorporating cloth bindings in seasonal colours and Simon Prosser rushed off to show them to Ali:
He showed me the four Hockney mock-ups for the covers of books that didn’t exist yet. No pressure.
None of them could have guessed at the time how pertinent this project would be, or that some of the most extraordinary events in living history would unfold within the next few years. By the time Smith had completed the last book, Brexit had been usurped by the pandemic as the most pressing issue in Britain. And lockdown was a perfect reflection of her concerns about isolation, the dissolving of community and the many forms that deprivation of freedom can take. It made her realise ‘that the books we write aren’t chosen by us, they choose us.’
Smith wrote each of the books instinctually, over the course of just four months, trusting that each new book in the series would be waiting for her. ‘Books, I’ve always believed, aren’t really written by writers, but by everything that person’s read. It’s the writing that already exists that begets the writing’.
She and Simon Prosser would share a ritual before she began each book, going out together to view the manuscript of a work that could inform the novel. For Autumn, they visited the British Museum and saw the manuscript for Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’. For Winter it was a few pages of what is believed to be Shakespeare’s handwriting, in a speech he wrote for The book of Thomas More. They viewed the writing of the presiding artistic spirit for Spring, Katherine Mansfield, the following year. It was a letter she wrote in the middle of winter in which she said she was looking for signs of spring. And for Summer they headed to the Victoria & Albert Museum to view the manuscript for David Copperfield.
Asked about her close partnership with Penguin/ Hamish Hamilton, Smith says,
It means the world. It means a way to talk about the world as it is. It means an extraordinary communal galvanising…It’s a kind of energy I couldn’t have dreamed possible. But it is possible. It’s more than possible. It’s what carpe diem, seize the day, literally means.
Photographs of Cotehele have been taken with the kind permission of the National Trust.
The popular Christmas carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is alluded to in Winter. Based on a poem ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1872) by Christina Rossetti, it was set to music by Gustav Holst.
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
While sitting in a traffic jam on Christmas Eve, Sophia muses about how Christmas music is utterly ineffectual at any time of the year other than the bleakest midwinter, when ‘it touches us deeply’ because it speaks to us about being lonely and also communal.
It gives voice to spirit at its biggest, and encourages spirit at its smallest, its most wizened, to soak itself in something richer. It intrinsically means a revisiting. It means the rhythm of the passing of time, yes, but also, and more so, the return of time in its endless and comforting cycle to this special point in the year…
Yet ironically in Smith’s Winter, due to climate change, there is no longer snow but a ‘half-season grey selfsameness’. Art finds that he longs for the ‘essentiality’ of winter, its whiteness, its ‘trees emphatic’, a long winter sun, a ‘muffled’ unblemished, snow laden path through woods.
Smith is a great admirer of Katherine Mansfield and twenty years ago was asked by Penguin to write an introduction to her short stories. The deadline was four months away and having read the very slim volume In a German Pension, she felt she could easily tackle the remaining volumes and dash off what was required. But Mansfield’s work kept eluding her and the introduction took four years. She found the writing ‘was charged with vitality, so much so that it gave off little shocks, like electric charges’, yet she could not understand how Mansfield achieved this.
It was not until she went to Brazil, lying jet-lagged on her bed reading one of Mansfield’s short stories, that she felt at home with the writing. This, she realised, was because she was feeling foreign, ‘in limbo, between countries, selves, times, peoples, psychologies, histories’. Mansfield had been a writer in exile and her writing helped Smith to feel understood in this new strangeness of being.
Smith adds that Mansfield is,
So cunning, so sensitive, hair-trigger sensitive in language, to all the layerings and performances, social, psychological, instinctual, all the things it’s impossible to articulate—in the merest exchange—and so sharp to the edgy aliveness of all things and especially language, the wild aural world.
It was the summer of 2016 in England but I was in my own private, hellish winter. The results of the Brexit referendum were announced three days before the death of my partner Peter, from brain cancer.
He had just experienced another terrible seizure and was now sleeping deeply. The palliative care nurse, quiet, capable, indispensable, arrived early in the morning. Over a cup of tea, she mentioned that while walking through the town to our cottage, she had seen a man full of rage running through the narrow streets screaming ‘Welcome to Cornwall: arsehole of the world!’ He was lamenting what he perceived to be the backwardness of Cornwall’s majority vote to leave the EU. For years Cornish fishermen had endured a quota system that crippled them. They hoped that a departure from the EU would improve their situation, and much of Cornwall had backed them. Later I slipped out for a few minutes and observed a man striding about the town wearing a smirk and a suit made from the Union Jack.
After that first day, walls seemed to go up – between old and young, north and south, city and country, liberal and conservative, with people shouting at one another from either side, holding fiercely onto their own opinions (mea culpa). Soon friends were telling me how they had fallen out with family members and four and a half years later, some are still not speaking.
We grew conscious of the need to tiptoe around the subject with certain people. A few felt obliged to feign loyalty to one side, while preferring the other. One local shop keeper put up a small sign above his shop stating that he found Brexit objectionable. Another, a long-standing member of the Cornish community, confided to him that he wished he’d had the courage to hang up something similar.
Ali Smith describes these divisions perfectly in Winter, observing how people are all
….living in the same world but separately from each other, like their worlds have somehow become disjointed or broken off each other’s worlds.
In winter, Cornwall seems particularly special with its miles and miles of empty moors and beaches. The climate is temperate so snow and frost are infrequent and quickly vanish. But because the county is surrounded by sea, it is subject to wild storms and sou’ westerlies that sweep across the bays in a fury. Walking along Cornwall’s shores becomes an adventure at such times. And as the days shorten and it gets dark by four, people take refuge in cottages built from local stone and slate that look utterly ageless.
One of the special winter events in Cornwall is the Christmas floral garland at the Tudor house Cotehele at Saltash, near the River Tamar. From spring, gardeners begin to collect the flowers for drying. They are then turned into a 60 foot long garland that decorates its Great Hall, from late November, until the end of December (but alas not this year). Choirs perform beneath the garland in the lead up to Christmas.
As Keynote Speaker at the Edinburgh Literary Festival in 2012, Ali Smith addresses the question: How should authors approach the task of writing a novel today?
A review of Winter in The New York Times.
Ali Smith talks about the books that have influenced her.
Footage of David Hockney painting ‘November Tunnel’, the painting that was used for the front cover of Winter.
Director Melly Still from the Royal Shakespeare Company explains the convoluted plot of Cymbeline.
A documentary about the origins of A Christmas Carol.
The website for the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden in St Ives.
And details about the life of Barbara Hepworth on the Tate website:
The Tudor house Cotehele is looked after by The National Trust.
A piece about visiting Cornwall in winter on the Visit Cornwall website.
‘Ali Smith on the second in her seasonal quartet, Winter’, Foyles.co.uk
Begley, Adam. ‘Ali Smith, The Art of Fiction‘ No. 236, The Paris Review, Issue 221, Summer 2017
Elkins, Amy E. ‘Has Art Anything to Do with Life?: A Conversation with Ali Smith on “Spring”, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3 September, 2019
Higgins, Charlotte. ‘Fiction is a way of Telling the truth – Ali Smith in Edinburgh‘, The Guardian, 21 August 2018
James, Anna. ‘Ali Smith on the post truth era: ‘There is still a light’’, Penguin blog, 18 September 2018
Merritt, Stephanie. ‘Winter by Ali Smith review – luminously beautiful’, The Guardian, 5 November 2017
Saenger, Peter. ‘Novelist Ali Smith Finds Art for All Seasons’, The Wall Street Journal, 25 September, 2020
Smith, Ali, et al. ‘Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet: an oral history’, Penguin blog, 6 August 2020
Smith, Ali. Winter, Penguin, 2018
Winterson, Jeanette. ‘Ali Smith Interview’, The Times (25 April 2003), republished on Jeanette Winterson Blog