Is it a mistake for writers to pursue topicality? Is the necessary perspective possible at such close range? Will such work date as quickly as old news? We know where Smith stands on these questions, and I'm with her ... [a] remarkable project ... What will keep [this series] fresh long after the news cycle has moved on is their passionate engagement with universal issues such as grief, injustice, human warmth and cruelty, and the life-enhancing powers of love, art, and decency ... Smith reveals subtle but overarching connections between the four volumes' recurrent characters and themes, bringing this brilliant quartet to a satisfying close. But as befits our dark times, there's a somberness to this volume that even Smith's characteristic compassion and brainy playfulness can't quite mitigate ... I'll miss the intricate narrative Smith has spun out of a combination of real and fictional people and events ... Of course Summer, the denouement of Smith's truly novel quartet of novels — which ends while the world is still wracked by the novel coronavirus — also faced a risk of being overloaded with our expectations. Not to worry: This final volume bears the weight with aplomb.
Ali Smith’s new novel, Summer, is the concluding volume in her immersive, prickly and politically ardent seasonal quartet ... Each has been on the beat of the world’s news, from Brexit to Trump to wildfires in Australia to immigrant detainees to, now, the arrival of Covid-19. (You imagine her at the printing plant, dictating final touches as the presses churn.) Each has been like a push notice that clicks open in your mind ... When we get momentarily baffled in a Smith novel, we don’t, like Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, sit and scratch our hindquarters. We’re with the author, banging down bosky mental paths. She trusts that we’ll eventually notice the trail blazes on the rocks. She’s writing about the state of her own soul at the moment, and meaning can be up for grabs ... This novel has a lot to say about political prisoners and immigrant detainees of all stripes, from World War I up to the present day. Efforts are made to help some of them ... Along the way there is a good deal of talk about evanescence — of summertime and everything else ... This novel made me laugh, quite a lot, as the generations wage war ... Smith’s seasonal novels can be pretty on-the-nose, politically. Sometimes they veer into the saccharine. The water, here and there, turns brackish. But as with a strong river, their motion is fundamentally self-purifying ... Summer is a prose poem in praise of memory, forgiveness, getting the joke and seizing the moment. 'Whatever age you are,' one character comments, 'you still die too young.'
In a novel that is, like all of Smith’s, rich with references, characters quick to share stories about artists and their work, and the misfits and heroes of history, Summer is more than a perennial season. It is the bravura performance of a writer, poised at the edge of the day’s vast darkness, gathering all the warmth and light of our inner summer.
Smith has completed what must be considered both one of modern fiction’s most elusive and most important undertakings ... brief but crowded ... Smith is a gifted storyteller—the whole quartet is highly readable — but story is only half the point of her work. As she planned from the start, the characters in “Summer” seem uncannily contemporaneous, agonizing over COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd. At the same time, though, Smith uses these events as a launch to glide up into thinner air, particularly long meditations on art and time, her twin obsessions — including, in this book, reflections on Einstein, A Winter’s Tale, the filmmaker Lorena Mazzetti, and swifts, subjects she explores with the poet’s constant willingness to break forward in the direction of a new idea ... This is Smith’s method in the seasonal quartet: to force the timely and the timeless together, like the wrong ends of two magnets. If she were even an ounce less talented it would fall apart. But she isn’t. She’s a great writer, quite possibly bound for a Nobel Prize ... That’s not to say that her work is perfect. Her weakness for bad jokes may be the single most reliable constant in her career as a writer, and as often as she catches onto the tail of a great thought, others fizzle out. She’s weakest when she addresses her themes directly ... But much of this is the hazard a great writer risks by working fast. You would be hard-pressed to find matching inelegances in McEwan’s work, for example — but equally hard-pressed to find Smith’s fierce, cleansing anger about politics or the moments of transcendent, enigmatic beauty that can only truly be understood by reading the books ... What Smith has really achieved with the seasonal quartet is an advance in form ... by grounding this quartet both in the immediacy of politics and in her insights about a series of specific artists, from Pauline Boty to Barbara Hepworth to Katherine Mansfield, she has allowed her gift for abstraction to gleam here and there from within the rock face of the factual, rather than leading with it ... The result is sublime. As the characters of Summer entwine, like branches over a road, I had the feeling that no novelist has come closer to describing the particular sad informed madness of our times. How that feeling will age is hard to say — but then, how will any of us age, who have lived through this? Sooner or late the season will arrive that tells us the answer.
There are so many links between the novels that someone has actually made a Seasonal Quartet bingo card, where players tick off squares such as 'Eloquent non-native English speaker” and “Bureaucracy' ... Summer delivers these tropes with aplomb and serves as a skeleton key to the series. Whilst the three other novels can be read and appreciated independently, Summer, much like the season itself, shines brighter through the memories of Autumn, Winter and Spring. ... However, as everything is slowly revealed to be linked and the true breadth of Smith’s project is realised, one begins to realise that the Seasonal Quartet has been a lie. These have never actually been four independent novels, but rather four sections of a single, massive work, with Summer serving as the showstopping finale ... And what a finale. Summer is simply astonishing. Most of us had little doubt that Smith would deliver (because, realistically, has she ever produced a sub-par book?) but Summer somehow exceeded every one of my expectations. It is fitting, in my mind anyway, to think of the Seasonal Quartet as a symphony. Summer is the final movement, all joy and celebration, a climax that has been building for some time. Themes and motifs from earlier movements appear once again, in rondo form, as the orchestra plays all at once. Then bang, whimper, it all ends. There is deathly silence followed by a manic crash of applause.
The project has been an attempt to narrow the gap not only between a novel’s conception and its publication, but between art and the reality it consumes in order to produce itself ... One rule of thumb would have it that the smaller the gap, the lesser the art. Can any novel produced at such lightning pace possibly be good? Summer provides a cheeky nod to this inevitable question ... Smith’s dazzling experiment in simultaneity has pointedly thumbed its nose at rules of thumb. The result is indeed a maestra’s portrait of her age, a project at once staggeringly ambitious and entirely of a piece with a quarter-century body of work that teases so delightfully along the limits of EM Forster’s question: 'What does a novel do?' ... How fitting that this novel should narrate for you how you feel about reading it at the very moment when you feel it, text pressing so closely against life it’s as if we are being challenged to spot the difference ... But Smith’s experimentation always works in the service of good old-fashioned storytelling rather than at its expense, making it both wildly innovative and reassuringly familiar at the same time ... Each novel has been part of a larger jigsaw puzzle that may now finally be assembled. Each one has also been its own collage of ideas and stories, an exercise in artful juxtaposition and exuberant ekphrasis ... this novel is a remarkable and clear-sighted resolution of Smith’s project, which has felt all along as if it wants to nudge us towards hope, towards the idea that if we want to reverse the irreversible flow of history, we have to look to what the novel can do.
Smith’s series has become a central part of my cultural life, one of the tools with which I attempt to read the moment, both a framing device and a lesson in defence against the dark arts. She says: things are bad, life is complicated; but here are Chaplin’s films and Pauline Boty’s paintings, here is Tacita Dean and Barbara Hepworth, here is Shakespeare and Dickens and Katherine Mansfield. She says: yes there’s Brexit, but here are deep shared ties of history and culture; yes there’s indefinite detention and the climate crisis, but here are people willing to lose their freedom, even their lives, to protest against them; yes there’s loss and loneliness, but here are small moments of connection, of recognition, of dignity. And yet so frantic were the headlines of 2020, so febrile the global temperature, I began to wonder if there was too much reality even for this supremely subtle and supple writer ... Reading the four books together is a deeply affecting experience, in which we understand the huge ambition that underlies them, the profound and compassionate intelligence that sits at their heart. Ali Smith has completed something truly remarkable in her seasonal quartet, a work that has risen to the challenges of the era that summoned it, but also a series of novels that will endure, telling future generations what it was to live in these fraught and febrile times, and how, through art, we survived.
... dreamy and astute, with characters that are fleshy, distinctive and compassionately drawn. Their main concerns also happen to be timeless ... Forgoing some subtlety, she seems to be warning of the perils of complacency. Yet the agelessness of her dark themes should also offer some hope ... Ms. Smith makes little secret of her politics ... For a writer as clever as Ms. Smith, however, Robert’s aspirational, adolescent awe of Boris Johnson’s 'brilliant application of lies' feels a bit heavy-handed ... Ms. Smith has crafted something that speaks to this moment, but the impression it leaves will similarly unsettle and last.
All great stylists are idiosyncratic, and Smith is one of our greatest. Few writers today can make a more compelling claim to singularity of innovation and sustained brilliance. Antically digressive, linguistically dexterous, tonally playful, learned but unpretentious, everyday but lacking condescension, and fundamentally romantic, Smith somehow pulls off the feat of tracing the unique quiddity of her characters while always sounding like herself ... The main question Smith has faced is how to turn the immediate real world into art while staving off the threat of obsolescence. More intimately, such a project, with its method of rapid response, risks at the very least emphasizing (at worst exhausting) the aesthetic possibilities, or limitations, of a writer as distinctive as Smith ... The Seasonal novels in their weaker moments can start to feel like an echo chamber, much like one’s social media. But ultimately it will be their aesthetic value, and not their sentiment, that will determine their ethical and political affect ... Summer is a superb novel, the standout season, and it mostly dispels the uneven weather. A virtuoso individual, it is also a conscientious team player, at last bringing the narratives of the Seasonal novels – which have for the most part appeared to be stand-alone stories – together ... Summer deconstructs its own formula from within. The style and content work hard to keep each other honest; and the novel’s meaning and affect are in excess of its patterns ... Smith’s distinctive style is a profound gift precisely because it is a kind of love. At once tolerant and critical, generous and exacting, this novel is in its very form an implicit defence of otherness and difference ... we should be thankful.
Smith has produced one ‘seasonal’ book a year for the last four years, beginning with Autumn in October 2016 and ending now in high summer – or, to put it another way, beginning with the EU referendum and ending with Covid-19. The quartet is an experiment in writing about how we live now, and especially about how we register the language of politics in our everyday lives – how far we escape it, how much we are defined by it. Smith has us mostly flailing about ... Smith’s take on the relationship between people and TV is much odder than [the unstable boundary between her own thoughts and corporate thoughts] ... Then and now meet up in the plot of the novel, which picks up narrative strands from the rest of the quartet and drives them towards resolution ... Smith’s achievement is to have created a set of scenarios plotted with this clear purpose in mind and yet to treat the people trapped as functionaries in contemporary Britain’s unlovely state-corporate systems with tremendous generosity. She doesn’t judge them ... we watch Smith’s flattened, caricature people become allegorical figures – or rather, since the traffic goes in every direction, we watch them flicker back and forth between caricature, character and allegory ... Several reviewers have praised these highly realised and moving passages as the heart of the novel, but this seems to me to be exactly the wrong way to read the book – to hang on to the realist thread, and search for real-life emotional truths under all the punning and allegorical high jinks. Part of Smith’s point about this small portion of a history of the Holocaust is that it doesn’t get passed on in the novel ... Smith is brilliant on the sheer ambient logic of our surroundings, and the endless waiting imposed by ‘procedure’.
It has all come full circle, as a seasonal cycle might be expected to do. However, Smith is an unexpected writer. For her, the turning of the seasons is not simply about the comfort, in troubled times, of seeing the roses bloom again in August like before. By taking us deep into the reality of various historical and cultural events (and reminding us that no one knew the ending then either)—the war for Germans in England, BLM—she envisions the shape of life as something more wildly elemental than the neat idea that our days on earth run from point A to B with the continuous rolling base of the cycle of the seasons anchoring us to 'time' ... There is so much pleasure in Summer ... Art, justice and nature are all given their due. There could be no more nourishing read for this summer of our discontent.
A number of cultural historical references throughout the story — on science, art history and philosophy — labour an implicitly political point about the interconnectedness of all people and things. The homely didacticism will be familiar to readers of the earlier books, as will the playful prose style. Smith’s relentless punning is occasionally witty but much of it feels painfully forced — neither clever nor particularly funny ... In Summer,, as in other recent political fictions, earnestness stifles artistry.
In lesser hands, these books would degenerate into Pollyanna both-sidesism: if only we could all get along! Smith skirts the trap, but never falls in ... Weaving Robert’s story with Sacha’s and Grace’s experiences, and all of them with Daniel’s flee from Nazism into a British internment camp, Iris’s lifelong activism, and Art’s and Charlotte’s writing projects, Summer becomes an intergenerational patchwork illustrating both the trends of our times and a meditation on time itself ... What makes the Seasonal Quartet such a pleasure is the way its writing forms its own response. Smith fills the novels with literary flourishes in the form of communication failures: wordplay and references and assumptions that disclose different ways of seeing the world ... Few authors can match her playful, wrenching prose ... Expressing the novel and the historical at the same time, finding it in the marrow of our deepest, most ordinary selves, is the Seasonal Quartet’s greatest achievement. But it’s also what makes reading Summer during this summer so strange, much less in the fall ... At times, Summer can feel too ephemeral for the weight of these times. Yet I’ve also found myself recommending them more and more the worse things have become. Maybe their levity is just the reminder we need.
No voice here carries the day. Smith is ever aware of the wide streak between what seems to be and what is. She lets us listen in, play emotional detective and unscramble what we can of what is and what was (always crucial in a story that hopscotches across time and geography) ... Never has she been more dedicated to the long view. And never has the long, settled view seemed more inconclusive ... over and over, her novels show us beauty at the junction where innocence and knowledge meet. Smith has hitched herself to history on the fly, but she reminds us that in all times, love and beauty persist.
Beyond the political dimension, one of the most peculiar things about Summer is how current it is. This is surely one of the first works of published fiction to describe a Covid-world. The Seasonal Quartet was sparked by the Brexit vote, but, depressingly, Brexit felt like nothing new, just a reiteration of old oppositions. This last book feels very fresh, because the pandemic is such a shock in itself. Smith has managed to achieve something that is particularly difficult – to write a fiction about the present without sounding naff. She has fallen a little into the pitfall of the hopeful, proselytising liberal, but this is tempered and questioned somewhat by the character of Robert. She writes him and other young characters very well, with nothing of the awkwardness of other older writers ... There is a poignancy to it which steers clear of a trite ending but allows for moments of beauty and quiet perceptiveness along the way. It can sometimes seem a bit awkwardly obvious...but even this is relatively nuanced. Pockets of other stories within the larger arc are just as enticing as the main tale. Nothing feels superfluous, and all things are linked, no matter how obliquely.
... [a] powerfully absorbing closer to the series ... She may start a book with a topical howl, as in...the quietly desperate tone of Summer, at once utterly exhausted and bristlingly combative ... But the issues pondered in Summer, as in the three other books, are weighty questions of the human condition ... To all these matters Smith brings not a sermon disguised as a novel but the brawling comedy of English diction (she has a pitch-perfect ear for social voice, whether the Man Behind the Counter or the teenage crusader). She also brings her A-team of literary players to the game so that storytelling, along with knowledge and truth, stand ready to testify about the matters in hand.
Summer, the final instalment, is set to be the first great coronavirus novel ... As with Spring, it is the human values that come to the forefront, as Smith touches on the scale of the UK’s migrant crisis ... Summer is a book to savour, a literary tour de force that captures the nation’s psyche exquisitely, and just like the season itself, ends on a fleeting, open and hopeful note, which is exactly what we need in these strange times.
With Summer... she goes out in a blaze of glory ... Smith packs so much into Summer that it is a marvel it gets off the ground, but it does. She weaves together the crises of the world—not just the urgent, like the pandemic, but also the older, deeper crises of xenophobia, migration and climate change. She shows them to be an interlocked collage, and does so with wit and warmth ... Her quartet has been that rare thing: a work of art that has kept pace with the times that forged it. I had thought it would end in the heat of apocalypse, but instead I am reminded of how much light there is in the world.
... a shimmering tapestry of rage and redemption ... She’s at the top of her game here, dovetailing flashbacks with foreground story in sumptuous sentences, capturing the shameful plight of World War II—and present-day—detainees. Summer argues passionately for art as our best weapon to vanquish the chaos of the present, probing the season’s gossamer mystique with a delicate array of motifs ... She's...a magnanimous stylist with an ear like none other, a command of both mania and poise that feels beautifully tailored to our time. With its jubilant final act, the seasonal quartet assures that Smith will be studied for decades to come, a beacon to future readers eager to wrest meaning from our turbulent moment.5
Smith manages to restore both a sense of community and something even rarer in the wired world: narrative ... One of the most powerful moments in Summer involves the mystery of connection ... a revelation of endurance and a balm even in the worst of times.
Each book [in the quartet] pokes relentlessly at our consciences with accounts of people, including ourselves, affected by climate change, Brexit, immigration, homelessness, social indifference, the lethal missteps of public health authorities during the Covid-19 pandemic ... Each book has rants, often out of the mouths of children, about the mangling of human discourse in social media and in the mouths of politicians ... Most of all, the Seasonal Quartet is a foursome of togetherness and apartness, life and death, brought close by memory ... Ali Smith’s Summer tends toward comedy. Though unable to turn her face from the suffering happening right now, right here in our world, Smith can’t resist…To say she can’t resist seeing the bright side is to invoke a phrase appealing, but long gone trite.
The seasons turn, the cycle completes, but real-world events don’t necessarily provide resolution, nor the sense of hope and redemption that the big-hearted Smith seeks to express in her novels. Perhaps it’s best to think of Summer as something other than a novel or, at least, a distinct subgenre of the novel ... There’s a madcap anything-could-happen quality that’s reminiscent of improvised drama, where a key rule is never to block an idea ... her books feel more like products of the internet than critiques of it: unfathomably broad but madly distracting. Given that it begins with a warning about indifference, Summer lacks the moral weight that you would expect from the concluding volume of such an ambitious quartet. The prose dashes from image to image, anecdote to anecdote, amassing references and—by extension—possible meanings. It’s also occasionally sloppy ... One can’t help wondering if this project has all been an impish game.
This is an exuberantly rangy novel, which, like its counterpart in Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, is the most charged and fervent of its peers. It runs us to the brink of the frangible present, and in so doing becomes an ode to the courage of living a life of common decency, whatever the odds.
It has all Smith’s exuberance with word-play ... The sequence began with Brexit and has to end with Covid-19. The pandemic sidles into the narrative almost unawares, and I think we can all appreciate that concern ... It ends with something like a blessing from a stranger to a stranger. It ends with a cautious optimism that we might, just might, have learned something from the past few months.
Smith is a great artist of possibility ... These are first thoughts, but they’re made to last, in a way that makes you wonder how well something that feels so raw really can last ... That rawness has not diminished much since Autumn ... what is to be done with hope? I can’t decide if Smith wants us to have it or not – or rather, I cannot decide if the novel she has written justifies it or not. The reconciliation the Greenlaws find is not sentimental or overdone, but is it too (and it’s strange to say this of Smith) unpolitical? All they needed was love after all. The interlinked nature of the four novels in the quartet invites rereading of the earlier ones to hunt down more connections, and I can imagine going back to the books after another five or ten years in this febrile world to find them both dated and vindicated – assuming, that is, that Sacha is wrong and there still is a world.
Despite describing contemporary realities like Brexit, the refugee crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the present time of the novel—and of the quartet—turns out to uncannily resemble its pasts (both pre- and post-war) ... The last book of her quartet offers many ways of thinking about this warmest of seasons, but none take precedence over the other.
As vibrant and warm as the time whose title it bears, the novel doesn’t sacrifice either Smith’s intellectuality or her playfulness. And though it can be fully appreciated by newcomers to the Smithian calendar who start the annual cycle here, those who have followed her through the year will delight in the subtle linkage of themes and characters from the other novels ... as today’s headlines, an opportunity for Smith to share her cool, frequently caustic take on current events ... as today’s headlines, an opportunity for Smith to share her cool, frequently caustic take on current events ... Though summer is referred to only glancingly, as was the case with the seasons in the other novels, when Smith evokes it she does so beautifully ... full of both portent and mirth, angst and joy, at least of a tempered variety. Richly allusive, it will send some readers back for another visit to the volumes that preceded it and will prompt others to do the same to catch up on all the delights they’ve missed.
This volume sounds the quartet’s recurrent klaxons about injustice, dereliction, and the perennial problem of how too few people step up. The main issues are immigration, refugees, Brexit, and COVID-19. Smith even briefly works in George Floyd. As always, the narrative zigs and zags, skimps on segues, demands attention and effort. The reward is a novel that is wonderfully entertaining—for its humor, allusions, deft use of time and memory, sharply realized characters, and delightfully relevant digressions—and a reminder, brought home by the pandemic, that everything and everyone truly is connected and the sufferance of suffering hurts us all ... A deeply resonant finale to a work that should come to be recognized as a classic.