Review: ‘Ali Smith and Gillian Beer in Conversation’

Gillian Beer is retired Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, and former President of Clare Hall. Her books include Darwin’s Plots, Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground, Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter, Arguing with the Past and Alice in Space.

The Literature Cambridge event, held on a chilly Sunday morning in Stapleford, provided an apt location for the two authors and critics to come together to discuss Smith’s new book ‘Winter’, the follow-up to her Man Booker- shortlisted ‘Autumn’.

Winter, the second of Ali Smith’s Season Quartet, is a contemporary novel of the best kind. The novel’s timespan covers decades, but its critical eye is focused very much on the last few months: Brexit, Immigration, Twitter, Trump.

This is made evident even before the novel begins. Among five quotes inside the cover, one sticks out like a sore thumb: ‘But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. (Theresa May, 5 October 2016)’. For Smith, this politics is not intentional, it’s inevitable: “You don’t have a political purpose when you’re writing. That’s the main thing. I believe that everything is political. That’s all you need. In fact, that’s all you need to know from life, to know that whatever’s happening, whatever you’re doing, it is political.” She continues: “The story dictates itself… if you do tell a story where to go, the story will be a dead thing, it will be a story with an agenda. When that happens there’s no saving it.”

As the two speakers enter, the audience’s sense of occasion is tangible. Gillian Beer’s penetrating insights are enough to elicit an admiring and honest “She’s fantastic” from Smith, on whom the privilege is not lost. The two speakers are expansive in their scope, touching on issues as seemingly far-afield as frescos, Virginia Woolf, and translation – according to Smith, the novel’s “ultimate liberation”. Together, they guide the audience through the various sources behind Smith’s work:

AS: “In each of the seasonal books, I knew all I would be doing was stealing from Shakespeare… Autumn immediately, as soon as I started to write it, just as if it was a kind of limb knocked off The Tempest, and then it did strike me that if each of these books could find a place to nestle under the arms of Shakespeare, then these books would be safe.”

For Winter, the source of inspiration is Cymbeline. A play ‘about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division, and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning’ – Winter’s brief summary of the plotline will leave few in doubt about the relevance of both play and novel to our own lives.

“I’m really interested in the points at which one art meets another art”, Smith says, embarking on another theme: the enduring power of art and literature. “Partly, I think, that’s the way that art dimensionalises itself.” Intertextuality is crucial to Smith’s work. In Autumn, the work of female pop-artist Pauline Boty becomes a catalyst for the emerging friendship between the novel’s two main characters. In Winter, the artist of note is Barbara Hepworth. Why? Her work ‘makes you walk round it, it makes you look through it from different sides, see different things from different positions.’

The sculptor’s role feels more tangential than Boty’s, but is in no way superficial: a prominent artist, Hepworth is also a woman, and reminds us that art and literature have for most of their history been a man’s game. It is “a form… of rescue”, says Beer, remembering Ethel Walker, the most famous female artist at the turn of the last century, and another of Winter’s forgotten relics. A question posed to the audience, “Has anyone heard of Ethel Walker?”, receives a single raised hand (a woman’s) and a categorical response from Smith: “You are the one person”.

Smith has few qualms about the fact that her novel might not sit well with everyone. Taking time during post-discussion tea and biscuits to sign books, she has a firm answer for one particular critic’s suggestion that her novel is ‘sentimental’ – “I don’t think it is. I just didn’t fit in with his politics.” Smith, like her novels, is full of happiness and hope. Earlier on, Beer recites a line from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale that “A sad tale’s best for Winter”. But Smith’s Winter is a tale of resilience: ‘That’s what winter is: an exercise in how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.’

The event was organised by Trudi Tate of Literature Cambridge. www.literaturecambridge.co.uk.

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