Ali Smith wrote a lockdown novel after her Brexit quartet. ‘We are only now realizing how blind we were to our mortality’

Author Ali Smith impatiently hops from one leg to the other in front of the glass door to a side room at the Amsterdam Ambassade Hotel. Doesn’t that door open automatically? No, you have to push. Laughing, the author, according to some the Scottish Nobel Prize candidate for literature, falls into a chair. The fact that she immediately assumed that the door would open for her automatically, she says, says a lot about how much we have just come to find.

At the same time, she still sees enough to break through, to leave to the imagination: “If you have known a great loss, you need illusions. The need for things that are not true but make us feel better is great. But what if we believed something that was both true and that would make us feel better?”

The author characterizes this issue in a nutshell: Smith has a rock-solid belief in the importance of art. Speaking and thinking at lightning speed, Smith laughs at the state of the world as often as she enthuses about it. As in her novels, she is always looking for ways to engage society, and in conversation she is not averse to strong political statements. Those who want to characterize the person and the writer Ali Smith should therefore look for it in her way of speaking. As in her books, there is always uneasiness and concern about the lack of compassion for the other. Sometimes she tries to hide it with irony.

Ali Smith, two days in Amsterdam to promote her latest novel companyis no longer unknown, certainly not since 2016. That year saw the release of the first part of her four-season series: Fall. It was the first novel to contain the word Brexit. since then Winter (2017), Spring (2019) and Summer (2020), according to bookmakers, she is a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She doesn’t shy away from politics in any of her works, but these brilliant novels stood out even more because they are so topical and scrutinize the British after their self-imposed isolation. That in the novel published this year company the pandemic and the shutdowns play a central role, so it was no surprise. Current. Even more isolation.

IN company artist Sandy Gray receives a call from a former classmate. The former classmate has been detained at the airport due to a duplicate passport, and while waiting in a locked room, she hears someone through the wall.Curlew or curfew (curlew or curfew)“Choose” the whisper. The question is asked a few times. Convinced of a deeper meaning that will shape her future, she can think of no one but Sandy Gray to help her find that meaning.

The whole idea is as crazy as it is fascinating, and therefore exactly how Smith often works: an entire plot develops against the background of a linguistic joke or absurd event.

In this case, it’s about what happens to Gray next. She sits alone at home and creates works of art by painting poems so often that you can no longer see the letters. Then her house is taken over by the daughters of the former classmate, people we call wappies here.

Stories, death and loneliness due to corona, isolation and companionship, the medieval plague: it’s all covered in what Smith himself sees as a hopeful book. The publisher presented the book as the ‘fifth season’, but according to Smith this is nonsense. “It doesn’t belong The seasonal quartet. The novel is about how isolated we are, but at the same time never alone.”

During the interview, Smith will often sigh, luckily not out of annoyance at the interview, but at developments in the world, or because she can’t immediately find the right words. Sometimes there is a satisfied sigh when she has a nice alliteration. And many questions end in a counter-question – for someone with such overt political views, Smith is remarkably searching. Except for the suggestion that this novel is about hopelessness. She strongly disagrees. “At first, Sandy seems a bit hopeless, but the novel is about people who become connected, since they initially had nothing to do with each other, did not like each other. How hopeful do you want it to be?”

The book is also about corona and the question of what you can still create as an artist, after so much loss. “There are only trivialities,” it says. It suggests that making art is pointless.

“No, on the contrary. What is there to say, what is there to see, if we already see it? These are the most important questions in art. company I think it’s about the way people are branded by society. Sometimes even literally: the novel also tells the story of a female blacksmith who makes the letters used to mark people in the Middle Ages after the plague. Thus they were explicitly categorized. The idea of ​​labeling people has more or less returned with the vaccination certificate.

“Inequality in society has increased: one group has the resources, the other group needs them. company looking at the unequal proportions: who has money and who has not, who has been vaccinated and who has not? If we look at where power lies globally, it is reflected in the differences in access to vaccines. All these questions are at the root of giving meaning to life. And the question of whether we dare to think differently and handle each other differently.”

A British politician said her dream was to send refugees back. When I hear it, I turn off the radio. How could we have fallen to this level?

How does giving these new meanings compare to Sandy, who creates art by painting over poems over and over, giving letters a new color each time?

“Sandy makes new art by putting old art in a new order. She colors the letters of a poem one above the other on a canvas until she has created something new from the old and she is satisfied. You can’t see it even though it’s there.”

Is the layering of the language literally depicted?

“Yes, I think so, although I’m not going to interpret my own novel for you.”

Is language still layered?

“Absolutely, it’s only us humans who are no longer stratified. Because we use screens. Come to my screen. As if the screen is a layer of ice where we can find meaning or depth. But we’d rather be shocked by the news or shop online. The ice we’re on is very thin, you can fall through it in no time.”

Also read: NRC Review (●●●●) by Spring, third installment of the four-season series by Ali Smith

In ‘Forår’ you scolded the reader for two whole pages. What did you want to achieve?

“It was the most difficult novel to write. To give the people space, while the book was about deprivation of liberty. Like company That book is also about freedom of movement. In everyday life this also applies: who can cross the sea, who can live there, who can move freely. A British politician said her dream was to send refugees back. When I hear it, I turn off the radio. How could we have fallen to this level? How can I trust a system where people are just thrown out?”

You previously wrote about refugees and the homeless. Is it to be a counterplay?

“Now is the time for it. Everything is political. company is about how we live together when everything seems invasive or dangerous. How do we settle into a world where we are afraid to open the door?”

Was corona a game changer?

“To the extent that corona was a strangely ambiguous blessing. Then came the realization that from one day to the next everything can be different: the economy, the way we communicate with each other, the pollution. We now know that not everything is solved.”

Is it also a game changer in fiction?

“No, there have always been troubles. This is the latest, but plagues and pandemics have also been the subject of novels before. Contrary to what my character suggests: corona is not ‘indescribable’, it’s just something that happens and everything can be described. It has been a global shock and a common consciousness. We only now realized how blind we have been to our mortality and how poorly our systems work. Many people displaced by war or poverty have known this for a long time. But we were all suddenly disturbed by corona.”

Aren’t you afraid that your books have a limited expiry date because you write so close to current events – be it corona, Boris Johnson or Brexit? Or do you emphasize current events to preserve the collective memory?

“Johnson is not mentioned by name in my books. Like Trump, he was just another extremely bad leader, and they are of all time.” Smith exhales in exasperation and asks the impossible-to-answer question: “Why do we vote for such people? Why have we followed bad leaders for centuries?”

Were you expecting more from Liz Truss given the dominant role of women in your books?

She laughs a lot. “Because she is a woman? It’s a Tory! As if gender is more important than ideology. With Truss it became clear that Tory ideology is even more shameless than we thought. Johnson was a performer, he showed that politics is pure performance. Since Trump, politics has been a cartoon version of reality, and Johnson was part of it. At Truss you could see right through the puppet theatre. You saw that she and the Tories are out to make as much money as possible at the expense of anyone or anything.

“In Scotland, that ideology, or rather the lack of it, provokes resistance. Scottish politicians are more progressive than ever: we want a future, we don’t want to be isolated, we want to be greener. The difference between the English and the Scots is cynicism. Tory politics now revolves throw everything away.” The laugh has now turned into an angry snort.

Is your next novel an evil book?

“I do not hope.”

What’s wrong with evil novels?

“Anger is, well, how to say it, a form of emotional decay. I think my next novel will be more about the violence before or after anger, how to end the years of raging divisions in society that have turned us into formulas that fit into a box.”

Is this global anger a threat to art?

“Nothing threatens art. Art is by definition independent. The moment politicians start using art, it is no longer art. Art was certainly dismissed as something elitist in the corona era, but art is not elitist. Politicians say that because they want to be re-elected, but they are the elite, that’s why elite and Selected are so close to each other. Just believe in the art and don’t be pessimistic about its power.”

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