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January 15, 2018

Christmas is over and winter is here. We got four inches of snow on Friday and are getting more this afternoon.

On Saturday some friends kindly dropped me off at the front door of the Mohican Lodge, where my group, the Central Ohio Celtic Fiddlers, played while the audience was gathering and preparations were being made for the appearance of the main act, The Empty Bottle String Band. It was really fun, and I was happy to be able to make it in there, as the handicapped parking spaces were all taken up and the walkway from them was covered in snow and ice by the time we arrived.

Tonight is symphony rehearsal, but I doubt I’ll be able to get inside the building. My two choices from the parking lot are a long, snow-covered concrete ramp or a long, refrozen slush-covered sidewalk ending with a series of stone steps at the entrance.

Over the very wintry weekend, I read Ali Smith’s new novel Winter. Evocative of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, it’s ostensibly the story of Sophia, who is unwise, her sister Iris, who is full of ire, and Sophia’s son Arthur, who is bored with real life and also with art as an imitation of life (“Art” being the shortened form of his name, among other things).

Like the previous novel Autumn, however, this novel is about politics. It’s also about how good people should live in the season that “makes things visible.”

At the beginning of the novel, Art’s partner Charlotte tries to make him see that
“the people in this country are in furious rages at each other after the last vote…and the government we’ve got has done nothing to assuage it and instead is using people’s rage for its own political expediency. Which is a grand old fascist trick if ever I saw one, and a very dangerous game to play. And what’s happening in the United States is directly related, and probably financially related.”

Charlotte is angry because she thinks that Art’s blog, called Art in Nature, is an “irrelevant reactionary unpolitical” blog, and he defends that by saying “I’m just not a politico….What I do is by its nature not political. Politics is transitory.” Eventually, however, Art’s aunt Iris, who has been protesting many of the same environmental issues for the past fifty years, shows him that both of these statements are disingenuous.

In the past year, I’ve discovered that politics is not transitory, with our weekly political demonstration. At first we made new signs every week, using copier paper on foamboard so we could change the words when needed. Then we began re-using the signs we’d already made and covering them with plastic wrap from the kitchen when it was raining. Now we have ten double-sided signs that we rotate, depending on what the political situation is that week. Sometimes it’s a little discouraging to go through them and pick out the sign that is relevant again, but if a fight is worth our time, I guess it’s worth our persistence.

Since Charlotte left Art right before Christmas, he has hired a girl he met on the street in London to come with him to his mother’s country house, and her name turns out to be Lux. She questions everything, including Art’s inspiration for his blog, and we find out that he doesn’t really visit the places he writes about, but makes it up as if he had been there:
“I didn’t actually go anywhere. I looked it up on Google Maps and on an RAC route planner….It’s not a personal memory I myself have…but it’s a good general sort of invented sharable memory for the people who’ll read the blog.” You have to wonder why he bothers.

Lux asks Art’s mother, Sophie, who voted for Brexit, about “what will the world do…if we can’t solve the problem of the millions and millions of people with no home to go to or whose homes aren’t good enough, except by saying go away and building fences and walls?”

Sophie listens to Lux even while she ridicules the political activism of her sister Iris. At one point
“We were all going to die, his mother says. But in the end? It seems, after all, we didn’t. Nuclear holocaust.
She makes a scoffy sound.
We’re not out of that quicksand yet, Iris says. Let’s see how low the newest leader of the free world can sink us this time round.”

Art thinks that
“he wants the essentiality of winter, not this half-season grey selfsameness. He wants real winter where woods are sheathed in snow, trees emphatic with its white, their bareness shining and enhanced because of it, the ground underfoot snow-covered as if with frozen feathers or shredded cloud but streaked with gold through the trees from low winter sun, and at the end of the barely discernable track, along the dip in the snow that indicates a muffled path between the trees, the view and the woods opening to a light that’s itself untrodden, never been blemished, wide like an expanse of snow-sea, above it more snow promised, waiting its time in the blank of the sky.
IMG_1077For snow to fill this room and cover everything and everyone in it.
To be a frozen blade that breaks, not a blade of grass that bends.
To freeze, to shatter, to unmelt himself.
This is what he wants.”
As I write this blog post, I’m looking out at a tree “sheathed in snow…emphatic with its white.”

Isn’t Art’s longing the same kind of longing that produced the Brexit vote and elected the 45th president of the United States, the desire for something simple, something black and white? When I looked around the audience at the string band concert this weekend, I saw the faces of the old people relax at the moment when the band said they would play “old-fashioned tunes.” There is a deep longing for the “simple” and the “old-fashioned” in rural Ohio.

And there is a deep longing to be heard. Even Sophie said, when she was young, that “it would be good to be full of holes….Then all the things you can’t express would maybe just flow out.” It’s easy to get caught up in either the personal or the political until you forget why it’s important to make even the simplest gesture.

I identify with Art’s remorse that he didn’t try harder with Charlotte because I can get caught up in thinking about big ideas to the point that I forget to do the simple little things a good marriage requires:
“He will wish he’d been the kind of man who says, if his partner tells him something like that dream, don’t worry love, I can mend this, wait a minute, and then knows to pretend to be a surgeon with an imaginary metaphysical needle and thread and to mime sewing up the zigzag divide. Even just the gesture of stitches.
It would at least have been a paying of attention.”
How can you act politically if you can’t succeed on the personal level? You really can’t. This is something that I see over and over in my day-to-day political work, from the squabbling over who is most “politically correct” in their thinking and terminology to the kind of disagreement that leads a person initially in favor of an action to declare that if it’s not done her way, she’ll have no part in it. And you can’t succeed on the personal level if you’re always thinking about politics–often the simple gesture is actually the right one, for those closest to you.

So this novel, while it offers many paths for considering our personal and political situation, ended up being, for me, about how to negotiate what can be simple and what is necessarily more complicated. As tempting as I believe it is for some of my neighbors to want things too simple, it’s also a mistake to make everything too complicated, as I sometimes do.

In the black and white of the winter world, it’s easier to see that.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2018 5:39 pm

    I buy the ideas, but I don’t buy the characters as people I might want to read about. That’s one of my flaws/features: if I’m not personally engaged by at least one of the characters in a book (movie, TV show), I can’t stay with it. I always think that there has to be a better way.

    Did you identify solidly and personally with one of these characters?

    I can’t remember who said that a good novel is one where the general is seen through the personal and specific lens of a character, but I’ve come to believe that’s how I decide whether I want to spend hours of my good time reading about them. That’s why I let Travis McGee rant about all kinds of things – because he then tilts against all those windmills, and he is, to a certain degree, an honorable man. Ditto Manny in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or the engineer main character in Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom. I must have my character I stick with through the tale.

    • January 15, 2018 5:46 pm

      I think that the character most readers–including me–identify with is Arthur. You don’t see how much he’s fooling himself, at first, and then gradually you do, which is a brilliant way to get each reader to begin to see how much she might be fooling herself.
      The self-deception is about family and identity and other things, too–it’s my focus that’s mainly on politics.

  2. January 16, 2018 11:08 am

    Oh, can’t wait to read this! I’m in line for it at the library. I shouldn’t have to wait too much longer. Very much enjoyed your review. I like that this series is so thoughtful and current and gives a reader a chance to think about things.

    • January 16, 2018 12:16 pm

      It is extremely current (and yes, thoughtful). She mentions the Grenfell Tower fire and something the U.S. President said (I’ve forgotten which specific thing now). She’s pushing the limit of how current fiction can be.

  3. January 16, 2018 7:06 pm

    I really liked Autumn. It IS interesting to read fiction that is so current. In Autumn, I liked the mother at the end, when she started buying things from the second hand store to throw at the barbed-wire fence. And how, like it seems in Winter, things are revealed to you as you read further. It sounds good.

    • January 16, 2018 7:45 pm

      The down side, I guess, is that hardly anyone will be reading this book 100 years from now. As someone whose professional life has been dedicated to the study of topical satires from the 18th century, however, I don’t find this the most terrible drawback ever.


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