I met Hernan Diaz at last year’s Bay Area Book Festival. I got to hang out in the green room and pose as an important person because I did an interview with a group of very talented writers including Jana Casale and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi for a program called “New Smart Women in Literature.” He was adorable (I think I can safely say that as a much older woman … if it’s not PC, oh well) and engaging and I was intrigued by his background. Born in Argentina, he lived in Sweden as a child. He’s currently Associate Director of the Hispanic Institute for Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia and Managing Editor of RHM, Revista Hispánica Moderna.
Diaz’s novel, In the Distance, is the story of Hakan, a Swedish immigrant, who travels the expanse of nineteenth-century America on his way from California to New York, moving against the tide of emigrants pushing west. He’s in search of his older brother, from whom he was separated before leaving Sweden. As a foreigner, he’s an unlikely protagonist for a Western. During the course of what is indeed a hero’s journey, he meets naturalists, religious fanatics, and con men, and his exploits turn him into an unwilling legend.
Apologies here to my book club for writing about this book before our next meeting but my memory being what it is these days makes me afraid to wait. I’ll be brief and just say this novel was deservedly a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. In addition to being a most unconventional western, it’s a poignant immigration narrative and as beautiful and harrowing a portrait of solitude of anything I can remember reading. I dog-eared so many pages I lost count. One phrase in particular stays with me: ‘The business of being took up all his time.” I exhort you to read this book.
Ali Smith is a gorgeous writer. I was surprised about how much I liked the first two—Autumn and Winter—of what will be a quartet of novels dealing with Britain in the age of Brexit. Surprised because generally I like conventional narrative, linear progression. When I hear about experimental, innovative structure, I run the other way. Smith is the definition of non-linear, jumping back and forth in time, fantastical writing.
I’ve written earlier about Autumn, the story of the platonic friendship between a centenarian and a young woman. I liked Winter even better. The novel opens in a way that for me, was a bit of a challenge: after a short chapter listing all the things that are dead, starting with God and including romance, chivalry, jazz, culture, decency, capitalism, truth and fiction, we encounter the disembodied head of a child who appears to one of the central characters, a miserly retired businesswoman living in a 15-bedroom house in Cornwall. I know.
Stick with it. Winter is at its essence a family story—the aforementioned businesswoman, her political activist sister, and her poser, pathetic son come together for Christmas. The ringer is the Croatian student the son hires to impersonate his girlfriend to avoid telling his mother they’ve broken up. She’s the truth-teller, the healing stranger.
The novel is bigger, both more generous and widely encompassing, than the primary story. That man in the White House (I find myself unable to say his name), Boris Johnson, the women’s march, immigration politics—they all figure in, as does the Shakespearean element in the form of Cymbeline. And Smith, as she again shines a light on a lesser-known English female artist (in Autumn it was Pauline Boty), here it’s Barbara Hepworth. You’ll want to look them up.
Smith’s characters are living in turbulent times as, of course, are we her readers. At one point in Winter, Art, the son, longs for true winter:
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 the low winter sun, and at the end of the barely discernible 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, side like an expanse of snow-sea, above it more snow promised, waiting its time in the blank of sky.
Such yearning for something pure, simpler, beautiful. We all want that, don’t we?