Paul Nash, Sketch for Empty Room, 1938
I am always interested in moments where interior and exterior change places and landscape somehow begins to appear within a building. An early draft of Frozen Air began with a description of Paul Nash's sketch Empty Room - its sad tree stump growing from the floorboards, one wall like those in the house where I write this blog and the other transformed into a chalk cliff line reminiscent of the Seven Sisters. This picture and two similar Nash drawings were the subject of an earlier post here on rooms becoming landscapes, along with other examples in the work of Giorgio De Chirico and Max Klinger, Maurice Sendak and Ray Bradbury. Now I have encountered another version of this idea, in Ali Smith's most recent novel, Winter.
The vision of landscape in this book comes to a character called Art, who has gone to spend Christmas with his uptight and distant mother. Art has just been dumped by his girlfriend, who had become exasperated with his nature blog, 'Art in Nature', a series of apolitical meditations on snow, puddles and hedgerows, written from a laptop without ever actually venturing outdoors. Art pays a young woman called Lux, a homeless migrant originally from Croatia, to come with him to Cornwall and impersonate his girlfriend. Then his mother's radical older sister arrives and things begin to unravel over Christmas dinner. It is at this point that Art starts to imagine a fragment of actual nature floating above his head, as if 'someone had cut a slice out of the coast and dipped it into the room with us, like we’re the coffee and it’s the biscotti.' A few reviewers have discussed this incident - Alexandra Harris, for example, imagined something 'like the clumps of landscape in the paintings of Julian Perry.' However, in The New Yorker James Woods' discusses it in more detail and what he says is worth quoting here in full.
'Art does see something, and his visionary moment at the dining table is one of the novel’s unlikely triumphs, an oddly moving mixture of the fantastical and the allegorical. The Cleves family has been arguing steadily, about contemporary Britain, about borders and walls and refugees, when Art realizes that something is falling onto the table—pieces of dirt, grit, rubble. He looks up: “A foot and a half above all their heads, floating, precarious, suspended by nothing, a piece of rock or a slab of landscape roughly the size of a small car or a grand piano is hanging there in the air.” No one else notices it. Later, when Art tells Lux about it, she jokes that he has banged his head on the world. As if, she implies, instead of Dr. Johnson kicking the stone, the stone came and kicked Dr. Johnson. Reality exists, and it has come knocking, and Art, who shares some of his mother’s political obliviousness, will be knocked into a resensitized political awareness.
Perhaps Art’s political schooling is too obvious. But there’s something delicate, almost spectral—despite the hulking thisness of the symbol—about that piece of hanging landscape. It’s a piece of earth, a piece of Britain. (The English poet Edward Thomas, asked what he was going to fight for in the Great War, picked up some earth and replied, “Literally, for this.”) But, when I encountered the scene, I imagined not earth so much as a piece of cliff, perhaps a slice of the white cliffs of Dover; in other words, I imagined an edge, a border. The vision is surreally real, at once literal and symbolic, and the meanings productively multiply.'