Emulating Daniel Gluck in Ali Smith's Autumn, we spent the latter half of the autumn and start of the winter gleaning and gathering loose leaves, scraps, and remnants and stitching our ideas together. In the dream of the afterlife that centenarian Daniel dreams while lying unconscious and prostrate in his care home, he suddenly finds himself naked on the seashore and needing to evade the gaze of a nearby girl. (To launch the Seasonal Quartet, her epic of the present, Smith looks back to the ancient beginnings of Western literature and has Daniel replay the castaway Odysseus's embarrassing plight on the coast of Phaeacia connecting the ancient past to present-day images of migrant refugees and children trying to reach the shoreline. Hospitality to the uninvited stranger is, as Matthew Hart notes, the Quartet's pervading theme.) In the little wood where the dreaming Daniel takes refuge, he plucks one green leaf after another from the trees that conceal him: "He puts their edges together. He stitches one to the other with a neat, what is it, running stitch? Blanket stitch? . . . He picks up a layering of leaves, matches an edge to an edge and sews."1 

The coat of leaves, a "green suit," that Daniel assembles newly possessed in this dreamt-of afterlife with an ability to sew recalls, of course, one familiar figure for the codex form.2 Smith is activating a venerable pun connecting the natural with the bibliographical. She reminds her readers that books (paper ones at least, if not the digital kind) are also brought into being through the folding and stitching together of loose leaves: folia assembled form folios. The thoughts of the dreaming Daniel, however, turn not to books, but to a different, flimsier kind of printed paper product. His leafy garment reminds him of a picture postcard he bought almost three decades earlier, when visiting Paris, the city of love, in the company of a woman who did not love him back. It reproduced a black-and-white photograph taken in 1946 by Edouard Boubat of a small child in a Paris park ("La petite fille aux feuilles mortes"). She is seen from behind; she has been dressed or has dressed herself in dead leaves (Figure 1). An image of "transformation," Daniel notes that it looks "a bit like she was wearing rags" the materials from which traditionally the leaves, or pages, were made.3

Fig. 1. Still Life with Edouard Boubat's 1946 "La petite fille aux feuilles mortes" printed on a postcard (Photograph by Amy E. Elkins).

By the start of the winter, our emulation of Daniel Gluck's emulation of Boubat's photograph had become literal as well as figurative. One of us, Amy, took up her needle in her turn. This essay is continued in, through, and on the coat that she thrifted and re-covered, with stitched-on photocopied pages from the scholarship that we read together in preparing this essay, with photocopied images of the artworks that Smith references in the Quartet, with handwritten letters and postcards, and with bits and pieces of the paperwork that, for each of us, documents the last two years of pandemic life. The coat also sports, as part of its layer of appliqué, actual leaves aspen leaves, a trembling symbol of resilience that Amy stitched together with traces of the running stitch that Daniel uses in his own process of repair (Figure 2). In pushing our collaboration beyond the boundaries of the page, in supplementing this essay with a sartorial scrapbook that, while representing the database for our critical work, would also serve as a form of wearable art, we were experimenting with a different form of criticism: one that would honor Smith's own determination to interweave intellectual and domestic traditions and to make permeable the boundary between world and the novel. 

Figure 2. Leavings (After Boubat) by Amy E. Elkins

Throughout the Quartet, Smith remakes her books' relationship to the category of the book itself. She challenges the boundedness and completeness traditionally associated with the codex, seeking (as she said in an interview with Amy) to permit "the moment to pass through me and [these books] like we're a porous skin surface."4 By stitching together writing and sewing, we aimed for a comparable kind of remaking. Through her sartorial scrapbooking, handicraft which deployed materials both professional and personal, Amy also set out to transgress what Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde call "the gendered divide between the literal and the literary, where the literal denotes (and demeans) the preparatory, often feminized physical work of gathering materials and the literary denotes (and elevates) the inspired, often masculinized, mental work of inventing new artistic forms."5 

The thread that stitches together the first two volumes in Smith's Seasonal Quartet is the postcard image of that waif in her leafy cloak (the image that Amy recreated in three dimensions, as though in a tableau vivant). This postcard skitters across the boundaries of one book into another enacting Smith's determination to reimagine both the novel and the book as less self-enclosed, more permeable objects than they ordinarily seem to be. When they returned, separately, to London, Daniel Gluck remembers how he sent the souvenir postcard to the woman named "Sophie something" who didn't love him and afterward, when they had lost touch, wished that he had kept it for himself. We learn in Autumn that "He is always looking out for that picture / He has never found it again."6 In the opening of Winter, as Sophie Cleves ponders the disembodied head that has been haunting her, a ghostly Christmas visitor, her hallucination matches her memory of "the child adorned in leaves in the park in Paris . . . on the old black and white postcard."7 

One season on in the Quartet, postcards are at issue again. Richard Lease remembers in Spring how, at the urging of his now-dead friend Paddy, he dealt with the break-up of his family by thinking up an imaginary daughter whom he could take to see things or places and who would send Paddy a real postcard to mark each of these occasions. Readers learn that Richard's never-written screenplay for a film about Rainer Maria Rilke and Katherine Mansfield in 1922 would have presented the story in the form of a "series of postcards from these writers' lives"; it would have reckoned with how, as he explains, the postcard was "the most contemporary and popular way of being in touch at this point in time, rather like the text or email or even instantgram [sic] of today."8 Communication via picture postcards, which took off at the start of the twentieth century, was facilitated by new technologies of cheap print. As Richard discovers in his research for his screenplay, it seemed in its first decades thrillingly modern. Better suited to the fast pace of modern life than the exchange of letters was, more casual and spontaneous, it seemed to document the now. The media historian Esther Milne thus references the "sense of presence enabled by postcard communication," a presence that the postcard constructs by shrinking "reality to the moment" this particular view, seen by you the sender, at this particular time.9  

In her 2019 interview with Amy, Smith speaks of her writing as an experiment in applying "the formal workings of one art to another."10 Putting picture postcards into a novel another print product, though of a very different sort extends that experiment and proves key to the Quartet's revisions both of the novel form and the book form. Picture postcards exist in a complicated relationship to presence, Milne's statement about postcard communication notwithstanding. Postcards are, for a start, artworks designed to be passed on (as Daniel did) rather than kept. They are defined by transit. (In the same 2019 interview, Amy suggests Smith's literary experimentation in the Quartet often hinges on "the tension between movement and capturing something on the page, the screen, or the canvas, in a particular political moment.")11 Postcards scatter. That card with the girl in her leafy cloak goes astray in one point of time, and then, as the content of an involuntary memory, it turns up by chance in another.12 

As noted above, postcards also cover Amy's scrap/book coat/book, which gathers and preserves them in part because they are mementos of the collaboration and friendship that are part of the back-story of this essay (which, notably, began with newer technologies of connection Twitter and Zoom). There is a postcard stamped with a picture of a leaf that was sent from Deidre to Amy (echoed, on another part of the coat, by a card from Deidre that had taped inside it the actual leaf that she had found inside her trouser cuff right before our first video chat); a postcard from Washington that Amy received from a friend, sent with handmade masks and filters at the start of the pandemic in 2020; and postcards contributed by the co-editors of this cluster, Cara Lewis and Debra Rae Cohen, and sent from their respective homes in Chicago and Black Mountain, North Carolina. The sequence of these artifacts' appearance twists the history of communications technology: the postcards emerged from our earlier connections via social media and videoconferencing. 

The ancestor to the postcard is, of course, the letter, which also figures prominently in the Quartet, where Smith sometimes looks to be cataloguing and archiving the history of epistolary modes. The postcard's close cousin is the leaflet, that print form that comprises our junk mail and which is glimpsed in the scene in Winter in which Sophie Cleves's son Arthur (Art for short) encounters Lux at a bus stop sitting reading and rereading a takeout menu. (French makes the kinship between leaflet and postcard clear, identifying leaflets as papiers volants, flying papers.) Postcards and leaflets are alike classifiable as ephemera, the category of fugitive print that since the eighteenth century has both been contrasted to the book and helped define it as a durable, stable, consequential thing that stands outside time.13 Ephemera, disposable, exist fleetingly, in time. Postcards, which Clare Brant, the theorist of the epistolary, associates with the "modernist preference for the present tense," are defined by both transit and transience.14 At an especially low pointRichard, from Spring, becomes convinced that the postcards he sent Paddy over the years, and which she had preserved, periodically shuffling and dealing them as though handling a deck of tarot cards, are now, following her death, consigned by her survivors to the household recycling bin.15 

Yet at moments of existential crisis, Smith's characters are gathered together through these epistolary media. In Spring, for example, Florence saves Richard's life when she arrives at "the place on the postcard":16 a view of Kingussie, postmarked 1986, serves as a visual, transhistorical map. Describing Iris's involvement in the women's anti-nuclear protests at Greenham Common, Smith notes that these protests were "organized by chain letter," an epistolary activism that later takes the form of a chain-link fence in Winter. The fence around the Commons serves as the backdrop for their demonstration, as protestors "thread[ed] coloured wool and ribbon through the fencewire and across between the gates in intricate webbing," using the fence to display images and messages of dissent.17 Often in Smith, when even the "gesture of stitches" (a kind of mending) fails or evades her characters, the letter stands in as a medium of reconciliation, as when Charlotte and Arthur begin to reconnect at the end of Winter, refashioning their relationship and their shared intellectual project by writing to each other.18

By engaging with the various media of writing, Smith's characters build relationships and connect. In Summer, Art and Charlotte embark on a journey with two teenage siblings Robert and Sacha and their mother. Gathered around a table, they discuss their father's girlfriend's book-in-progress, which Robert has captured in fragments: "I took some photos on my phone of some of the pages of her book."19 In a lengthy report on letterboxes, Robert reads from Ashley's project: "The word letter comes from Middle English via Old French, from Latin origin, littera, meaning an alphabet letter, and litterae, meaning an epistle."20 She goes on to link the iconic Royal Mail red letterboxes to the xenophobia instanced when the future prime minister of Britain ridiculed Muslim women for "looking like letterboxes."21 As Ashley writes that letterboxes exist to "connect people for every imaginable reason," Sacha puts theory into action by writing letters to Hero, a migrant being held in a detention center. Writing in lockdown, she works to connect with Hero and to process her own experiences of the pandemic, metaphors in nature, and her various political commitments. 

Sacha's letter-writing initially strikes the reader as a chancy thing. It is unclear if her letters will reach Hero in the detention center or end up undeliverable, lost in the ether. These potentially unread letters mirror Smith's description in Summer of Daniel and his sister Hannah writing letters to each other during World War II: letters that cannot be sent, but which, once written, must be immediately burned for their mutual protection. But sometimes a letter successfully reaches its recipient and is returned, as with the concluding gesture of the Quartet (a moment Stephanie DeGooyer also observes): the letter in which Hero replies to Sacha. He now lives with Arthur's Aunt Iris in the home she has set up for refugees who have been released from detention centers as a result of the pandemic. He responds to her fascination with swifts non-human migrants to Britain, whose periodic returns and departures mark the progress of the seasons by suggesting they look like "something created with only the ash after a fire, like a delicate gesture of ash."22 In this way, Daniel and Hannah's burned letters have taken flight in the present in a new generation of correspondence. 

The artworks by women artists whom Smith engages throughout the Quartet are often, as she represents them, aligned with epistolary media which is a way to loosen the relationship between the primary object and its untethered circulation as reproduction. The last postcards that Richard and his imaginary daughter purchased for Paddy, for instance, reproduced the cloudscapes that Tacita Dean created in 2018 in chalk on slate (a project of fixing, with a medium that is itself unstable, what is by its nature vaporous and evanescent) (see Fig. 3). After visiting the exhibition, and perhaps, as Cara Lewis suggests, narrowly missing there a reunion with his real daughter, Richard keeps for himself the postcard of Dean's massive chalk drawing, nine meters wide and seven meters tall, of an Alpine avalanche titled "The Montafon Letter." He is amused at the idea that, with the massive image having been remediated in the postcard, he can now hold it in the palm of his hand.23 

Fig. 3. Still Life with Tacita Dean's 2017 "The Montafon Letter" printed as a postcard (Photograph by Amy E. Elkins).

Later in Spring, Richard recalls an "article called A Postcard to Tacita," in which Dean rejects "low wire barriers" between visitors and artworks.24 Fences and borders run throughout the Quartet emblems of divisive politics, internment, and detainees but the ephemeral persistence, the material flimsiness, and the mobility of postcards undermine their claims on space.

In a 2020 Guardian essay, Smith recounts how, in order to kickstart each volume in the Quartet, she and her publishers paid a visit to the archives, to ponder the "physical remains, the leavings of writers" in succession, those of Keats, Shakespeare, Katherine Mansfield, and Dickens.25 She mentions, for instance, her encounter with the last letter that Mansfield wrote before her 1922 death from tuberculosis, but that the author did not live to send, still enclosed in its addressed but unstamped envelope: a flimsy bit of paper that makes Mansfield present to the archival researcher, but present only as she slips away. 

Leavings, dictionaries tell us, are remnants, scraps. Their definitions suggest the term's usefulness as a designation for the materials of lesser value the ephemera of everyday life that in general do not make it into books. (Except literally, perhaps. One of the paper leaves stitched onto the coat that Amy crafted as the culmination of our project is the Amtrak ticket Deidre used for her last pre-pandemic trip to the archives, salvaged from its use as a bookmark in the copy of Spring that she had read on the train and hadn't looked at since.)

In an unsent letter to his sister that he consigns to the flames, Daniel describes (in Summer) the books that circulate in the internment camp where he and their father have been confined, and which "fall more apart the more more and more people read them."26 Reading Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Daniel must wait "for someone to finish the broken-off part of it and pass it on to me."27 The book's circulation fragments it. The leaves come loose. The codex exfoliates. Later in Summer, the delayed, broken novel is replicated in a deleted text message when Charlotte texts a whole letter to Arthur about the future of their life together. She composes the text for an hour before her "phone goes blank" and she must start again with a simplified message. 

In the Quartet, itself broken into four pieces, the fragments of various characters' plotlines scatter across the books through a series of intersecting artworks and archives that span time and space. Those copies of Hardy and Dickens in the internment camp, coming apart as they are handed about, presage Smith's revitalization of nineteenth-century practices of publishing serially in parts. Disassembled as it circulates in lockdown, the book-in-leaves recalls Boubat's leaf girl, which opens the Quartet an image that prompts Smith's readers (like Daniel arguably the Quartet's guide) to gather the leaves and stitch them together as a new artistic form. If Daniel Gluck's sewing is a figure for the acts of assembly from which her polyphonic novels and the books that house them are alike formed, Smith's interest in leavings and leaflets and postcards and letters, in all those unbound papers, signals a countervailing commitment to a more loosely bound book whose loose(d) leaves leave it on the verge of disassembly. 

The intertextuality created through the Quartet's references to visual art and communications media break the bindings of the book; at the same time, that intertextuality engenders something new. Amy's coat simulates this layering of visual media, exploring the conceptual presence of art in Smith in material form. It extends the idea of new artistic forms that the Quartet models beyond the page finding a way to materialize the combination of curation work with unbinding and unraveling that we have spotlighted in the Quartet. It seems only right that at the moment the coat was photographed so as to figure in this essay, some of the leaves, and some of the pages, the leaves' papery equivalents, were already being shed.

Note: The full list of Amy's Leavings archive can be found on her website at https://amyelkins.net/2022/02/27/post-45-cluster-ali-smith/.

Amy E. Elkins (@amyEelkins) is a scholar-artist and Associate Professor of English at Macalester College. She is the author of Crafting Feminism from Literary Modernism to the Multimedia Present (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2022).

Deidre Shauna Lynch (@DrBibliomane) is Ernest Bernbaum Professor of English Literature at Harvard. Her most recent books are Loving Literature: A Cultural History (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and The Unfinished Book (co-edited with Alexandra Gillespie; Oxford University Press, 2021).


  1. Ali Smith, Autumn (New York: Pantheon Books, 2016), 9.[]
  2. Smith, Autumn, 8.[]
  3. Smith, Autumn, 9.[]
  4. Amy E. Elkins, "Has Art Anything to Do with Life? A Conversation with Ali Smith on 'Spring,'" Los Angeles Review of Books, 3 September 2019, https://www.lareviewofbooks.org/article/has-art-anything-to-do-with-life-a-conversation-with-ali-smith-on-spring/[]
  5. Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde, "Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism," Modernism/modernity 25 (2018): 522.[]
  6. Smith, Autumn, 10.[]
  7. Ali Smith, Winter (New York: Pantheon Books, 2017), 8.[]
  8. Ali Smith, Spring (New York: Pantheon Books, 2019), 97.[]
  9. Esther Milne, Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of Presence (London: Routledge, 2012), 111.[]
  10. Elkins, "Has Art Anything to Do with Life?"[]
  11. Elkins, "Has Art Anything to Do with Life?"[]
  12. Postcards' origins in the printed playing cards of the early modern era also make them potent emblems of contingency.[]
  13. See Gillian Russell, "Ephemeraphilia: A Queer History," Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 23 (2017): 174-186[]
  14. Clare Brant, "Postscript: The Poetics of Scraps and Other Epistolary Materials," in Epistolary Histories: Letters, Fiction, Culture, eds. Amanda Gilroy and W. M. Verhoeven (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000), 122.[]
  15. Smith, Spring, 81.[]
  16. Smith, Spring, 209.[]
  17. Smith, Winter, 278.[]
  18. Smith, Winter, 282.[]
  19. Ali Smith, Summer (New York: Pantheon Books, 2020), 87.[]
  20. Smith, Summer, 87.[]
  21. Smith, Summer, 90.[]
  22. Smith, Summer, 379.[]
  23. Smith, Spring, 79.[]
  24. Smith, Spring, 288.[]
  25. Ali Smith, "Before Brexit, Grenfell, Covid-19...Ali Smith on writing four novels in four years." The Guardian, 1 August 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/aug/01/before-brexit-grenfell-covid-19-ali-smith-on-writing-four-novels-in-four-years[]
  26. Smith, Summer, 187.[]
  27. Smith, Summer, 188.[]