Here again it was all so natural to me and more and more complicatedly a continuous present. A continuous present is a continuous present. I made almost a thousand pages of a continuous present.

Gertrude Stein, Composition as Explanation

"Can you imagine seeing a heart leap? That's what it looks like."1 In Ali Smith's Spring, a child throws herself into her mother's arms, but I like to think of this image as an apt description of both the epiphany and the gift 2. The best gifts are those that make the heart leap the unexpected ones, those that lay despair or exhaustion to rest, those that delight, those that stop time from progressing on and on. Epiphany works in much the same way, too, breathing an eternal timelessness into the onward rush of life itself. 

And yet, in spite of this perfect metaphor, the Quartet holds few moments of true narrative epiphany. By this, I don't just mean moments of novelistic surprise or disclosure the moments that make you go ahhhh or make you feel like a clever reader. There are plenty of such moments: those sensitive to Smith's clues will have understood the implication of characters from different seasons referencing the same week in "the city of love," or felt the resonance of a character observing an unusually spelt name. Realist disclosures, which these are, abound in Smith's Quartet, but are remarkably different from what Brian Gingrich has described as modernist epiphanies. Occasions of narrative revelation gift the narrator "vertical leverage," expanding time beyond the moment upwards, but nevertheless retain the realist novel's long held pattern of scene-and-summary.3 Modernist epiphanies, however, "oppose and negate pace," at whatever speed that pace is, to dissolve traditional narrative temporality into a suspended, continuous present.4 This dissolution of pace is one reason that we most expect to find epiphanies at literary endings. We have inherited this philosophy from James Joyce, who introduced the term epiphany to literary criticism to account for the particular combination of character revelation and syntactic pause at the end of each story of Dubliners (1914). Good endings naturally disrupt the pace of what has gone before, allowing structural leverage for epiphanies to take hold before effervescing. This is not to say that all epiphany lies at structural endings at ends of chapters, novels, or even quartets but that we find them in those places that disrupt or challenge pace. By breaking what has gone before, epiphanies, too, are endings.

Even if they are few, when the Quartet's epiphanies do appear, they are rhythmically complex scenes that disrupt narrative and rely on effervescent stylistic shifts. Framed in one interview as a "time-sensitive experiment," the pace of the Quartet is driven by Smith's archetypal lyrical vitesse and masterful use of rhythm. Readers cannot escape the onrush of time in these novels of writing time, publication time, generational time, historical time, including death as its natural conclusion which means Smith's moments of epiphany are particularly pronounced. Consider the letter that Richard receives in Spring from his close friend Paddy, who has recently died, written on the blank pages at the end of a 1948 edition of The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. Small details reveal that Paddy had written this letter after saying goodbye to Richard in a much earlier scene in the novel. In it, she recounts a story about Mansfield comforting her close confidante Ida Baker ahead of her death of consumption in 1923:

When I die I'll prove there's no afterlife to you, she said, and Ida says how? and Katherine says, After I'm dead I'll send you a coffin worm in a matchbox.

She says it because she knows it'll make soft hearted Ida shriek and shriek, and it does, she squeals I don't want you to send me a worm, so Katherine M says to her, okay, not a worm I promise, I'll send you an earwig in a matchbox instead.

So. A few months later Katherine Mansfield has died, as we do. Her friend is grief stricken. She gets to a cottage she's staying in somewhere or other, it's a few weeks after Katherine M has died, and Ida's dog-tired and sad and cold, and she goes to light the gas to make a pot of tea, picks up the matchbox and there are no matches in it.

But there's something in it all right.

She opens it.


"Expect the unexpected afterlives," Paddy tells Richard clearly meaning her own, too. Like Richard's own earwig, she tells him to "Blaze the trail" and stand true to the creative vision he has for the film on which he is working. The letter ends not with Paddy's own words, but with the final sentence of "A Blaze", the final story of the collection "God! what a woman you are. You make me so infernally proud dearest, that I . . . I tell you!"6 In so doing, Smith lives up to her name as a wordsmith (as described by Charlotte Terrell), turning the thwarted epiphany of the final line of "A Blaze", into a true epiphany here breaking pace, drawing history into the present, pausing time, causing an end, all to create the effect of plucking the words right out of Richard's mind. Earwig.

Mansfield, for her part, actively thwarted the revelatory aspects of epiphany, refusing the niceties of narrative closure in favour of bursts of emotion and comprehension that fizzled out before ever having a chance to be learnt from. Chance plays a huge part in Mansfield's epiphanies, as well as Smith's. Often in Mansfield's stories, characters and readers are led through chance encounters to the verge of recognition, of knowledge before running up against the limits of what they can truly understand. Sometimes these limits are linguistic. In "The Garden-Party," middle-class Laura Sheridan is confronted with her own privilege after the death of a working man and an encounter in the "contact zone" with his family. When Laura tries to tell her brother what she has experienced, in the story's final scene, she fails. "'Isn't life,' she stammered, 'isn't life'," landing uneasily instead on submission: "what life was she couldn't explain."7 At the end of Paddy's letter, Smith clearly draws on Mansfield's style of epiphany to drown out the progression of a life's events with a syntactical illustration of how inexpressible they can be. 

Mansfield's presence in Spring signals Smith's interest in a particular kind of epiphany and also tells us something important about the philosophical project of the Quartet writ large. In her introduction to Penguin's edition of Mansfield's The Collected Stories, Smith imagines Mansfield's "passion" "about beginnings, stories set in spring, stories which hymn nature's own anarchy of rebirth" as a resistance against closure.8 "The natural cycle, the frosted flower, the (Romantic) notion of brevity, the promised anticlimactic fall which infects life and narrative regardless," in Smith's reading, "make sense of her love of held, timeless moments glowing back against chronology, and the attraction, for her, of stories which celebrate life in the face of the fact that neither story nor life lasts."9 Many critics have read Smith's Quartet as similarly hopeful. A cycle like the Quartet should no doubt also find narrative and philosophical consolation in the reassurance that time is ongoing, and the present can so quickly become made new again. But the Quartet's impending sense of apocalypse climate change, Brexit, a refugee crisis, and a global pandemic upend what we would usually think of as novelistic development. For characters in realist novels of development, the world is usually "all before them." Not in the Quartet though, where there is a pervasive narrative sense in which the world is all behind them. 

This point is obvious when we consider the very old Daniel in Autumn, or aging matriarch Sophia in Winter, or the beleaguered filmmaker Richard in Spring, or former actress and Brexiteer Grace in Summer, whose views point to a time past, but young characters too resist the novel's love of development. As Walt Hunter writes, Smith's novels are peopled with "women for whom the narrative conditions are unpropitious because they are too young, sometimes, or have died tragically, or locate their desire in places the world finds impossible to sanction." In the Quartet, Elisabeth Demand, like so many young people, is facing a longue durée apocalypse. She was promised a future that neoliberalism, global recessions, the erosion of labour rights, rampant nationalism and xenophobia, and climate change have since destroyed to the point that no future seems possible at all. In her early thirties, she endures the working conditions of so many academics in UK higher education. She works as a "no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London," and like almost half of those on casual contracts she is experiencing a cost of living crisis.10 While, in an allegorical fashion, Elisabeth's demands are in a constant dance of being asked and denied, her mother says she's "living the dream," referring to a time when an academic life was a viable and sustainable career choice but the dream now "means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you're still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago."11 

What, then, to make of Smith's decision to house frustrated novelistic development in a Quartet driven by the seasons and genealogy? As Daniel reminds us in Autumn, history falls in line behind us, as do the seasons that pass us by predictably, again and again. Clichéd in sentiment, epiphanic in rhythm: 

The rain falls. The wind blows. The seasons pass and the gun rusts and the brightly coloured costumes dull and rot and the leaves from all the trees round about fall on them, heap over them, cover them, and grass grows round them then starts growing out of them, through them, through ribs and eyeholes, then flowers appear in the grass, and when the costumes and the perishable parts have all rotted away or been eaten clean by creatures happy to have the sustenance, there's nothing left of them, the pantomime innocents or the man with the gun, but bones in grass, bones in flowers, the leafy branches of the ash tree above them. Which is what, in the end, is left of us all, whether we carry a gun while we're here or we don't. So. While we're here. I mean, while we're still here.12

But as much as some readers feel the Quartet is a celebration of the seasons, I can't help but understand it as an illustration of their collapse. Even as it depicts the onward progression of the years in seasonal form, it also depicts a disruption to their pacing. One of Autumn's epigraphs reminds us that "at current rates of soil erosion, Britain has just 100 harvests left." Elisabeth's mother recalls a time "when we still had summers. When we still had seasons, not just the monoseason we have now."13 Summer features Australia's devastating 2019/20 bushfires, whose intensity one study has attributed to anthropogenic climate change.14 In Spring, we don't just relish witnessing the blossoming of the magnolias, narcissi, and cherry trees, but feel worried that, year on year, we are seeing them do so far too soon. 

If narrative epiphany relies on the disruption of orderly pace, then, what about the change of pace of a life during a cost of living crisis? Or the incremental changes to the progression of the seasons? Can apocalypse evoke epiphany? Northrop Frye thought so. In Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye figured epiphany as "the symbolic presentation of the point at which the undisplaced apocalyptic world and the cyclical world of nature come into alignment."15 What Frye is arguing for here is a breaking of pace: of the apocalypse by making it more attuned to the cycles of the natural world, and of the seasons by making it more attuned to what Frank Kermode called the "rectilinear" temporality of the apocalypse.16 Kermode, inThe Sense of an Ending, showed how literature's apocalyptic interests spur our desires for narrative organisation. "We project ourselves... past the End," he argued, "so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle. Apocalypse depends on a concord of imaginatively recorded past and imaginatively predicted future, achieved on behalf of us, who remain 'in the middest.'"17 

None of the Quartet's endings, however, project us beyond only back to the season at hand: "November again. It's more winter than autumn. That's not mist. It's fog" (Autumn); "July: it is a balmy day at the start of the month" (Winter); "Pass any flowering bush or tree and you can't not hear it, the buzz of the engine, the new life already at work in it, time's factory" (Spring); "I agree there is more summer to come and there will be more weeks of your bird in my sky" (Summer).18 These endings carry an element of predictability. All is calm, all knowing. There is no panic and thwarted realisation as in Mansfield's endings Smith is drawing on old knowledge here. If only paying attention to the Quartet as a representation of the iterability of the seasons, narratively speaking, we are only ever in the middle, never the end. The Quartet's compositional principle is, as Smith once noted, "and/and/and"or, as I like to think of it, middle middle middle. 

If narrative epiphany most of all insists on breaking the velocity of time to produce an eternal present, then an insistence on the middle on all present seems, on the surface, dramatically anti-epiphanic. How can interrupting one present for another call up epiphany? Much like Gertrude Stein's eternal "beginning and beginning and beginning," the Quartet's "middle middle middle" does not only evoke the present moment, but the collapse of history via intertextuality and a multi-generation cast of characters into the present.19 But the more the Quartet progresses the more it becomes clear that when epiphany appears, it is to remind Smith's characters and readers that the present and presence are distinguishable states. The political time of the present recycles historical tropes; presence collapses all time into an eternal time-lapse, in which our senses are more alive than ever, making us alert to our own consciousness. These epiphanies give us hope, Smith suggests, but more importantly gift us access to the sublime.

So as Spring comes around again in Britain and I pause on my commute to admire the slow and then rapid unfurling of magnolia petals, I am reminded of how Smith's Quartet urges us to allow ourselves to be pulled into a "time-lapse of a million billion flowers opening their heads, of a million billion flowers bowing, closing their heads again, of a million billion new flowers opening instead, of a million billion buds becoming leaves then the leaves falling off and rotting into earth, of a million billion twigs splitting into a million billion brand new buds."20 And in these moments of eternal presence, out of the everyday and into transcendence, my heart takes a leap.

Alexandra Kingston-Reese (@alexandrakreese) is Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of York and the editor of ASAP/J. She is the author of Contemporary Novelists and the Aesthetics of Twenty-First Century American Life (University of Iowa Press, 2020) and editor of Art Essays (University of Iowa Press, 2021). 


  1. Ali Smith, Spring (Penguin, 2019): 332.[]
  2. And is quickly ripped from them, as Pamela Thurschwell discusses.[]
  3. Brian Gingrich, "Pace and Epiphany", New Literary History 49, no. 3 (Summer 2018): 373.[]
  4. Gingrich, "Pace," 372.[]
  5. Smith, Spring, 280.[]
  6. Katherine Mansfield, "A Blaze", The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield(Penguin, 2008): 779.[]
  7. Mansfield, "The Garden-Party", The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Penguin, 2008): 261.[]
  8. Ali Smith, "Introduction", The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Penguin, 2008): xxiii.[]
  9. Smith, "Introduction," xxiii.[]
  10. Ali Smith, Autumn (Penguin, 2016): 15. Research undertaken by the UK's Universities and College's Union (UCU) has shown that "42% of staff on casual contracts have struggled to pay household bills, while many others struggle to make long-term financial commitments like buying a house." Several rounds of industrial action have taken place since 2016 in an attempt to rectify the current system.[]
  11. Smith, Autumn, 15.[]
  12. Smith, Autumn, 127.[]
  13. Smith, Autumn, 215.[]
  14. Geert Jan van Oldenborgh et al., "Attribution of the Australian bushfire risk to anthropogenic climate change", Natural Hazards Earth System Sciences, 21 (2021): 941-960.[]
  15. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton University Press, 1957): 203.[]
  16. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (Oxford University Press, 2000): 5.[]
  17. Kermode, The Sense., 8.[]
  18. Smith, Autumn, 259; Winter (Penguin, 2017): 332; Spring, 336; Summer (Penguin, 2021): 396.[]
  19. Gertrude Stein, "Composition as Explanation" in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, edited by Carl Van Vechten (1926; Vintage, 1990): 516.[]
  20. Smith, Autumn, 123.[]