Spring

The greatest danger in Ali Smith’s project to write a novel a year for four years, each using as a different season as its starting point, is that it becomes a comfort to her readers. Once again we find the echoes of a Dickens’ novel (Hard Times) in the opening lines (“Now what we don’t want is Facts”) introducing a bravura exercise in found language, a prose poem polemic:

“What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth.”

Then, in a second prelude, we have the voice of Spring herself, a trick which Smith pulls off with her usual panache and puns:

“The winter’s a nothing to me.
“Do you think I don’t know about power? You think I was born green?”

Only then do we meet our first character, Richard Lease, “the TV and film director…I mean you’re bound to have seen something he did if you’ve lived long enough…” standing on a train platform in Kingussie. Why?

“That’s the wrong kind of question. It implies there’s story. There’s no story. He’s had it with story.”

Smith, on the other hand, continues to demonstrate her own mastery of story and story-telling: a hundred pages later we will leave Richard and meet Brittany, “a DCO at one of the IRCs employed by the private security firm SA4A”(another example of the way Smith captures the language of the moment). A hundred pages after that Richard and Brittany will meet and both their lives will be changed by a twelve-year-old girl called, of course, Florence.

And then there is the comfort of art itself: Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke are prominent (“They break the mould. They’re modern.”), as is the artist Tacita Dean who works mainly in film. And, as with the previous two novels, another of Shakespeare’s late plays (Pericles) resonates throughout, from wordplay (Richard when asked by his friend Paddy, “who do you think you are, bloody Pericles of Tyre,” answers “Pericles of Tired”) to the character of Florence, whose ability to make others act nobly may remind us of Marina, who manages to remain a virgin while working in a brothel by convincing men to think of their better selves. As one of her colleagues tells Brit, the:

“…age of miracles isn’t past, some schoolkid got into the centre and – you won’t believe it. I still can’t. She got management to clean up the toilets.”

Florence is the springboard for the novel, taking Brit from her job to the Highlands of Scotland simply because Brit feels compelled to help her. Once there her first action is to save Richard’s life. She puts her ability to go places seemingly unhindered to the fact that “sometimes I am invisible” (a neat reversal of invisibility of refugees locked up out of sight) but she also makes other feel visible. On their train journey together Brit realises:

“She has never been happier on a Monday afternoon than she is right now… Who has given a fuck about Brit’s favourite anything for more than ten seconds in the last ten years?”

Florence is the novel’s hope, as children so often are in Smith’s work, but though she is at the heart of the story she is also, in a sense, outside of the story, a reminder to the characters, and the reader, to be better. She is also a reminder of change and the future, in the same way as the frequent references to mountains are a reminder of nature and what endures.

There is much, then, in the novel to be comforted by: Richard “giddy with afterlife”, nicknamed Doubledick by Paddy after a Dickens’ character who “lets go of the bitterness;” Brit, so carefully named, escaping rather than imprisoning; and Florence “sending the thinnest of green shoots through the rock so the rock starts to split.” But literature should not be a blanket to snuggle under and neither is this novel. Rilke, we are told, was inspired by a postcard of a renaissance painting to write about Orpheus, and Smith seems to suggest our task is much the same. “Fuck compassion fatigue,” Paddy tells Richard, “That’s people walking about with dead souls.” The detention centre where Brit works is

“…like a kind of underworld she thought. Place of the living dead.”

In ensuring the novel shakes as well as comforts us, much depends on Brit. When Autumn was first published I expressed some disquiet about the way working class characters, like Brit (“she wanted college but they couldn’t afford it now”) were portrayed, particularly when in low paid, functionary jobs with little control over their actions or even language. Here Brit is freed from all that but, in what might initially seem like a betrayal (look away now if you don’t want to know how her story ends), only temporarily. If it is a betrayal, it is not Smith’s – in fact, it is the novel’s bravest decision, as Brit, abandoned by Florence, realises:

“She was just an extra in it. She was the hired help.”

This, for me, was the novel’s saddest line, closely followed by (in both senses):

“It felt like being bullied did, back when she was at school and had to pretend she wasn’t clever.”

It is here that Smith pinpoints on an individual level where our country has failed. While Richard is rejuvenated with a new film project, Brit retreats into her old life, only slighter more chastened and bitter than before. And with that, what was merely brilliant, becomes vital.

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4 Responses to “Spring”

  1. banff1972 Says:

    You’ve convinced me to read these books. Of Smith, I have only read The Accidental (liked it a lot).

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I like the idea of connections to other writers and creative artists here – that’s an interesting touch. What I’m less sure about is the tone of some of the prose. Please correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I get the feeling that there’s quite a bit of anger about the current state of the nation in these books (Spring and Winter in particular). Not that’s there’s anything wrong with that – it’s very understandable given the present situation – but I don’t find the prospect of it very appealing. Sorry! It’s very much a personal thing as opposed to any kind of criticism of Smith’s work. I loved How to be Both, such an inventive, playful book that explored various themes with the lightest of touches, but the tone or ‘feel’ of this series doesn’t grab me in quite the same way…

    • 1streading Says:

      No, I would say there is very little anger in them. the bit I quoted from the opening is only a couple of pages long. Tonally they are not dissimilar to Smith’s other work, and often quite funny.

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