Spring by Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, 352 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0241207048
The Italian political economist Giovanni Arrighi seized on a seasonal metaphor in his work on the evolution of capital and cycles of accumulation. Quoting Fernand Braudel, for Arrighi, after long centuries of capitalist development, financial expansion is “a sign of autumn”. Arrighi sees the financialisation that followed the decline of Fordism in the latter half of the twentieth century as marking the maturation of our current cycle of development. If our contemporary moment of austerity and populist politics in the wake of financial crisis is winter, the overwhelming question is, of course, what might spring look like?
Ali Smith certainly shares Arrighi’s interest in seasonal metaphors and her latest offering marks the three-quarter point of her current project, which started with Autumn (2016) and Winter (2017). In Spring, Smith has to reckon with a particularly connotative time of year, from Easter resurrections to TS Eliot’s “cruellest month” and 2011’s Arab Spring. Smith knows this as well as anyone, and rises majestically to the challenge. If “Winter has Epiphany”, she writes, “Spring’s gifts are different”.
Smith’s novels have always been interested in deviant temporalities and “unexpected afterlives”, as one character in Spring puts it. Her narratives are never singular or isolated, but a gathering of threads, like the parallel lives in contemporary London and Renaissance Ferrara that won her plaudits for 2014’s How to be Both or the cross-section of characters passing through the Global Hotel in the earlier Hotel World (2001). In a series of lectures that were later published as Artful (2012), Smith pushed at the formal boundaries between the novel and the essay in a meditation on grief, ghosts and the Artful Dodger. Her ambitious seasonal cycle has been especially characterised by these aspects of her œuvre: Smith takes intertwining narratives and essayistic reflections on art and literature as the warp and weft of her craft.
Spring opens with something like an attempt to sum up the present day that might best be described as a monologue from the attention economy or big tech’s stream-of-consciousness. This is followed immediately by a monologue from nature. Having thus announced the grand scope of the novel, Smith picks up her first yarn, which tells the story of Richard Lease, a formerly successful TV director who is mourning the loss of his friend and collaborator Patricia, or Paddy. We meet Richard standing on a platform at a station in Scotland, contemplating his life, the Cairngorms and his relationship with Paddy towards the end of her life and further back, as he occasionally interacts with his imaginary daughter. Paddy is a classically Smithian character, an Irish scriptwriter whose dialogue swoops gracefully through swathes of art, history and literature. Paddy is helping Richard, often from beyond the grave, with research for his latest project, a film based on Rainer Maria Rilke and Katherine Mansfield staying at the same resort in Switzerland without knowing it (suitably titled April). It was also Paddy’s idea that Richard have an imaginary daughter, who fills the gap of his relationship with his real estranged daughter. Though somewhat detached from the world, Richard’s distinguishing trait is his remarkable, involuntary sympathy. He somatises all his creative projects, for example developing painful breathing as he works on the life of the consumptive Mansfield. Here we are also introduced to the hilarious and grating Martin Terp, the upstart young director whose screenplay for April, riddled with fictionalised sex scenes between the two writers, makes for one of the funniest passages in Smith’s novels to date. His character is summed up nicely in an email to Richard, subject line “Insta-grandad”, in which he declares glibly “Yes we can change history”. For Richard, weighed down in his grief, this proves the final straw.
The other main narrative line concerns Brittany, who works as a Detention Custody Officer at an Immigration Removal Centre for security company SA4A. We are quickly introduced to the brutalising world of indefinite detention: “Body cams. Razor wire. Deets”. Brittany, or Brit as she is suggestively nicknamed, manifests all the banal evil of the UK’s detention centres, correcting the English of detainees who ask what it is like to breathe the outside air and using the coarse abbreviation “deet” for detainee. Smith’s writing here has a power of terrible realism and is based on her extended engagement with refugees and detainees, notably through the group Refugee Tales.
The daily routine of cruelty that makes up Brit’s work is interrupted when she meets Florence. Florence is a character who floats into the story and disrupts the status quo, a Smithian trope. In an echo of Marina from Shakespeare’s Pericles, the young Florence wanders into a brothel and frees the trafficked women there before gliding into the IRC and demanding improved sanitation, spooking the jaded, bureaucratic manager into obliging. Florence recruits Brit for a journey north and forces her to reflect on what it means to be “the machine”, to be on the side of power. Their story eventually collides with Richard’s at the very same train station in the Highlands. What unites these stories is one of the key questions the novel asks.
By attempting to write the now, Smith’s current cycle of novels, written in prodigiously quick succession, takes aim at a moving target. No wonder then that so much of Spring has to do with movement of different sorts. For Florence, gates and doors open, ticket barriers are raised, borders and frontiers are all but non-existent. Her uncanny ability to move through a path of no resistance as an almost intangible force for change is a brilliant narrative device and sharp contrast with the reality of detention in the UK. Much of the story takes place on trains and station platforms and it culminates with a reincarnation of the underground railroad, a network of activists helping migrants to relocate and escape detention. The climactic scene takes place in the Scottish Highlands near Inverness, where the mysterious guide Alda evokes the troubled history of the clearances. This history of displacement and emigration is a poignant parallel to contemporary migration and a reminder that the present is always haunted by the past.
Smith’s novels are often praised for their empathy and generosity and while this is certainly just, these terms may miss the full range of what she is doing as both a novelist and a commentator on the contemporary world. Spring marks a departure for Smith, or perhaps more accurately an intensification. Though her novels have always embraced ambivalence, there is a tight knot at the heart of Spring, an aporia that will not easily be unravelled. In Brit, we have one of Smith’s most complex characters, who in many ways upsets the Smithian mode. Brit is in fact the antagonist here and the flurry of art and language that always metamorphoses Smith’s characters in the end only embeds Brit further in bigotry and bitterness. Though her encounters with the preternatural Florence stir some difficult reflections for Brit, “humanizing the machine” doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. Empathy is good, necessary even, but Smith forces us to ask if it is sufficient.
A novel is not a self-help book and structural social problems are not solved by a shared love of Charles Dickens. With Spring, the novel form rubs up against the social and asks what it means to live through, under and against structures of power, and what resistance can look like. Smith is, as many people have commented, a moral writer, but she is also, and primarily, a political one. Spring hums with the irresistible vitality of the novel form, alive with the first sounds of springtime: “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.”
Fintan Calpin is a writer and postgraduate student in contemporary literature at King’s College London. He lives in South London.