by Erin Minogue
Spring Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, 2019
‘I am looking for signs of Spring already’, Katherine Mansfield writes in an epigraph preceding Spring, the third volume of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet. Out of the current general feeling of political despair and bleakness, Ali Smith finds signs of spring everywhere.
Smith’s publishers work at a monumental pace to produce each text in the Seasonal Quartet within a tight time-frame. The first novel of the series, Autumn, which chronicles the growing resentment and political divisions surrounding Britain’s membership of the European Union, was published in October 2016, roughly four months after the referendum. Spring takes on immigration detention and the rise of populism in the wake of the Brexit vote.
The opening of Winter begins with a litany of things believed to be dead (God, romance, the welfare state, and the novel). Similarly, Spring begins with the character of Richard Lease, who wants to believe that, ‘there’s no story ... he’s had it with story.’ Despite this, Smith shows that stories shape our lives, and our connections with others. A peripheral strand of narrative explores a story of proximity and missed connection between two literary luminaries, the short story writer Katherine Mansfield and the poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke. Both lived in the same small Swiss town in 1922, but never met. Smith digs into the different ways this story can be framed, as TV director, Lease attempts to adapt their proximity into a film. His work is intertwined with his grief for his friend Paddy, the scriptwriter with whom he had worked throughout his career. The project conjures up memories of their creative partnership, based on the shaping and telling of stories.
It is Paddy who leads Richard to the work of visual artist Tacita Dean. Dean’s works are referred to throughout Spring, just as the works of Pauline Boty and Barbara Hepworth are in Autumn and Winter respectively. Richard attends an exhibition of her work at the Royal Academy and is awed by the monumental chalk mountainscapes. Smith pays particular attention to Dean’s 1995 work ‘A Bag of Air’: the metamorphic nature of chalk and cloud serve as signs of spring, promising the possibility of change and new beginnings. Through reference to Rilke, Mansfield, and Dean, the characters within the novel are woven into an open and generous literary and artistic network.
Alongside this, Smith presents the story of Brit, a DCO (Detainee Custody Officer) working in an immigration removal centre run by the ominous private security firm SA4A. Informed by the anonymous testimonies of refugees, derived from her work for Refugee Tales (2016), Smith weaves into the narrative details of life inside detention centres, some of which can hold people for years, despite originally being built to detain people for a number of days. Interwoven with both narratives are highly stylised populist rhetoric: threatening voices, voices of resentment, voices demanding something.
One of these passages opens the novel, speaking out in resounding disillusionment: ‘now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition.’ The impressive turnaround time of the novels in the Seasonal Quartet allows Smith to take the anger and uncertainty of the current moment and weave it into her work. In Spring, Smith audaciously asks us to pay attention and care, to look around and to listen to others.
‘Fuck compassion fatigue ... that’s people walking about with dead souls’, states Paddy. Her disgust and disbelief gain significance in proximity to Brit’s narrative, in which cynicism and apathy seem practised, encouraged by her work in a detention centre.
These seemingly disparate strands of narrative are connected by the figure of Florence Smith, a twelve-year-old girl who opens locked doors, and can almost will change into being. As with the earlier works in the Seasonal Quartet, in which Shakespeare’s late comedies are refashioned, Spring borrows the figure of a child as a force of goodness from the character of Marina in Pericles. This almost mythic being, who speaks truth to those in power, resembles Greta Thunberg – the sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist – and the children across Europe who have participated in school strikes against climate change to make the world listen.
Instead of closing in at a time of intense political division, the inclusivity of Ali Smith’s writing allows her to suggest that it is possible to look outwards, and to tell many stories. In Spring, stories shape themselves from old ones and speak to us in the present. Smith fittingly marks the season of spring as ‘the great connective’, on the final page of the novel. Both the season and the novel urge us to trust in time, to look to art, and to listen to stories.
ERIN MINOGUE reads English at Mansfield. She is just trying her best.
Art by Ellen Sharman