Spring by Ali Smith
Ali Smith’s Spring is one of the great literary achievements of 2019: it is a novel of vitality in every sense of the word, as energetic and lively as it is timely and important. Part three of a seasonal tetralogy, Spring honors the best elements of Autumn and Winter while resisting the temptation to fall back on their previously-laid concepts and themes. While Autumn and Winter are literary, artistically-minded novels set amidst the ever-worsening arena of 2010s world politics, Spring is first and foremost a political book, and one that dares to stare directly into conflict without an allegorical scrim. Addressing England’s migrant crisis, fake news, and the public’s newfound disinterest in truth, Spring has both the hope of an emergent bud and the disgust of a trash-filled snowmelt. “It was the time of the year when everything was dead,” Smith writes. “I mean dead in a way that meant it seemed that nothing would ever live again.” But Spring is a renewal, a slow awakening, and a welcome new direction.
After a terrifying opening preamble that seems composed entirely of internet hatespeak, presidential tweets and clickbait headlines, Spring settles onto to the life of Richard Lease, a forgotten filmmaker who is cautiously considering a new project revolving around a curious moment of literary happenstance. In 1922, writer Katherine Mansfield and poet Rainer Maria Rilke may have overlapped during a visit to the same Swiss hotel. While there’s no indication that the writers even interacted, it’s a compelling synchronicity that could spark many bookish daydreams.
Richard tries to work “with some courtesy towards truth and to what we know and don’t know,” and is devastated to learn that none of his colleagues feel the same way. “What if she never died or not till the 1970s or something?” the screenwriter suggests. “Yes we can change history,” he declares. Rilke and Mansfield are twisted anachronistically through time and written instead as lovers during some alpine tryst. What does it matter if a few facts are embellished?
This loss of veracity weighs on Richard, as does the recent death of Paddy, who was his film partner, mentor, and occasional lover. Dissatisfied with the present, he turns to suicide and attempts to end his story at a quiet, seemingly empty train station.
Meanwhile, an exhausted millennial named Brittany slogs her way through a job working with detainees at an immigrant removal center. The job pays the bills but cost her her boyfriend and, potentially, her moral compass. Scenes inside the IRC are astonishingly difficult to read. Brit’s political malaise is manifested into a worldview that accepts everything as it is, and discounts any possibility for a person to make a difference. In one scene, she is interviewed by a reporter about how she voted in the EU Referendum:
“I was younger then, and I still thought politics mattered. But all this. This endless. It’s eating the, the, you know. Soul. Doesn’t matter what I voted or you voted or anyone voted. Because what’s the point, if nobody in the end is going to listen to or care about what other people think unless they think and believe the same thing as them.”
But there’s still some hope for Brit (and maybe all the Brits out there). When Florence, a precocious preteen traveling alone asks her for directions in a train station, something clicks inside Brit and she decides to chaperone the girl all the way to her destination in Scotland. Florence is quiet about her story but Brit feels compelled to trust her. Together, they perform a kind of micro-migration from London to a village in Scotland, and coincidentally find Richard just in time.
The clash of these storylines set up the novel’s final act, in which themes of immigration, nationalism, and morality further emerge. Florence’s perspective as an outsider provides both Brit and Richard with fresh insight, and, above all, hope for the future. In one of Florence’s many brilliant tangents, she subtly suggests that so many of our troubles today are rooted in how we view a situation: “What if instead of saying, this border divides places. We said, this border unites places. This border holds together these two really interesting different places.”
When Spring opens, Smith conjures a scene of an “old ocean liner heading towards rough sea,” set in a time when simplicity had “grown very small” and “a steady kind of joy….had disappeared, vanished completely.” At its close, Spring feels as if on a precipice. Summer, the final volume in this outstanding series, could go either way: it could flourish with growth and life or melt away, inhospitably scorched. But that outcome, as Florence teaches, will depend on how we choose to look.