Saturday 20 April 2019

Spring: An energetic, tricksy novel - for better and worse

Fiction: Spring

Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, hardback, 352 pages, €21

Infectious: while Ali Smith's seasonal novels struggle as manifestos, they thrive as manifestations
Infectious: while Ali Smith's seasonal novels struggle as manifestos, they thrive as manifestations
Spring by Ali Smith

Ali Smith is a dissolver of boundaries, a fixity refusenik, a trafficker in fluency and play. The most Tigger-like of serious novelists, she bounced away from her biggest success, the diptych How to Be Both, by announcing her intention to publish, in quick succession, a suite of newsy novels with a seasonal conceit.

The result has been a fertile breeder of paradox: an exercise in unity through multiplicity; an ambitious serial project that carries the air of a jeu d'esprit, of seeming more a lark than a plunge; and a rumination on perennial themes - albeit themes of change and renewal associated with particular literary movements - set against a topical backdrop (Brexit, Trump, the refugee crisis) that, in turn, generates an endless parade of historical analogy and precedent.

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But as Spring, the third instalment, amply demonstrates, Smith's work is prone to another form of slippage or border-straddling. The inspiring becomes the annoying, the tickling tiresome. A rich vein wears suddenly thin. Mountains are parted to reveal ridiculous mots. Then there is the matter of her novels' identities. Spring, like virtually all of its predecessors, reveals that run-on syntax, typographic wildness (varied font sizes, whimsical punctuation) and an obtrusive postmodern narrator ("Then this happened," "let's choose a late March day") comfortably mix with middle-of-the-road subject matter and a cosy liberal-humanist outlook. Smith has a habit of "keeping it surreal", in the words of one of her characters, even as she writes about the love-and-friendship tribulations suffered by poetry-spouting denizens of suburbia, medialand, and the tamer forms of bohemia.

Like Autumn and Winter, the new novel channels a Shakespearean romance (Pericles, Prince of Tyre), celebrates a female British artist (the security-cordon-averse Tacita Dean), and bristles with riffs and rants and routines while telling the story of a platonic - or mostly platonic - relationship between a man and a woman, in this case the TV director Richard, and his favourite collaborator, the Northern Irish screenwriter Patricia Heal, known as Paddy, who has recently died. Inside an elaborate-looking structure, a story of personal change is trying, without much difficulty, to clamber out. What looks like a Russian doll turns out to be a Trojan horse.

As the novel begins, Richard is standing at a train station in the north of Scotland while trying not to "story" himself - trying to think of himself as just a man on a platform looking at some mountains. But his effort soon peters out, and we learn that he is about to embark on an adaptation of a novel, April, about the near-meeting of Rilke and Katherine Mansfield, in Switzerland, in 1922. It's October, but Richard's thoughts return to a day in March when Paddy was dying of cancer. They discuss the April project, and Paddy informs the ignorant Richard about the springlike effect of 1922. "Year when everything that was anything in literature fractured," she says. "Fell to pieces. On Margate Sands."

It's one of various allusions to 'The Waste Land', TS Eliot's poem about April and its capacity for "stirring" and "mixing." It was also the year when Michael Collins was killed and WB Yeats wrote the poem 'Easter, 1916'. In the novel's 2017, Yeats, Rilke, Mansfield, and Eliot, among others, remain inspiring in their capacity to find potential in literary and historical ruins, while the Irish question has become "relevant all over again in its brand new same old way".

The English treatment of foreigners and immigrants underpins the second plot, which eventually converges with Richard's story (that's what it is). Brit, the brightest girl at her school, is working at a local immigrant detention centre. One day, she meets Florence (Brit herself represents "the machine"), a 12-year-old activist and aspiring writer, and they board a train to Scotland.

Smith has often depicted resourceful, rule-breaking children, though not always with great shade or nuance. Florence is able to see the injustices and flaws of thinking that hardened adult habit misses. At one point, Brit reflects: "She's, what's the word? … She is good." Florence is at once an author stand-in - the Smith aesthetic in human form - and an author mouthpiece whose inklings and intuitions are vindicated by the facts.

She argues, for example, that a border should be viewed as a positive space, something that "unites" not "divides", and sure enough the idea of a nation proves no more stable than that of a season. We read about "the day the Jacobite army led by Charlie the Scottish Frenchman fought the government army led by his cousin Billy the English German in the cold spring sleet and the hail".

It's the implication of novelty that palls. As a long-view portrait of the present moment, Spring never rises above common-or-garden Orwelliana, or the logic-bad-fluency-good position familiar from Hard Times, a novel that appears in the book via a pun involving Dickens and the word "dick". (One ironic historical development is that "facts" have shifted columns and become a positive force.) For all the insistence on the boundary as meeting-place and melting-pot, the line between right and wrong is fairly straight. Somewhat inevitably, human vice proves collective - groupthink of the Gradgrind sort. People never go astray by being themselves.

But, like Thomas Pynchon in his punning portrayals of Rightist rationalism, Smith is offering her quartet as not just a vehicle but a destination, not just a rebuke but an answer. And there's no denying that Spring is infectious in its energy and warmth. If the seasonal novels struggle as manifestos, they thrive as manifestations.

In this sense, Spring, though far from perfect, might have made an ideal finale. After all, it is concerned with the season that most deserves Smith's phrase "the great connective". By choosing to end with Summer - on course to arrive in about 15 months' time - she has set herself the challenge of culminating in a blaze or climax, a point of arrival more than renewal. No doubt there will be thoughts of an expiring sun or at least a warming planet, the emergence of a mono-season being perhaps the worst conceivable example of boundaries fading.

These days, a seasonal quartet can legitimately double as an elegy for seasonal quartets. But Smith would be violating her instinctive high spirits and the prevailing spirit of this silly but stubbornly likeable series if she neglected to emphasise one last time the thing we are told that hope does eternal.

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