The third instalment in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet is a triumph. An uplifting and generous read, it utilises the formula established by the previous two novels of the series expertly, the result being a work that stands alongside its predecessors, but firmly on its own two feet. A novel concerned first and foremost with storytelling, it’s narrative weaves together art and modernity with all the ease and flair readers have come to expect of Smith. Yet where Autumn was striking for establishing the formula, and Winter for taking it further, Spring seems to stand apart as a distinctively complete work, a cut above in the sophistication of the ideas it explores.
Just as Autumn began with an invocation our greatest writer of social commentary, Charles Dickens, so Spring opens with a wry nod to his 1854 novel, Hard Times: ‘Now what we don’t want is facts.’ This subversion of the mantra of Dickens’ arch-capitalist Gradgrind (‘Now, what I want is, Facts’) forms a part of a series of monologues distributed throughout the text which seem to represent the ‘story’ as the establishment would have us read it. Throughout the text these passages attempt a piercing deconstruction of the narratives so prevalent in contemporary media, an attempt to get at the truth in a post-truth world. Yet Smith’s invocation of Dickens points to a wider sense of the novel itself as bound up in questions of storytelling, of truth and misrepresentation.
The opening chapter of the novel finds Richard, a small time TV director, at a station platform busy resisting the urge to write his life into story, disillusioned as he has become. He observes himself ‘storying his own absence’ until his becomes a ‘story of myself avoiding stories’;
‘He was a man on a railway platform. There was no story.’
His is a disillusionment fed by a script he is working on, with its hyper-sexualised, near-ludicrous account of the lives of poet Rainer Maria Rilke and writer Katherine Mansfield, veering about as far from the truth as is possible. Richard’s existence (as an artist) is thrown into chaos. His despair (he is also mourning his friend, lover and long-time collaborator Paddy) is such that he attempts suicide. The idea of killing the story becomes, for Smith, akin to suicide. Yet what to do when those stories become corrupted, seem under threat and ineffectual? It is in typical Smithian fashion that, before he manages to kill himself, a chance encounter throws Richard’s life off course, and ultimately reunites him with the power of the story and its truth.
Across the quartet so far, Smith seems dedicated to the power of these chance encounters, of the magic when two strangers of opposing world views meet and interact. The notion is evocative of E. M. Forster’s ‘only connect’, and it is surely in such a condition-of-England tradition that Smith writes. She is the Forster or the Gaskell for our time, the novelist-as-national-healer made post-modern.
Later on in the novel Smith relates the passion with which Rilke, at the end of his life, read the novels of D. H. Lawrence, giving him new creative energy – which for an artist means hope. More broadly than the power of storytelling, however, Smith is concerned with the power of art. As with the last two instalments, the novel also serves as a showcase for the work of a British artist, this time Tacita Dean. Richard attends an exhibition of her work ‘hung with pictures of clouds’ and is instantly struck by its power as art;
‘As he stood there what he was looking at stopped being chalk on a slate, stopped being a picture of a mountain. It became something terrible, seen.’
Smith’s use of ‘terrible’ is ambiguous here, yet the experience enriches Richard, making ‘the real clouds above London look[-] different’, as if ‘they were something you could read as breathing space.’ Art thus becomes a means of reading the world around oneself, but also of bringing people together, as Richard exchanges a ‘look[-]’ and ‘laugh[-]’ with a fellow exhibition attendee. Later, describing another of Dean’s works, Smith’s narrator observes its effect; ‘what’s left is the story of human beings and air.’ The power of art comes full circle and becomes the power of storytelling itself; the story Richard reads in the cloud’s after seeing Dean’s clouds, the story of his interaction with another at the exhibition. Stories are revealed to be essential to our comprehension of the world around us, the one irrefutable.
Smith does more than her bit to fight back against the mis-telling of stories in the mainstream media. Her acknowledgements reveal the research that went into her portrayal of the experiences of detainees in UK Immigration Removal Centres, and the appalling conditions they are forced to endure. In this way the novel functions as a necessary and powerful response to Windrush.
The ending of the novel is ambiguous in its treatment of story. It’s final chapters are staged dramatically, teasing narrative detail piece by piece for maximum effect. The denouement is perfectly choreographed into something beautifully tragic. Here, Smith drops her self-reflexive stance to allow the power of the story, the very thing the novel has attempted defended from misuse, to take full hold over the reader. Story, then, becomes rapture as well as site of interrogation, and while Smith’s conclusion offers no easy solution, the lasting impression of the novel is one of hope. The story is allowed its time to act as a force for good, returned to its proper position, reclaimed from the careless story-tellers that dominate the media today. Smith’s is a call for the truth of the story.
A necessary and tender novel, it is this spring’s must-read. This third instalment in Smith’s quartet is perhaps the best yet; a novel for our times that asks all the right questions of the current climate, but also of itself. With Smith at the helm we are never in danger of entering the realm of propaganda; always there is ambiguity and rumination, self-awareness and humility, allowing the reader the chance to fit the pieces together for themselves rather than be told what to think. With one more novel to come, Smith’s four-year project is shaping-up to be a stunning achievement in contemporary literary fiction, and a necessary remedy to the mis-use of story-telling in our time.