The first three novels of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet—Autumn, Winter, and now Spring—are constructed not as linear stories, but as literary puzzles. To figure them out is to work their pieces together.
Autumn and Winter worked: the pieces fit. Spring’s pieces, however, feel like bits and bobs pulled out of Smith’s trunk of favorite props: Shakespeare (in Spring, Pericles), the precocious child, folklore and myth, old Britannia herself, prose poems on the seasons (green stuff pushing through the damp earth and so on), a washed-up man and wise women, works by female visual artists.
As bits and bobs go, they’re not bad. They’re Ali Smith bits and bobs. But they don’t come together to form an innovative novel, and Smith’s care in constructing them precludes the graceful chaos of an assemblage.
Part of Smith’s Seasons project entails haste; apparently, she doesn’t begin writing each book until four months before the manuscript’s due date. How does she whip them out so quickly? “I’ve been thinking about them in my head for 20 years,” she told The Guardian, “and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over those 20 years, it’s that the book already exists and we have to come out to meet it and excavate it and deliver it…The pact with the book is one that means it will always be as up-to-the-moment as possible and that’s a massive risk to take.”
Smith might not be referring literally to one book that’s been knocking around in her head for 20 years and another book that’s “up-to-the-moment,” but her statement does point up to Spring reading almost like two different books feebly bound together.
One book: Richard, an acclaimed but out-of-work film director is asked to direct a biopic of Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Marie Rilke. The screenplay revolves around the schmaltzy, and fictional, premise that the two writers became lovers while living at the same Swiss residential hotel. Richard’s beloved mentor Paddy, herself a veteran filmmaker, finds the project worthy only of scorn. While Richard is waffling about whether to take it on, Paddy’s protracted illness ends in death, plunging Richard into helpless grief.
The other book: Brit, a young but crusty female security guard at an Immigration Removal Centre in England, impulsively tags along with Florence, a 12-year-old girl she’s only just met, on a train trip to Scotland. Brit is won over by, and envies, Florence’s precocious and incisive wit and her magical ability to get people to do the right thing, including liberating women from a brothel and persuading the IRC staff to scrub the toilets.
Had the Richard book been given more room to stretch its wings it might have worked. Sturdier threads connecting it to the Brit book would have helped, too; Richard does eventually find redemption via Florence, but their encounter comes about entirely by coincidence toward the end of the novel. But the real problem with the Richard book is that its characters are a bit shopworn. Richard plays Smith’s Eternally Young but Thirsty for Enlightenment Male. Paddy and, later, Alda—and Florence, for that matter—play the Nurturing and Sage Females, there to deal Richard tough love and hopefully clue him in on the more subtle aspects of being a decent and well-rounded human being. The trope of the Nurturing and Sage Female is too pat, and what this stock character says in Spring is too prescriptive to be illuminating. Richard’s story has brilliant moments, but its somewhat patronizing, at times waggish tone eclipses Richard’s voice and diminishes the poignancy of his situation. Bound together with Brit’s book, his book is simply outdone, outshone.
Brit’s narrative tackles with passion the most profound crisis in our human world, the migration of people, a crisis that will become all the more acute as climate change destroys the viability of whole swathes of Earth. It is of a piece with Smith’s long support of Refugee Tales, an outreach organization of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, which supports and visits men detained at Gatwick IRC.
As part of her work with Refugee Tales, Smith has written up her conversations and visits with immigrants to the U.K. An article by her in The Guardian tells of a young Ghanaian man whose life story, both in Ghana and in England, unfolds like a slave narrative out of the antebellum American South. Like many other immigrants in the U.K. (and in the U.S.), he lives under the constant threat of deportation and indefinite detention.
Smith’s Guardian article went a long way, especially for me as an American reader, in illuminating Spring. Though it’s foolish to long for a different book when reviewing a book, I couldn’t help but wish that Smith had included more elements like that article in her novel. Maybe she was following her own caution, expressed repeatedly in Spring, against reducing people to cozy, self-edited stories.
Florence at times reads as Smith’s mouthpiece (as does Paddy), but the author avoids casting her in the role of Magical Immigrant. She’s not there to rescue Brit from benightedness; she asserts her own agenda from the start. She has some interesting things to say, too. Entries from Florence’s journal, called the “Hot Air book,” intersperse Smith’s novel. A mashup of “Twitter language” is so true, and so ugly, it could (maybe should) make you weep. So can the offering of her immigrant face:
My being ineligible makes you all the more eligible.
No worries. Happy to help.
Also you’ll notice this face resembles the drawings on the posters that tell you to report anything you think looks suspicious.
Tell the police if you see anyone who looks like me, because my face is of urgent matter to your nation.
Not at all. No problem. Glad to be of service.
Gritty Brit, face to face with that face, suffers a few somewhat contrived epiphanies, but turns enough surprising corners to keep her voice true. Without sugar-coating the harshness of Brit’s world view, Smith affords Brit a dignity that, at times, evokes the goddess: Brit becomes Britannia. The twist of Brit being the more sympathetic character—shouldn’t it be the child Florence?—subverts the ease with which we decide who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.”
To survive her job and the 24-hour news cycle, Brit fiercely guards her personal gates. Carefully cultivated cynicism helps her maintain emotional distance from the “deets,” the detainees: the man who throws his own shit out of his cell, the cancer patient forced to go without meds over the weekend, the “Eritrean self-harmer,” and
Body cams. Razor wire. Deets.
“The Machine,” Brit calls herself to Florence, riffing on the British art rock band Florence + The Machine, whose 2018 album is titled High as Hope.
Brit is anything but artsy, and she’s sure no hopeful bleeding heart. “I really am the machine,” she says. She’s Guard-the-Gates Brexit Brit: no more immigrants, no more tired and poor swarming her Emerald Isle in every shade of brown. But spring, as this book and everyone knows, promises change and renewal.
Brit can continue to harden her heart into stone, or she can open up. She can turn away from that foreign face (What my face means is not your face.), or she can look right into it (My face trodden in mud. / My face bloated by sea.). She accidentally gets possession of Florence’s “Hot Air book.” She could try to return it. “Or she could just burn the book.…”
We may never know what she decides. So far, the books in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet have not continued from each other with characters and storylines in common, though several themes—migrants, ecology and the procession of the seasons, humans versus the establishment “machine”—have been building.
Whichever choice she makes, how can it be other than heartbreaking?
What’s sending the thinnest of green shoots through that rock so the rock starts to split?