What unites Katherine Mansfield, Charlie Chaplin, Shakespeare, Rilke, Beethoven, Brexit, the present, the past, the north, the south, the east, the west, a man mourning lost times, a woman trapped in modern times? Spring. The great connective. With an eye to the migrancy of story over time and riffing on Pericles, one of Shakespeare's most resistant and rollicking works, Ali Smith tell the impossible tale of an impossible time. In a time of walls and lockdown, Smith opens the door. The time we're living in is changing nature. Will it change the nature of story? Hope springs eternal.--
Having played around with the openings of A tale of two cities and A Christmas carol in the previous parts, this one riffs on the opening of Hard Times, which of course leads us into one of the big themes of the book: the increased obligation artists have to tell the truth in a society that seems to have given up valuing facts over lies. That side of the story is represented in particular by Richard, a TV director who made radical, hard-hitting dramas back in the seventies with his mentor and writing partner Patricia, but is finding it hard to see a way forward since her death.
The other big topic is the vast and all-but-invisible Gulag created in the service of Mrs May's Hostile Environment for (those suspected of being) foreigners, which is represented by Brittany, who works as a guard for a private security company at one of their Immigration Detention Centres, and seems to be losing the ability to live a normal life as a result.
All this is stirred up and shuffled around by one of Smith's always-wonderful mischievous agents of change, a young girl called Florence who sometimes seems to be a normal high-school student, and at other times turns into a kind of personification of spring. As usual, we're left in a little bit of doubt about where precisely all the bits have landed, and there seem to be two or three competing endings out there, including one in which Kingussie is a station on the Underground Railroad, but - as with the others in the series - it's not the narrative that drives this story, but the reader's engagement with Smith's argument about the dangers of sitting back and not doing our little bit to help fix things (however quixotic) when we see something wrong happening in the world around us.
It would be worth getting just for the Hockney cover-art, but there's a lot more to enjoy when you get past that, even if this is one of Smith's darker works.
Richard Lease is a director best known for his 1970's TV plays. Now in his 60s, he's mourning the death of his writing partner and trying to work on a film adaptation of 'April,' a popular novel spun off the fact that the writers Katherine Mansfield and Rainier Maria Rilke stayed in a Swiss resort town at the same time but never met. It's a premise that he initially detested, but his partner, Paddy, convinced him that it could be wonderful, and after reading some of each writer's work and doing research on their lives, he is seeing new possibilities. The problem is that the director has other ideas--in short, a romance with (of course) hot sex scenes in every conceivable (and inconceivable) location. After several conversations with his imaginary daughter (who at Paddy's suggestion replaced the real one he hasn't seen in 27 years), he decides to end it all by laying on the underground tracks.
Brit is a young DCO in an IRC for the HO--in other words, she works in a detention center for newly arrived immigrants. She's torn by empathy for some of the detainees, considering the filthy, crowded conditions in which they are living and the fact that most have stayed far longer than the law dictates, and by the necessity of developing a hard shell to survive in her job. The DCOs have been exchanging stories about a girl who somehow got past security and into the director's office, where she convinced him to bring in professionals to steam clean the toilets. And it is rumored that the girl went into a brothel and freed all of the trafficked sex workers. On her way to work one day, Brit sees a young girl heading towards the underground and is convinced that this is the magical child of the stories. Coincidence upon coincidence brings them to the platform where young Florence notices Richard on the tracks.
And so begins an unlikely adventure and an unlikely partnership. Florence is, on one hand, an extremely precocious child, but on the other, as she says, "I'm just a twelve-year old girl." She is fascinated by an old post card depicting a lake in Scotland and convinces first Brit and then Richard to join her. Once they arrive as far as they can go by train, they persuade Alda, an immigrant food truck owner, to drive them the rest of the way. In her food truck.
Spring is marked by all of the characteristics of an [[Ali Smith]] novel: a literary and artistic intelligence (Mansfield, Rilke, Shelley, Shakespeare, Charlie Chaplin, Nina Simone, and a little known photographer, Tacita Dean), politics (Brexit, racism, anti-immigration, global warming, the 24-hour news cycle, social media, etc.), plenty of humor, and brilliant writing. It's structure loosely re-imagines Shakespeare's [Pericles], one of the late romances in which a young girl brings redemption to the older generation--Smith's stab at bringing hope into today's challenging and often ugly world. It's a wonderful story, not one that whisks away all the world's problems in the end but that at least presents the possibility of optimism.
Each novel in this planned quartet has been better than the last. I can't wait to see what Summer will bring.
On the other, I wasn't a huge fan of the character of Richard, who I found somewhat difficult to connect with, especially in the scenes taking place in Scotland.
I found Brit more interesting, but I wasn't quite sure what Florence, the miraculous schoolgirl, was supposed to represent. The previous reviewer suggests that she is the essence of the younger generations who will fight more than adults today to get the world back on the right track, which makes sense to an extent.
However, that isn't a simple thing to do in the face of adult, mainly right-wing cynicism (as we can see from the response to school strikes for climate action at the moment), and it seems that Florence finds it all a bit too easy for my liking.
But then again, this is Spring, the season of hope, and surely we all need a bit of that at the moment?
I wonder how these books will read in 30 years, when I think we as humans will look back on this time with a great deal of despair and regret. Regardless, these books are a time capsule of an upset Western world, drawing together art and politics, history and the present, naturalism and mythology, into a compelling literary strand.
Richard is a filmmaker. Or he used to be. He’s old now, though not ancient. He’s been roped in to direct what is turning out to be a dog’s breakfast of a film about an erotic meeting between a famous poet and a famous writer of short fiction from the early part of 20th century that actually never happened. History, as they say, is now just history. Whereas in story, you can do whatever the hell you want (or whatever the upper brass the BBC want). Richard’s storyline is intersected by another. Brittany is a security guard in a detention centre for refugees. She is increasingly hardened by her working environment of non-caring. But a chance (is it chance?) encounter with an almost legendary 12 year old girl leads to an extended trek up to Scotland and the aforementioned encounter with Richard. Thematically charged events ensue.
Smith is, I think, burdened by a supercharged creative imagination. Everything is an opportunity either for a meaningful pun or an oblique segue into a different track of thought. Especially when there is an astoundingly precocious pre-teen involved. It’s exhausting. Fun, but exhausting. And sometimes there are, possibly, more useful things that might be done with plot and character. Though Smith is no slouch at those either. I sometimes wonder what a novel of hers might be like if she spent significantly longer on it. But it’s entirely possible that her virtues are her virtues and they might be lost by other means. So we take what we get and enjoy what we can. Besides, they’ll be another novel along next season in any case. I hope.