Spring by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 346 p.

When a novel starts with a diatribe containing, among other like things, the words,“What we don’t want is facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth … we want muslim women a joke in a newspaper column we the laugh we want the sound of that laugh behind them wherever they go,” and we recognise them as an accurate reflection of the times then we know the body politic has gone to a deep, dark, unpleasant place – and we also know that literature is probably not up to the task of ameliorating it. This is the first of a series of interludes which separate the “story” elements of Ali Smith’s third instalment in dissecting post EU referendum Britain. Not all these interludes articulate an anti-Brexit viewpoint. The opposite attitude is also given a voice as is the hidden data-mining agenda of social media platform providers.

There’s more in that first diatribe though. “We need to suggest the enemy within… we need enemies of the people we want their judges called enemies of the people we want their journalists called enemies of the people we want the people we decide are enemies of the people called enemies of the people we want to say loudly over and over again on as many tv and radio shows as possible how they’re silencing us … we need news to be what we say it is. We need words to mean what we say they mean. We need to deny what we’re saying while we’re saying it.”

And it’s chilling when set down all at once. Against that, what chance has a mere novel of gaining traction?

The plot is bifold. Richard Lease, an old producer of TV plays (which is to say a producer of TV plays in the past, not that he’s not knocking on a bit) who speaks to an imaginary child, a version of the daughter he no longer speaks to in the real world, has been invited to produce a new programme – an adaptation of a literary novel about Kathleen Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke – who happened to live in the same hotel in Switzerland in 1922 but didn’t meet – and in which nothing much happens. The TV script is appalling though, having the two embark on an affair even though Mansfield at the time was on her death bed. Richard goes to his old script-writer friend Paddy (Patricia Heal) for advice. She is ill and her children desire as little disturbance to her as possible. Her eventual death hits Richard hard and he decides to take a trip north on a train, and he tries to commit suicide when he disembarks.

The second strand involves Brit (Brittany Hall) an officer in a detention centre who finds her humanity being ground down by the system; soul crushing for detainees and officers both. Here a young girl has somehow walked into the centre and got to talk to its governor, persuading him to have the toilets cleaned properly. It is also rumoured that the same girl had managed to infiltrate a brothel to dissuade punters from their intentions and emerged unscathed. Even if it is a riff on Shakespeare’s Pericles this magic realist style intrusion is troubling. That literary form emerged from societies where freedom of expression suffered certain constraints. Is this where we are now? Is this our salvation? Our only hope of some humanity in public services is through magical interventions? Where truth is not the first casualty of war but a hostage to whoever can shout loudest? Where to assert something is to demand that thing’s validity be unquestioned? Against Twitter and Facebook, literature is a lumbering sloth.

A further comment on the times is given when a dying Paddy says, “‘I’m that thing nobody out there thinks is relevant any more. Books. Knowledge. Years of reading. All of which means? I know stuff,’” and another reflects, “She’s, what’s the word? Another old word from history and songs that nobody uses in real life anymore. She is good.”

The two strands come together when the young girl speaks to Richard as he is lying on the railway line and says she needs him to stop that. Thereafter all three travel on to Culloden Moor for a dénouement of sorts.

Given what has gone before, the hint of regeneration – of the month of April being characterised as a harbinger of better times to come, of spring as when the old gods are about to be reborn is perhaps a little optimistic.

Pedant’s corner:- This book has that unjustified right margin which is a feature of all Smith’s publications. Otherwise; “she walked passed” (past,) an uncapitalised beginning to a sentence.

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