Ali Smith returns with Spring: ‘We must look to ourselves for hope’

Spring, the third novel in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, tells the impossible tale of an impossible time. Here she dicusses what we can expect from the next installment in her remarkable, once-in-a-generation masterpiece. 

Spring feels revolutionary — a call to action. What is the relationship between story and politics? And story and protest?

I think everything in art, all the aesthetic structures we create, are political just by dint of being made in and belonging in a world where we live by the social structures humans also create.  It means that the shapes art takes will be related to and revelatory about and naturally analytical of the structures by which we live.  All the same, you can't sit down with a mind to writing something with a political agenda.  It just never works. Story isn't agenda, story just laughs out loud at anyone trying to do that and runs off to do what it wants.  But story is one of the most revealing and powerful ways we have of understanding what stories are being visited on us by whatever culture we're inhabiting, of knowing that structure is mutable and can shift and change and be transformed, and of being able to look at and understand the consequences, individual and communal, of the narratives by which we're living.

Story is often also most powered, most lit, by the voices that don't get easily heard on the surface of the lives we communally live.  And that's where story as protest comes in.  

Words matter: what are writers – and all of us – to make of the mangling and manipulation of language by politicians and the media which is so prevalent right now. How can we counter it?

We can contextualise it.  We can set it and see it in a wider context.  We can put that language alongside other usages of language to show what it's doing and why.  The gift of context is an objective understanding, in this case an understanding of something which right now is being flung at us in broken pieces by people acutely aware that language is a powerful tool and keen to make us feel what they need us to feel, make us useful to them and their power structures, and at the same time keen to strip and limit language and the dimensionality and connectivity in which both language and thought are sourced; and not forgetting the conglomerate and political uses of social tech systems round us all which on the one hand offer us the world and on the other want to make as much money and power out of our data as possible.  

What we can do is read past these things, see clearly what it is they want to make of us. That's the first step.  

Likewise truth.

Truth and language are ancient sparring partners, in and out of punch-ups all the time, where truth and fiction, truth and the arts, have been closely related all along.  You can't get away from the truth, in art.  That's why there's an ideological attack on the arts here in education and public funding, and similarly in the US, right now.

Likewise freedom, in an age of surveillance capitalism, nativism and indefinite detention for ‘non-natives’.

You said it.  The last time I saw John Berger speak, he gave the best definition of fascism I've ever heard.  He said: fascism is what happens when one group of people thinks it has the right to decide about and control another group of people.  

Where should we look for the signs of hope?

First, to ourselves.  It's up to us.  If this is a dark time, it's our responsibility to light it up so we can see how to change this.  And next, look at that upcoming generation of young people full of energy and spirit, out on the streets with placards about a world and a future they're determined not to let the selfish generations cheat them of.  

Spring opens with a death, which feels like a reversal of our usual associations with Spring. Can you talk about this choice, and how it fits within the larger cyclical themes of the Quartet?

This novel, Spring, mostly takes place in autumn.  This is actually true, not just of the novel but of the seasonal shift in nature – it's in autumn that the processes which will produce the next flowering and the next open leaves on the trees actually starts – the leaf falls off the tree to make way for the new bud.   And spring is, traditionally, a pretty tough time, even though it's a liberation from winter; April's the cruellest month, and the light is notoriously tough to take after the dark, as well as a relief.  So the book happens in the darkening time – because a shift towards hope will come at the darkest.  

It's in the autumn stripping-back that you first see the lineaments of spring again.  This novel moves from that drawing-in of light, in a tough time, to the return of the light, and with any luck throws light on the dark.  The first novel of the sequence, Autumn, also takes place mostly in the summer, with autumn up ahead of it at all times.  The seasons are never disconnected from each other anyway, they're the consequences of each other.  Plus, they never grow old.  

Ali Smith: Spring

How does Spring specifically act as a conduit for exploring the idea of connectivity, especially during this deeply fragmented historical moment?

I think everything connects, helplessly, naturally, and on levels that are both slight and profound at once.  We're living through a time driven by being riven, by political and social divisions which are useful to people who can make money or political expedience out of these things.  At a time when fakery's being visited on us all across our information networks, this is the biggest fakery of all, the biggest lie – because everything connects.  It's how time works, it's how nature works, it's how we work as living beings.  The toe bone connects to the shoulder bone, and things which seem completely disconnected and divided, as if they have nothing in common (autumn /spring, or two writers who happen to be in the same place but maybe never meet, or some people separated by some of those fake divides, people with what looks like nothing in common – all it takes is a moment's thought to see how they connect.  This book is full of things which look at first impossibly separate, but are connected at root, and by the possibilities that dialogue and connection bring about in states of fixity and division.

Nature is a character – or perhaps more accurately a voice – in itself in this novel. Could you speak about the environmental themes of the book?

They're speaking about themselves all round us!  Any book about now, about this time we live in, will have to be a book about the ways in which we're misusing the planet, and the ways in which the planet won't stand for much more misuse.

You once said ‘We all know we're made of multiple selves. All our selves from our pasts and all our future possible selves – even the ones we don't get to have – all exist in us at the same time. We hold all the possible and all the actual selves. We are multiplicitous.’ Can you speak about this in relation to the seasonal cycle?

I can.  All my selves can.  All the selves in you, all the different autumns and springs and winters and summers, ringed deep in all of us, forming us, can.

The book opens with the line: ‘Now what we don’t want is Facts’. Where does storytelling fit within a society where the very idea of reality is up for grabs? And how might this contrast with the society Dickens was addressing when he told the story Hard Times?

God bless Dickens, who in Hard Times anatomises the industrialising of the soul.  Now we're living under the shadow of a whole new industry, using us, or our data, as its fodder.   And as far as story's concerned reality is always up for grabs, which is why story is so very powerful – it's one of the core ways in which we narrate our realities, or have them narrated to us.  Which is why it's important to read, to be readers, to be listeners for the story patterns from the past, attentive to the story patterns of the present.  They're making the future right now.

Tell us about how Shakespeare features in Spring

I'm lucky in these books.  When I began writing Autumn it's ‘The Tempest’ that walked along the road beside it, companioned it, without me asking, and I began to understand that maybe  the four last plays of Shakespeare – the plays in which he mixes to a whole new form a fusion of tragedy, comedy and history, ‘The Tempest’, ‘Cymbeline’, ‘Pericles’, ‘Prince of Tyre’, and ‘The Winter's Tale’, three of which I've loved since I was in my teens and one of which is still new to me, read last year for the first time – might kindly let me shelter under their oxters with these seasonal books.  (Oxter is the Scots word for armpit, not to be too romantic.)  

So I came completely new to ‘Pericles’, a wonderful thing to do in any case, to still have Shakespeare works left to read – and I say Shakespeare, but ‘Pericles‘ is an interestingly communal work, probably written by Shakespeare plus a man called George Wilkins plus some remembered scenes cobbled together by actors' memory of speeches, after the original script disappeared between theatre and folio.  This communal construction gives its structure a sort of bone-clean emphasis – you can see it add up mathematically, almost, as a shaped Shakespeare play, even through its other writers.

It's about good and bad governance and their consequences.  It's about how bad governance is ruinous on every level, while good governance holds you steady, with any luck, in the face of the usual messy slings and arrows of fortune.  But it's also about the question, in a stormy world full of people intent on expedient and selfish deeds, of what the words good and bad mean.  It has, at its core, a character so good that things simply transform when they come into contact with her.  What a gift.  Shakespeare knows that Marina (the character) is both a farcical impossible maddening creation, and a true one.  He places her in impossible situations and lets us watch what happens.  It's like seeing through to the engine of story itself.   

Tell us about Tacita Dean.

Alongside the late Shakespeare plays, each of the Seasonal books has so far been blessed by the spirit of a visual artist at the heart of its structure.  Autumn was graced by Boty, Winter by Hepworth. Spring, the time of casual and complete transformation, is Tacita Dean's.  I'd say she's the artist who right now most understands the ways in which the surfaces on which we live connect to the depths, how the slightnesses and casualnesses of our existence are huge, simultaneously surface and slight and just inches away from classical myth.  Her latest works, on show all over London simultaneously last year – work inquiring about and revealing the contemporary natures of portrait-making, identity, history, myth, and transforming these into visions of cloud, mountain, landscape, and her re-seeing of ancient myth as a kind of graced coincidence, a wide-open contemporary communal discursiveness – are so lightly held as to act kindly on us and at the same time so revelatory as to let us see where and how we are, when so much of information-speedway-culture and political rhetoric leaves us blind or blunt to these things.  

The work reproduced in the endpapers of Spring, one of her cloud pictures, made of slate and chalk, called ‘Why Cloud‘, takes its title, like all her cloud pictures do, from the places in her father's old Shakespeare concordance where the word cloud appears in his writing, or the word Europe. Why Cloud is a phrase that turns up at an apposite time in ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre’, near the beginning, when Pericles is lamenting the fact that the gods don't blind us, out of mercy, to the terrible things that happen in life, the terrible things that human beings can do to one another.  

History, as a cloud. The constructing of nation states, as a cloud. Our not wanting to see the realities, our looking away, our willing blindnesses, a cloud.  Life, belief, prayer, hope, a cloud. The shifting structures of things is always playing out above our heads, right there if we need to remember how to change things, how things can change, what a difference taking the air makes, or referring ourselves back to the elements – of which we're also made.

Is it true the Rilke and Katherine Mansfield stayed at the same hotel in Switzerland and never met?

Yes.  There's no record been found yet to suggest these two great writers of the early 20th century  knowingly or even unknowingly met, but their paths must have crossed in Sierre, most likely in 1922, when Mansfield was living in the Chateau Bellevue and Rilke was up the road in the Muzot tower and often came down the road and ate at the hotel in the evenings!

Florence is a brilliant ‘Ali Smith’ character who appears almost magically and makes the people she meets look at the world differently, like Amber in The Accidental and Lux in Winter. Tell us about her.

No.  Best if you encounter her without knowing anything about her.

What do you think Brit will do in the end?

This question makes me really happy.  It's the best question we can ask. What will Brit do in the end?  Because what she chooses to do will make the difference between an end and a beginning.  And that's the nature of Spring all right, that difference.


Spring, the third novel in Ali Smith's Seasonal Quartet is released on 28th March 2019.

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