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Spring

May 6, 2019
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IMG_2645I read Spring, Ali Smith’s new novel in her seasonal series, outside on our porch, but had to wear a coat for some of the time. That’s May in central Ohio.

Spring ends with April in England, which made me think of the Browning poem quoted in Streatfeild’s Apple Bough: “Oh to be in England, now that April’s there.” April, Ali Smith says, is the “month of dead deities coming back to life.”

There are a lot of memorable lines in this book, as there were in Autumn and Winter, and there’s a lot of political commentary, which I enjoyed as much as in the previous books. The storyline of this one, however, was even less coherent. It’s more like a collection of essays than a novel. There are essays on politics, connectiveness, Katherine Mansfield, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Charlie Chaplin. There are echoes of Shakespeare’s Pericles in the story and an essay on narrative in the actions of the first character we’re introduced to, a film producer named Richard.

The politics, of course, is what I came for, and I got it from the very first page:
“We want the people we call foreign to feel foreign we need to make it clear they can’t have rights unless we say so. What we want is outrage offence distraction. What we need is to say thinking is elite knowledge is elite what we need is people feeling left behind disenfranchised what we need is people feeling.”

By the third page, this is where that train of thought gets to:
“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 to call 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 to say all the old stuff like it’s new. 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. We need it not to matter what words mean.”

Politics are explicitly mentioned In Richard’s story, too. When he finds out that a library is closed he asks “what kind of a culture is it that wants its people not to know? What kind of a culture wants some people to have less chance to access information and knowledge than the people who can afford to pay for it?”

When Richard talks to his friend Paddy about Brexit, Windrush, and Grenfell, she asks “why hasn’t there been an outcry the size of this so-called United Kingdom? Those things would’ve brought down a government at any other time in my life. What’s happened to all the good people of this country?” Richard says it’s “compassion fatigue” and Paddy replies “fuck compassion fatigue….That’s people walking about with dead souls.”

Paddy also says what I’ve been thinking about the elderly man who’s supposed to be in charge of my country: “I look at Trump now, I see them all, the new world tyrants, all the leaders of the packs, the racists, the white supremacists, the new crusader rabble-rousers holding forth, the thugs all across the world, and what I think is, all that too too solid flesh. It’ll melt away, like snow in May.”

Another main character, Brit, works as a guard at a prison where people trying to enter the country are held indefinitely, and she’s trying to convince herself it’s not such a bad place but merely “a purpose-built Immigration Removal Centre with a prison design.” Brit has an elderly mother who “always thought the news mattered….She still believed in TV. Old people did.”

Brit has a nihilist point of view when she is first introduced and which she demonstrates when an interviewer from the BBC asks her how she’d voted in the EU Referendum:
“No, see, I’m not going to tell you what I voted. I’m not going to let you think you can decide something about me either way. All I’ll say is, I was younger then, and I still thought politics mattered. But all this. This endless. It’s eating the, the, you know. Soul. Doesn’t matter what I voted or you voted or anyone voted. Because what’s the point, if nobody in the end is going to listen to or care about what other people think unless they think and believe the same thing as them. And you people. Asking us what we think all the time like it matters. You don’t care what we think. You just want a fight. You just want us to fill your air. Tell you what it’s doing. It’s making us all meaningless. You’re making us meaningless, and the people in power, doing it all for us, for democracy, yeah, right, pull the other one. They’re doing it for their pay-off. They make us more meaningless every day.” But Brit’s point of view begins to change when she meets a magical young girl who insists that she get involved in her own life.

Commentary on connectiveness comes in the same stream-of-consciousness fashion as the commentary on politics, imagined from the corporation’s point of view:
“We want to know everything about you. We want to know about all the places you go. We want to know where you are right now. We want you to post images of what it is you’re looking at so you will remember this special moment always. We want you to take a look at what you posted ten years ago right now….We’re interested in everything you say. We want to hear what you say every time you look at a screen. We want to be able to see you through the screen while you’re looking at something entirely other than us. We want to know what you say to each other in every room in your house….We want to help with government propaganda and to help people skew elections, and not to hinder people organizing and promoting ethnic cleansing, all as helpful by-products of being there 24/7 for you.”

One of the most disturbing parts of the book comes in the middle of a rant about “flithy” immigrants: “you are disabled because God Hates You.” The phrase “God Hates You” is one that my best friend from high school, who came from a religious family, used to say to me in order to help me put in perspective how big my problems seemed. What used to be a dark kind of joke, something that no one else but my friend would say to me, is now something that one stranger can spew in the direction of another, and about a hardship sometimes revealed by a person’s physical appearance—being disabled. It’s impossible for another person to know what physical torments have preceded the appearance of a disabled person in public.

The other very disturbing part is about watching movies and television on World War Two: “always the same awful pieces of footage, the same faces, same thugs shouting don’t buy from Jews, same shopfronts with the slogans painted on them, same terrorized bullied people being filmed walking towards trains or away from them in the mud, same old Hitler shouting footage. As if such terrible history’s a kind of entertainment. All that poison. All that anger. All that brutality. All that loss. You’d think we’d learn from it. But no, instead we play it on repeat, let it play away in the corner of the room while we go on with our lives regardless. Terrible times, easily resurrected.” It’s definitely a kind of necromancy that doesn’t pay.

Rather than a promise of renewal, Ali Smith’s Spring is a reminder that the world is full of old battlefields where people who mattered to other people once died and now get covered over with greenery each year. Smith’s sort-of essays, along with the stories of Richard and Brit, show that our refusal to get involved is another kind of battlefield, “today’s battlefield.”

17 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2019 8:51 am

    I’m a big fan of Smith but I may have to read this in stages. I totally agree with what she’s saying ,which is why its so tough to take. It’s so real and so bleak.

    • May 7, 2019 4:45 pm

      For me, at least, it’s a relief to find someone showing that what’s happening is real and bleak, rather than offering escapism or platitudes (like “it’s spring, life goes on”).

  2. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    May 6, 2019 9:42 am

    I’m interested in your comment that the book is almost more an essay collection than a novel. I guess Smith is another of the novelists writing today who seem to be resisting the very form they work in (I’m thinking of Rachel Cusk as another), at least in terms of committing to unified stories, especially character-driven ones.

    • May 7, 2019 4:44 pm

      She is resisting the form, which is funny, since “resist” is one of the things we say in the U.S. about participating in efforts like Indivisible.
      She’s also playing around with the idea of magical realism, I think, and it’s not entirely successful. Maybe her meaning is that young people will dig us out of the very deep pit we find ourselves in, but I’m afraid I think that the girl is more of a plot device, a “manic pixie dream girl” for the world.

  3. May 6, 2019 10:00 am

    Maybe I’m getting even older, but the sense of generalized despair is getting to me. We thought we could vote for progress and equal treatment for all citizens. We even thought we had achieved some of it, only to have a new administration gleefully show us how far we are from loving our neighbors.

    • May 7, 2019 4:39 pm

      I agree, the generalized despair is getting to us all. And yet…I worry that not enough of us are in despair, that we’re trying to go about our lives as usual, as if laws and ethics mean nothing and we’re fine with our dumpster fire of a government.

      • May 7, 2019 5:35 pm

        Vote, and contribute to voter registration in any way you can: funds, advance registration, taking people to the polls on voting day.

        And decide that even if you’re not super-happy with the front runner of your party (STILL trying to be civil here), you will not splinter your party’s vote as a ridiculous ‘protest’ no one will know about.

        That’s the minimum. You can pick your favorite candidate, and send a few bucks, and many other things, to advance the concept of an informed citizenry. Letter writing, sending postcards – all within reach of the average citizen.

        I’m not physically able to do much, but I’ll do what I can, and I will vote and encourage others to vote. And I’ve been sick for 29+ years, so I’ll have to do the minimum.

        • May 8, 2019 8:02 pm

          Yes, I do all that, and more. It’s important to pay attention to local political issues, because that’s where we can make the most difference. I get Jen Hoffman’s Americans of Conscience newsletter and subscribe to hello at 5calls dot org to help me keep active without getting overwhelmed.

  4. May 6, 2019 10:45 am

    Spring is out already? I haven;t managed to read Winter yet. I have to get on it.

    • May 7, 2019 4:38 pm

      You really should. They’re both good, and now you can have the pleasure of one right after the other.

  5. May 6, 2019 3:17 pm

    I’m not sure I’d like the structure of this but I feel certain I’d like the politics.

    • May 7, 2019 4:37 pm

      I’m not entirely sure if I like the structure, but you’ll be pulled in by that first page, as I was, and there’s no rule about having to read every page of a book. I used to read Michener novels in chunks because my parents had them out of the library but I was too young for them so I skipped the parts that bored me.

  6. May 8, 2019 12:57 pm

    Oh my goodness, these passages you shared are spot on. I like that someone is still angry enough to be writing this kind of thing. I’m afraid we’ve all become numb from constant insanity.

    • May 8, 2019 8:04 pm

      I worry about that too, but I am personally far from numb. I highly recommend Jen Hoffman’s Americans of Conscience newsletter, with a link to her weekly checklist. Here’s an excerpt from a couple of weeks ago: “Americans of Conscience Checklist, week of April 21, 2019
      You’re in good company.
      If you are under the illusion that you are just one person who wants things to be better in our nation, think again. You are among many. You are among thousands. Your voice blends with countless others to remind the powerful and well-connected that their power has its limits. Our persistent, non-violent insistence reminds those in power that they are still accountable to the people. Let us act from our hearts today, mindful that countless hopeful others are doing likewise.”

  7. May 8, 2019 8:16 pm

    I didn’t even realize that this book had come out, until I happened to come across it at Barnes and Noble this weekend. I liked the previous books, especially Autumn, quite a lot. Interesting to know that the narrative structure has fallen away even more in this book, although it sounds like that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    • May 8, 2019 8:22 pm

      I’m not sure it’s fallen away as much as it’s turned in on itself. The narrative consists of a lot of thinking about narrative by the filmmaker, Richard.

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