Is there anything more thrilling than digging into a just-released book by an admired author?
In Context is a new essay series in which critic Lori Feathers looks at the latest work of fiction by an established writer within the context of their overall body of work. Lori explores her subject’s oeuvre by identifying the writer’s themes and cultural resonance, discussing their literary technique, and revealing how the new book builds upon, or diverges from, their previous work.
This week, Lori considers the novels of “Scotland’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting,” Ali Smith.
Spring, the tenth novel by acclaimed Scottish writer Ali Smith, goes on sale in the US today. It’s an especially remarkable accomplishment considering that Smith has also published (among several other works) five short story collections, a book of essays, a handful of plays, a retelling of Antigone for children, as well as introductions to re-releases and new translations of iconic works by J. G. Ballard and Tove Jansson. Not only is she prolific, but her work is consistently brilliant. Recently, I spent several weeks reading all ten of Smith’s novels, an indulgence which gave me an immense appreciation for the breadth of her erudite mind and the generosity and wit of her writing.
Smith’s novels share a fidelity to the idea that nature is inherently creative, and that this creativity not only inspires artistic expression but is in continuous communication with it—a synergism that produces a kind of aesthetic “grand design” in which artistic endeavor and nature conspire to help us find meaning in our existence. The convergence of art and nature underscores another dominant theme in Smith’s novels: all things are continuously transforming. This state of perpetual change is evident in the way that an artwork’s personal significance to its viewer is forever mutable because the context in which she experiences it is never the same, and likewise apparent in nature’s pageant of impermanence—the changing seasons.
Spring is the third in Smith’s tetralogy, the “Seasonal Quartet,” and follows Autumn, published in 2017, and last year’s Winter (with Summer anticipated in May 2020). Each of the Quartet’s novels can be read as a stand-alone book or in concert with the others, because the books do not coalesce around an overarching or sequential storyline. Yet they do work together both thematically, in their expression of nature’s cycle of death and rebirth, and at the character level insofar as the protagonist of one novel might garner a casual reference in another.
Smith has never been afraid to confront social problems in her fiction (she tackled sexual cyber shaming in The Accidental; sex discrimination in Girl Meets Boy; and homelessness in Hotel World), but the Seasonal Quartet novels feel more political and more urgent than these earlier books because they confront Great Britain’s continuing inhumanity toward the victims of the European migrant crisis. The mistreatment of asylum seekers in particular is central to the narrative of Spring, wherein two of the main characters unwittingly help a young refugee reunite with her mother and in the process discover a kind of “underground railroad” manned by vigilante volunteers who organize safe passage for refugees.
The first one hundred pages of Spring unspools during what filmmaker Richard Lease intends to be his final hour of life. Richard is mourning the death of his dearest friend and collaborator, Patricia “Paddy” Heal. As he contemplates suicide Richard reminisces about Paddy’s influence on his films, most recently a work-in-progress that imagines intersections in the lives of writers Rainer Maria Rilke and Katherine Mansfield. Richard disagrees with the film’s producer about the way that the two writers should be reimagined, and Smith uses this argument to explore the tension between artistic invention and authenticity. It was Paddy’s conviction that “the shape the telling takes” is the factor that determines if a depiction will be faithful to the person’s essence, and Richard tries to persuade the producer that the Rilke-Mansfield film must be shaped like a series of postcards that show the “very slight movements” in the writers’ lives in order to allow “revelations of depth” about their true selves.
Indeed postcards are a motif in Spring. More than mere artifacts of experiences, postcards punctuate significant points in a character’s personal journey, be it physical, intellectual or emotional. Take for example two postcards that Richard buys for Paddy, both with images of large-scale chalk drawings by artist Tacita Dean—one of an avalanche and the other a triptych of accumulating clouds. Following Paddy’s death the drawings are freighted with new meaning for Richard as he begins to appreciate that just as nature has the power to transform itself, change has also occurred within him as he has experienced “unexpected afterlives” since his attempted suicide.
One of the many joys of reading a novel by Smith is the promise of discovery, because Smith incorporates art from a breadth of genres and time periods—paintings, literature, sculptures, songs—that is symbolic of her narratives. Smith’s aesthetic is a generous one. The art that inspires her characters enlarges their capacity for empathy and reflects the duality of beauty and cruelty present in all of nature, not least human nature. As the Italian Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa observes in How To Be Both, “nature is herself a bona fide artist of intent both light and dark.”
Smith’s ability to capture the individual alchemies that occur when personal experience and art intersect may be the greatest of her considerable gifts as a writer. She is deft at positioning specific works within narratives in ways that illuminate her characters’ private thoughts and emotions: In How to Be Both, Francesco del Cossa’s painting of St. Lucia holding a sprig with an opening eye at each of its two ends, where budding flowers would be, helps George understand her deceased mother’s love for another woman—the only person who made her mother feel truly seen; in There But For The, a photographer’s image of a bird in winter, its song made visible as frosty rings that float from its open beak, is a metaphor for a lonely man who needs to open-up and make his true self visible to others in order to find meaningful companionship; and in Winter, an abrasive woman who has ostracized her family with her inability to emotionally connect is drawn to the “universal language” of Barbara Hepworth’s primitive stone sculptures.
The novels are ruled by precocious girls and young women, all curious, intrepid, and whip-smart. In Spring that girl is Florence who, without parent or guardian, boards a train outside of London with little more than an old postcard postmarked from a Scottish town, all the while politely diverting any questions about her parents or the purpose of her travel. Brit, a cynical young woman who works at an immigrant detention center and meets Florence on the train, is disarmed by the girl’s heartfelt faith in the capacity for the world to be made better. Another diminutive heroine is ten-year old Brooke from There But For The, who helps a damaged stranger realize that in order to break free of his isolation he must risk the pain and disappointment of becoming close to others. And in Winter, Lux—Art’s pretend girlfriend during a visit home for the holidays—causes Art to understand the indelible imprint that his family history has had on who he is. Smith’s young women upend the traditional “coming-of-age” story. Here the grown-ups and worldly adults have little wisdom or advice to offer; instead it is the young women who impart their own considerable insight and fresh ways of seeing life, unjaded and uncompromised, facilitating the introspection that the adults need in order to find purpose and fulfillment.
The narrator of Artful asserts that every word is greater than its literal meaning, a notion that Smith realizes through her characters’ exuberance for wordplay. The novels are replete with puns and portmanteaus, lyrics and jingles: “The Birth of Vain Us” (caption for a British political cartoon in How To Be Both); “Astrid is two vowels short of an asteroid” (the girl, Astrid, quips to herself in The Accidental); “Daniel, as still as death in the bed. But still. He’s still here” (Autumn).
And Smith names her characters with intention: Like’s Ash burns her own history by torching her diaries; Eve in The Accidental authors reinventions of actual peoples’ lives and then recreates herself; Lise of Hotel World works for a company that promotes the accumulation of material things while her alter-ego, Else, is homeless. In Spring Florence jokes with Brit that they are “Florence and the Machine,” the name of a popular music group, yes, but also a recognition that as a detention center employee, Brit works for the metaphorical government “machine” that is incarcerating refugees. By showcasing the prismatic meanings and usages of words, Smith creates “word art” within the novels and produces a layering or Russian nesting doll effect: each book, itself a work of art, converses with various other artworks.
Smith encourages readers to be “artful,” that is to appreciate art as more than the art object or the thing experienced, but also as the act of experiencing it. Art is not self-contained. Paintings such as John Duncan’s “St. Brigid,” depicting an angel whose floating foot continues beyond the work’s painted border in Like, and Francesco del Cossa’s “Portrait of a Man with a Ring,” in which the subject’s finger reaches out over the portrait’s frame in How to Be Both, symbolize art’s seamless continuity with life. So too with nature: more than a tree, or a rabbit, or a waterfall, nature is the experience of living within nature. Our personal experiences with art and nature have the power to transform us. Reading Ali Smith allows one to hope that these individual transformations, collectively, hold the promise of a better world.