For Scottish novelist Ali Smith, play is an incredibly serious, and incredibly varied, kind of thing. It isn’t just for kids; it’s what makes us, all of us, human. When we play — with ideas, with language, with others — we exhibit the flexibility, the openness and springiness, that is central to our natures. Show me a self without play, Smith suggests, and I’ll show you a self without freedom; show me a nation without play, she argues, and I’ll show you a nation without mercy.
Smith has just published the third book, “Spring,” in a planned seasonal quartet of novels. The decision to frame the series by the year’s timeless rhythms is an interesting one, considering how timely these novels have been. Critics described “Autumn” as Britain’s first Brexit novel, and “Spring” likewise takes the issues of the day head-on.
In the collage-like chapters that break up the novel’s overarching plot, Smith offers us the frenzied cacophony of the right-here, right-now, giving voice to social media companies (“We want your pasts and your presents because we want your futures too”) and Internet trolls (“drink some floor polish drink some disnfectant you flithy queer immgrant”). The plot itself turns on issues of the day: Europe’s refugee crisis; the responsibility of the artist and the citizen to the world around her.
The story of “Spring” is both accidental — a key word for Smith — and seemingly inevitable. It features three major characters: Richard Lease, an aging film director who’s just lost his closest friend and “had it with story” and, by implication, with life; Brit Hall, a young, smart woman miserably stuck working as a guard at a prison-like detention center for immigrants to the UK; and Florence, a mysterious, fairy-like schoolgirl who seems straight out of a Shakespearean romance. (She magics her way into Brit’s detention center and somehow persuades the brutal management to clean up the toilets; at another point, she wanders into a brothel and, seemingly just by her presence, frees a group of prostitutes.)
These three characters meet up by accident (or by purpose) at a train station in Scotland and travel for arbitrary reasons (or are they?) toward Culloden — the site of another, earlier battle between the Scots and the English over nationhood and communal identity. The major question becomes: Will Richard and Brit, both haunted by death, accept the life that Florence brings with her? Will they, like the season, send “the thinnest of green shoots through that rock so the rock starts to split?”
This all makes “Spring” sound deadly serious — and, in its moral and political vision, it can be. But such seriousness rubs against something lighter, brighter. We find plenty of play — comic play, dramatic play, verbal play — in “Autumn” and “Winter.” So it’s unsurprising that “Spring,” which takes its title from the season when “you can’t not hear it, the buzz of the engine, the new life already at work in it, time’s factory,” is also structurally playful and stylistically frisky.
Early on, Richard visits Paddy, his former writing partner and one-time (literally) lover. Paddy is nearing death, her body wasting away. Yet, despite her nearness to the end, “the spirit of her is full-force-gale at him”: “look at your poor lovely shovelback chest in the terrible stained shirt,” she lovingly scolds, “who do you think you are, bloody Pericles of Tyre?” To which the existentially exhausted Richard responds, “Pericles of Tired.”
This is typical Smith. There’s the joke that risks, but doesn’t quite elicit, a groan; there’s the presence of Shakespeare (the late play “Pericles” provides an epigraph about hope, and Florence — a figure of fantasy and transformation — resembles the king’s daughter, Marina); there’s the determination to have fun, to quip and quibble, in the face of death. Richard has come to his friend to discuss a new project: a film about the almost-but-not-quite meeting of two great modernist writers, Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, at a Swiss resort in 1922. Richard’s description of Mansfield fits Smith, too: “brilliant, tricksy, arch, flirty, charming, and full of an unfathomable energy.”
Like “Autumn” and “Winter,” “Spring” moves easily between the political and the aesthetic, the timely and the timeless. At one point, Richard emerges from a show devoted to the contemporary artist Tacita Dean. After looking at chalk drawings of clouds, Richard encounters the real thing transformed: “After them, the real clouds above London looked different, like they were something you could read as breathing space.”
Breathing space: that’s what the distinctive play of art accomplishes. Art looks at the world and identifies its cruelty. And yet, through its inventiveness, “[B]reathing takes flight. Alchemy and transformation become matters of good spirit.” So argues Ali Smith, and so demonstrates her splendid new novel.
By Ali Smith
Pantheon, 339 pp., $25.95
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Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’