Facing the Future in Ali Smith’s Spring

Photo by Rachel Tay.

Photo by Rachel Tay.

How does a person bring another back from the dead? 

For one, one could, as Countess Nora Wydenbruck did, perform a seance to invoke the ghost of dead poet Rainer Maria Rilke. 

On the other hand, however, one might prefer to keep the dead alive in one’s memories. 

Still, as Orpheus’s failure to retrieve Eurydice from the Underworld proves, what is lost can never be wholly restored, lest one too finds oneself staring back into the infinite void of night. And this is how Ali Smith’s Spring begins — with death, grief, and both a man and country in mourning. For this is also how the season of spring begins. 

Spring, with all its connotations of heart and hopefulness, nonetheless first entails a destruction — or a sacrifice, if you may, without which renewal cannot occur.

A new bud blooms from under the winter snow, against the tedious stress of human steps; and new life grows out of the old. Spring, with all its connotations of heart and hopefulness, nonetheless first entails a destruction — or a sacrifice, if you may, without which renewal cannot occur. Hence, as one cannot help but observe the utmost chaos of the current political and geographical climates, it would appear that we are hurtling towards such exact devastation, if not already dwelling amidst its rubble. Consequently, the question becomes, how do we recover? Or, how do we build ourselves back up again? 

Like Ali Smith’s two other novels from her Seasons Quartet, this new instalment is similarly written with contemporaneity in mind, which only means that hope might seem a rather elusive prospect at the moment. We encounter many of its characters, in one way or another, in hellish scenarios wherein they are caught with no clear exit in sight. Even as glimmers of light appear, they flicker out of the scene as quickly as they manifest themselves. Thus, a return to inertia; a re-entry into the abject state of darkness to which our eyes are getting more accustomed by the day. Despite this, something lingers. 

Something lingers from the past, as if it were a ghost haunting the present. “The Future Is Spectacular,” writes Ali Smith in a passage that conspicuously recalls Jacques Derrida. Proffering in Spectres of Marx the concept of “hauntology”, Derrida notes, “After the end of history, the spirit comes by coming back [revenant], it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again,” as it extrapolates itself into eternity (10). To this end, in yet another brilliant and quintessentially Smith-esque instance of wordplay, the revolution we anticipate can be said to be a revolve-lution, as much as it is a revolt andan evolution. To be certain, the dead do not come back to life in this novel. (Do not expect zombies.) They are merely suffused in their material remnants and suspended in a spectral state, neither dead nor alive, absent nor present. Their words are always directed to the living, even though to them they can no longer be spoken back. Therefore, demanding to be made new again, but without betraying the secret of methodology, these ghosts then become the grounds on which the novel’s characters constitute their futures to come. 

At this juncture between return and renewal, I believe, is where Ali Smith’s curious form of optimism originates. She calls it a “hopeless hope” — proposes herself that “true hope’s actually a matter of the absence of hope” — which situates us at a paradoxical impasse between a drive towards futurity as well as a desire to remain in stasis. Yet, it is also this very pause she calls for that allows us the requisite room to reconsider the present moment with most clarity. Hence, when ostensibly distinct narratives are finally drawn together in the last part of the book, characters step off a train and onto a station to recuperate. They reconnect, reroute their paths, and in turn, reconfigure new ways of being.

Against the lull of disillusionment, spring, it turns out, is really a time for new possibilities. And just like the ghosts of our pasts, it seems that Ali Smith’s ever generous and humane work might just be our guide towards it.

Ali Smith’s Spring will be released in the UK on March 28th and in the US on April 30th.

Born and raised in the perpetually summery tropics — that is, Singapore — Rachel Tay wishes she could say her life was just like a still from Call Me By Your Name: tanned boys, peaches, and all. Unfortunately, the only resemblance that her life bears to the film comes in the form of books, albeit ones read in the comfort of air-conditioned cafés, and not the pool, for the heat is sweltering and the humidity unbearable. A fervent turtleneck-wearer and an unrepentant hot coffee-addict, she is thus the ideal self-parodying Literature student, and the complete anti-thesis to tropical life.