After a will-it-won’t-it panic followed by a sudden burst of giddy life, Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet is blooming into its third season, Spring. With just 10 days to go until its official publication, books have yet to arrive from the warehouse. The nail-biting hiatus eerily mirrors a political week in which Brexit has twice been stalled in the British parliament – except that, unlike Brexit, Spring is definitely happening.
Smith has been watching events unfold – or fail to unfold – from a worker’s cottage in a tiny terrace in Cambridge, one of two that she shares with her partner Sarah Wood and their five cats. Outside, the new season is doing its thing, beaming bright sunshine one minute and hurling sleet the next, on to a little garden vivid with blue grape hyacinths.
But don’t be fooled into thinking the quartet was conceived as a response to the current constitutional crisis, warns Smith: “the truth is much stranger than that”. Its origins go back to 2015, a time when the two political overthrows that have come to dominate the news – and the novels – were pretty much unimaginable. An American outsider called Donald Trump had just launched his presidential campaign and a British prime minister called David Cameron was struggling to control his party.
Smith and Wood were having new year drinks with a friend, the critic and writer Kasia Boddy. “We clinked glasses and wished each other happy 2016 and Kasia said there was going to be an EU referendum in 2016,” says Smith. “And because Kasia and I are Scottish we laughed, because we knew that referendums take whole lives to happen. Scotland had been thrumming with an astonishing level of analysis and vitality for years leading to the [Scottish independence referendum] in 2014, as well as with all the difficult things that surface in a referendum. We thought, how could all that happen in a few months?”
In 2014 Smith’s publisher had managed a six-week turnaround on How to Be Both – her technically unprecedented novel of two sections that were printed and distributed in random order. “Because it had taken so little time to produce a physical book in a complex form, I’d gone back to Simon [Prosser, publishing director at Hamish Hamilton] and said: ‘Can we do a series of books which we publish really close to the time of their writing – a kind of keeping the novel novel project – returning it to the notion of ‘the new’?’ Smith explains. “He said: ‘Let’s give it a go.’ So I had to respond to Brexit, given that these books, this project, has ended up being about this particular time. But they are also coming on their own terms.”
Smith’s thinking is so original, and her delivery of it so speedy, that not for the first time I wonder if I’ve heard her correctly. So she expands: “I’ve been thinking about them in my head for 20 years, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over those 20 years, it’s that the book already exists and we have to come out to meet it and excavate it and deliver it. There’s a lot of trust involved in that, especially when you’re moving on sheet ice. The pact with the book is one that means it will always be as up-to-the-moment as possible and that’s a massive risk to take.”
With Spring safely delivered, Summer is already forming in Smith’s mind, but she won’t sit down to write it until four months before its delivery date next March. Autumn, published in October 2016, alludes to the murder of MP Jo Cox four months earlier; Winter, released in November 2017, took in Donald Trump’s fortuitously unseasonal pronouncement in July that “We’re going to start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again”.
The latest novel is inflamed with the anti-immigrant rhetoric that is sweeping across the globe, assembling in a mood board of shouty type in the opening pages: “We need enemies of the people. We need it not to matter what words mean. We need a good old slogan Britain no England / America / Italy /France / German / Italy / Poland / Brazil [insert name of country] First.”
With such a quick turnaround, in such times, the “sheet ice” is particularly slippery. “I don’t know whether in 19 years’ time they’ll be stale and mean nothing to us or if there are things in them that will hold,” says Smith. “But the concept was always to do what the Victorian novelists did at a time when the novel was meant to be new. Dickens published as he was writing Oliver Twist. He was still making his mind up about the story halfway through. That’s why it’s called the novel – what it can do, what it’s for, what it does.”
Spring is about truth, art and historical injustice; it is about the magic of coincidence and the urgent need to break the cycle of misinformation that has us careering towards climatic cataclysm. Smith drapes these monumental themes around four central characters. Richard Lease is an elderly film director who has been asked to make a film about Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke in 1922, when both writers were convalescent in the same Swiss resort but appear never to have met. Brittany Hall is an officer at a detention centre, and Alda Lyons is an out‑of-work librarian who hangs out in a sleeping bag in a disused coffee truck.
The person who brings them together is one of Smith’s magical characters (think Amber, the uninvited guest in 2005’s The Accidental, whose mayhem transforms an unhappy family, or George in How to Be Both, whose grief and gender uncertainty conjure a female incarnation of a Renaissance artist from the walls of art history). In Spring the role is played by a 12-year-old girl called Florence who infiltrates the detention centre where Brittany works – a hellish place of “body cams, razor wire, deets [detainees]” – and then spirits her off on a train to Scotland, where they meet up with Richard and Alda for an impromptu road trip. Their destination is Culloden, scene of the 1746 battle in which the Hanovarians finally defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites, thereby perpetuating the union of England and Scotland.
The battlefield is just outside Inverness, where Smith grew up in a council house backing on to the Caledonian canal, “which shipped stuff south, mostly soldiers for Victoria’s army”. Her father, Don, was an electrician who installed wiring to houses throughout the Highlands while running an electrical shop in the covered market. He was from Nottingham, while her mother, Ann, was from Northern Ireland. Smith was the youngest of five children, a surprise, born six years after her youngest brother. “I was really lucky. I had an easygoing existence with a family that was already there, which I was part of and not part of,” she says.
When she was small she wanted to be a refuse collector. “I thought it was the most romantic thing you could be because down the road came a truck full of the most interesting things, all thrown away.” Writing, she says, “was something I could just do, but I could do a lot of things.” Such as? “I was quite good on ponies for a few years.” She helped out at the local stables for five years before they were demolished.
She’d been to Culloden on family outings but it wasn’t until she first saw it at night that she understood its power. She had just passed her driving test and would borrow her father’s car. “Me and my first girlfriend would just drive around in the middle of the night because it was in the north of Scotland so it was light, and we went to Culloden and it was so frightening and laden with spirit and haunted sadness. It’s this bleak, blank moor with some stones on it, an old cottage and, more recently, a visitor centre. There’s no question that landscape holds the spirit of what happened to it: the beauty of the landscape isn’t going to let you forget its history.”
How far away is it, Florence asks before they set off for the battlefield: “It’s by my estimate, let’s see now … One legend and a couple of old songs away,” replies Alda. Their exchange serves as a reminder that, for all its responsiveness to current events, Smith’s quartet is also developing into a new mythopoeia – a constellation of stories capable of capturing and expressing our space and time with a truth that is beyond the news feeds.
At last summer’s Edinburgh book festival, Smith expounded her view of fictional truth in a session with Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon. “We are living in a culture that insists on lying as its delivery of how we are living,” she said then. “It insists on telling us information about which we are left wondering whether it is true or not … Fiction and lies are the opposite of each other. Lies go out of the way to distort and turn you away from the truth. But fiction is one of our ways of telling the truth.”
Each of the novels is hitched to one of Shakespeare’s late plays – in this case Pericles – and each invokes a real artist. In Autumn it was the pop artist Pauline Boty, in Winter, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and in Spring it is Tacita Dean, one of whose cloud drawings is reproduced at the end of the novel. In one of those not-quite-coincidences that pepper the books, the drawing is titled Why Cloud – which just happens to be taken from a line in Pericles, when the Prince of Tyre struggles to solve the first of the play’s riddles.
Smith discovered the cloud pictures at Dean’s recent Royal Academy show, and Richard sends one of them to his dying friend and mentor, Paddy. The novel also makes play with the modern incarnation of clouds. They are where information is stored – and lost – as Paddy’s sons realise when they are planning her funeral and discover that all their family photos have been deleted from iCloud. They decline Richard’s request to read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Cloud” at the funeral, too prosaic to grasp the power of a poem that ends with a classic Smithian paradox: “And out of the caverns of rain / Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb / I arise and unbuild it again.”
Though Smith’s novels are in constant dialogue with high art – from Ovid’s myth of Iphis in Girl Meets Boy (2007) to the Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa in How to Be Both – ephemera is also important to them, not least postcards, which provide occasional unsignalled communications between the different volumes of the quartet. Daniel, the 101-year-old neighbour in Autumn, once sent a postcard to Sophia, the elderly grouch in Winter. The deed is not as significant as the artefact – in that case a picture of a small girl covered in dead leaves, which was taken by the French photographer Édouard Boubat in 1946.
Smith discovered the picture in a roadside kiosk after taking a bus to Paris when she was 18. “It was as if time had taken a photograph. It was so beautiful and so strange: the rags of time wrapped round a child. Any postcard will do that. Anything properly attended to delivers all sorts of possibility.”
She carried the image with her through a Cambridge degree, a PhD in American and Irish modernism, a stint as a university lecturer in Strathclyde, and into a writing career that saw her quickly announced as a rising star. By the time Smith published her first, award-winning short story collection, Free Love and Other Stories (1995), she had already had four plays produced on the Edinburgh stage. She has fulfilled her potential at every turn, managing with How to Be Both to win a Costa prize, awarded to “the most enjoyable books of the year”, and a Goldsmith’s award for innovative writing (not to mention the Baileys women’s prize for fiction). A poll of 200 critics, academics and authors conducted by the Times Literary Supplement last year proclaimed her the best British or Irish novelist writing today.
Spring is Smith’s 10th novel, but she continues to fill the gaps with a range of other writing – from essays to lectures and tributes to the work of writers she admires (she is a generous and eloquent admirer). In 2016 she became a patron of Refugee Tales, a project that combines walking with telling the stories of people who have been detained indefinitely under the UK’s immigration policy. “Story is an ancient form of generosity, an ancient form that will tell us everything we need to know about the contemporary world,” she wrote in the introduction to the project. “Story has always been a welcoming-in, is always one way or another a hospitable meeting of the needs of others, and a porous artform where sympathy and empathy are only the beginning of things.”
Politics, as she told Sturgeon, is the opposite: “Where our stories meet other stories or block other stories; and where people decide that other stories can’t be heard because my story is more important than your story – all that stuff – you could call it politics.” For that reason, as much as any other, she does not consider it a coincidence that the quartet has come to her now.
“Novels are about language, so whatever the language is that’s in the current discourse will enter that novel and be contextualised by it: for instance, the broken Trump tweets that tell us all sorts of things about language and how it works and doesn’t work. But that’s just the outward, and then there’s the inner form of our thoughts and anxieties and the two are not disconnected. We are sponges so we take in all the stuff that flows at us. But information comes to us so fast from news feeds, from the advertising feeds, from the entertainment industry that how can we conceptualise it?”
At the heart of the seasons project is hope – a belief in the possibility of transformation, and a confidence that the world can and will be saved by children like Florence. “There’s no getting away from children in a book called Spring. It’s the open eye of the year, and children are the open eyes of the world. Look at Greta,” she says, citing the Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, whose climate protests have inspired strikes in schools across the globe. These protests, she believes, “will continue to roll and get bigger and bigger and will show us that we can transform that which looks fixed. The UK will disunite, and Ireland will reunite. But all of this will be irrelevant – all our nationalisms are nothing in the face of climate change.” Fortunately, she says, “this young generation is amazing. They’re showing us that we need to change and we can change. That’s the exciting thing about being human.”
• Spring will be published by Hamish Hamilton on Thursday (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.