This is a beautifully crafted novel. It is so clever on so many levels. I’m writing this having not long finished the book, which is difficult since it would probably be better to let it sit with me for a while. The blog plan must be stuck to, however, so here goes!
Ali Smith has said that she wrote this book very quickly in the aftermath of the EU referendum in the UK last year. As UK citizens will all understand by now, as we continue to reflect upon/reel over the events of Summer 2016, the outcome of that vote was about so much more than should Britain remain in or leave the European Union. That our social, cultural and political path in this country could be determined by a simple yes or no answer to that question now looks absurd. The election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency in November last year was another cataclysmic event, which provides the context to this novel. Ali Smith has, I believe, outside this book, nailed her political colours fairly firmly to the mast. (I’m not going to do that.) But what we are seeing now, I believe, is the response of artists and writers to the shock of last year’s events, and Autumn is for me, my first foray into a literary reflection.
We mustn’t forget it’s a novel, not a piece of journalism; the two main characters in our story are Daniel Gluck, a 101 year-old former refugee from Nazi Germany, and Elisabeth Demand, a 32 year-old lecturer. It is Autumn and Daniel is at the end of his life, lying, mostly asleep, in a care home, not far from Elisabeth’s childhood home. Daniel and Elisabeth developed a close and unusual friendship when Elisabeth was a child, living alone with her mother, who, although she never really either understood or fully trusted their neighbour, would leave her daughter in Daniel’s care when she had to go out.
Despite their age difference, Elisabeth found Daniel’s company stimulating and energising. His love of stories and story-telling, his artistic sensibility, his appreciation of nature, his philosophical mind and his enigmatic past, all served to enliven Elisabeth’s imaginative powers and develop her intellect. He was like an oasis in her otherwise culturally barren life.
Written in the context of Brexit and Trump, the novel is essentially about fracture and is rich in metaphor. There are barriers, fences and separation in the novel, symbolic of our increasing desire to shut out, or, as we seem to see it, to protect. Those who appear different or unconventional are excluded or feared, or simply denied existence. The artist Pauline Boty, the subject of Elisabeth’s PhD, serves as a metaphor for this; she was the only British female Pop Artist of 1960s, but has effectively been written out of art history. Elisabeth’s supervisor (representing authority) refuses to approve her subject proposal, saying that Boty is insufficiently significant, but Elisabeth goes ahead anyway (defiance of authority). In a nice symmetry, Elisabeth discovers later on that Daniel in fact had a connection with the artist.
There are wider concerns here other than Brexit, however. Arguably, Brexit is just one symptom of a wider cultural shift; the phenomenon of Trump is another. The boundary between truth and lies has become blurred, marketing and PR have taken over, such that we no longer know what is objective reality. You can see it in the following quotes:
“The power of the lie…always seductive to the powerless” (p114)
“Whoever makes up the story makes up the world.” (p119)
“Facts don’t work. Connect with people emotionally.” (p133)
These are frightening thoughts. And we should be worried.
Ali Smith also laments the attempt to homogenise culture and our experience of everyday life – from the bizarre bureaucracy of the post office queues and the ‘Check and Send’ service (hilarious!) to Elisabeth’s mother’s nostalgia for the comfort of prevailing weather patterns (“That was back in the years when we still had summers. When we still had seasons, not just the monoseason we have now.”)
Ali Smith presents us with much to be worried about, but she also offers us glimmers of hope: the very friendship between Daniel and Elisabeth shows that it is possible to bridge the generation gap that appears to have surfaced in the wake of the EU referendum. Also, the descriptions of Autumn itself which pop up regularly in the novel, are as fine as any in the English language, and show that if we pay attention, then we can still experience the beauty of the seasons, so long as we are vigilant in the fight against forces that may alter that (climate change maybe?):
“The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.” (p177)
A very powerful novel, skilfully done in such a compact form. Highly recommended.