Note: I just realized I spelled Elisabeth’s name wrong the whole way through this post, because I automatically typed it the way I spell my own name. I’m leaving it with the error noted rather than correcting the whole post.
Autumn is another novel composed of fragments. Call it a collage, fitting, since its muse of sorts is the Pop artist Pauline Boty, whose collages Daniel describes to Elizabeth.
Daniel and Elizabeth’s relationship is at the center of this novel, love of a sort, if not the romantic sort. In the book’s present-day timeline, the summer and autumn of 2016 (following the Brexit vote), Daniel Gluck is 101 and dying, Elizabeth Demand is 32 and a semi-employed lecturer in Art History.
They met when Elizabeth was a child given a school assignment to interview a neighbour. Daniel becomes a mentor of sorts, introducing to art and literature, going for walks on which they ponder truth and lies and story-telling. “What are you reading?” is his perennial greeting for her.
She buys classics from the charity shop and reads them as she sits beside sleeping Daniel in his care home. Elizabeth may choose these books more or less at random, but Ali Smith didn’t: A Tale of Two Cities, Brave New World, Metamorphoses. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Elizabeth reads. And Smith writes:
It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.
All across the country people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.
Elizabeth has a Kafkaesque experience in the Post Office trying to renew her passport. In her mother’s village, half the people aren’t speaking to the other half. A mysterious electrified fence topped with razor wire and patrolled by sinister men in SUVs has sprung up across what used to be the common. Someone has spraypainted GO HOME across the front of a cottage.
Sounds grim. And parts of it are painful and sad. But I clung to the joy in Autumn, the fun and the clever wordplay and the hope. Pauline Boty’s paintings (which I had never seen before I googled to find out if she were real). Boty’s refusal to defiance of conventional expectations of women, her embrace of sexuality and pleasure. Someone else paints “we already are home” on that cottage, and adds a tree and flowers.
One of my favorite things in the book is a reality TV show called the Golden Gavel, in which ordinary people (one of them Elizabeth’s mother) compete against celebrities to find a valuable antique among the junk of the past. Like all reality TV, this is fake–Elizabeth’s mother refuses to pretend she hasn’t met the shopkeeper before, and ruins take after take by saying “Hello again!” instead of “Hello!” But she also finds real treasure in this experience.
Like Boty’s collages, the antique shop could be a kind of metaphor for the novel, bits of the past piled together, waiting for someone to discover, explain and value them. Smith bounces back and forth in time, recounting bits of Elizabeth and Daniel’s friendship, even parts–her narrator says–that they can’t remember themselves.
There’s treasure here. Beautiful and surprising images. Playful language. People who love and fall in love. Who hope. Who dream. Leaves wither and fall, but a last rose blooms. “Look at the colour of it.”
Autumn made me think of an A. S. Byatt with all the magisterial exposition left out. It’s stuffed full of ideas about art and life and love and death and mortality and what the hell is wrong with our messed up world these days, any days. But it glances at these ideas, rather than working them out. That could be a recipe for frustration, but I loved every word of this book. I’ll be pondering it for a long time, and I look forward to reading the rest of Smith’s seasonal quartet as it appears. Winter is coming (in November).
Here are two more detailed reviews I liked. Autumn will certainly make my personal Booker shortlist. I can imagine picking something else I think should win, but I can’t imagine the list will offer a reading experience I’ll enjoy more than this one.
Up next? I’m almost halfway in the audio of Underground Railroad, and I’ve just got the ebook of Swing Time and the audiobook of Days Without End from the library. I dipped my toe in 4 3 2 1 but I can’t imagine I’ll read all 866 pages. I hope to read enough to get a feel for it. I’ll be busy!