Autumn, by Ali Smith

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.

And

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!

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8 Responses to Autumn, by Ali Smith

  1. Teresa says:

    This is my favorite from the list so far, and the only one I feel sure will land on my shortlist. I’ve loved all five that I’ve read, but it wouldn’t break my heart to let any of the others go. It’s not at all my usual kind of book, and perhaps not every image worked for me, but overall I was amazed at how well she captured lots of different kinds of feelings, rage and beauty and humor all at the same time. I hadn’t thought of how it’s like Boty’s collages, but that makes me appreciate it even more.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’d be grateful to this book for my discovery of Boty if nothing else. It’s not my usual kind of book either, and I’d written Smith off as not for me after I tried The Accidental, but for some reason all the elements I often dislike–the plotlessness, the dream scenes–I delighted in here. I think it’s partly because she takes them kind of lightly, if seriously. The book never felt pretentious to me, despite being stuffed full of allusions I didn’t always get.

  2. rosario001 says:

    This actually sounds really good. I was planning to leave it for last, not just because Smith’s books haven’t really worked for me before, but because the whole topic of Brexit still feels much too painful personally, but hmm, I’m tempted…

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      There isn’t that much Brexit in it, I don’t think. And parts are funny which I found refreshing. I was really surprised by how much I loved it.

  3. Sunita says:

    I just finished this a couple of days ago and loved it as much as you and Teresa did. While I’ve been impressed by all three books I’ve read so far, this one and Reservoir 13 have edged out the Hamid for me. I didn’t think of it as a collage, but that makes sense. I saw her relationship with Daniel as partly a father-substitute relationship and partly a way for her to explore and deepen her intellectual and artistic impulses which didn’t seem to flourish around her mother. I thought the mother-daughter relationship was very well done also. Elisabeth’s mother was more interesting and complex than Elisabeth seemed to see her at times. And that scene in the Post Office reflected both her dystopian classics readings and what might be to come.

    Rosario, I found the Brexit parts emotionally difficult, not so much because of the topic but because Smith was so good at making Brexit stand in for the more widely occurring conflicts that we’re grappling with today. I thought she did a terrific job, and as Liz says, it’s not a huge part of the book, but it’s an important part. But it is leavened by the other, more humorous and optimistic parts of the novel.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I really loved the mother-daughter parts too! Point of view is interesting here, because at times we seem to be firmly in a character’s head with their limited viewpoint, but at others the narrator explicitly tells us things the character doesn’t remember, like she’s sifting through their brain database.

      So as Elizabeth gets older and her view of her mother is (presumably) more complicated, ours develops as well. But there are hints of the late-story mother with her defiance and her surprising new interests even early on, like when she wants to show Elizabeth’s homework to Daniel.

      I so appreciated the balance of moods in this novel and I think I emphasized the more humorous/positive parts because I needed them. As an immigrant (of the safest, easiest kind possible, but still) I found those passport photo scenes all too recognizable. I’ve never had a problem but I worry every time–is it exactly right to the specifications???? She nailed that.

  4. Liz, as I mentioned over on Sunita’s blog, I read this book because you and she made it sound so good. I don’t usually read lit fic, but this year I was in the mood to read something different. I am so glad I did, as I just loved this book. A lot of the word play had me laughing out loud, as did the passport photo scenes. I recognized so many of young Elisabeth’s disjointed conversations with her mother, as they mirrored a number of conversations I had with my mother as a teen. Melancholy, but not depressing, is how it felt to me. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I would have missed a great book otherwise.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I am so glad you liked it! I’m grateful to the Booker list for getting me to try it. I didn’t like the other Smith book I read and I had pretty much written her off, so the push was needed. This year’s list has been pretty rewarding so far.

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