I should not have waited so long to try and write a bit about Autumn by Ali Smith. But here it goes. Autumn is only the third book of Smith’s that I have read but I really do love her writing and each book serves to deepen it. This book is the first in a quartet of planned books, one for each season. People are calling it the first post-Brexit novel, but even though the story takes place in autumn 2016, it isn’t really about Brexit. To be sure, it takes into account the political climate — there is a house in the neighborhood owned by immigrants that gets graffitied with “Go Home,” for instance, but it is more background than foreground. In a way it almost makes it more ominous, but more on that later.
As I mentioned, the story takes place in the autumn of 2016, more or less. I say that because it moves back and forth in time from the present to the past. Our narrator is Elisabeth Demand, 32, a casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London in the subject of art history. She has taken it upon herself to look after Daniel Gluck who is on the other side of 100. He was her neighbor when she was a kid and, childless and without family, the two of them became good friends. Daniel is dying from nothing specific other than old age. He sleeps most of the time but his mind is still alert and active when he is awake.
Daniel is a famous composer and songwriter who came to the UK sometime after WWII. He had an older sister whom he loved dearly and who died in her early 20s. He has kept her letters and thinks of her often. His relationship with Elisabeth is almost like she is a version of his sister except now he is an older brother and mentor instead of the other way around.
Art and story are important aspects of Autumn. Daniel is always encouraging Elisabeth to read. He also tells her stories and together they make up stories as well. But the stories are always part of a bigger story connected to the world. Here is a conversation from when Elisabeth was around 9 or 10:
Bullets are faster and stronger than tree costumes and will rip through and obliterate tree costumes, Elisabeth said.
Is that the kind of world you’re going to make up? Daniel said.
There is no point in making up a world, Elisabeth said, when there’s already a real world. There’s just the world, and there’s the truth about the world.
You mean, there’s the truth, and there’s the made-up version of it that we get told about the world, Daniel said.
No. The world exists. Stories are made up, Elisabeth said.
But no less true for that, Daniel said.
That’s ultra-crazy talk, Elisabeth said.
And whoever makes up the story makes up the world, Daniel said. So always try to welcome people into the home of your story. That’s my suggestion.
This being a book about stories, there are literary references galore. Elisabeth has to renew her passport and the passport office turns out to be Kafakeasque. She waits a couple hours before her number is called and only to be told she does not have the right forms and her photos are wrong. When she returns a few days later with the right forms and new photos she is told her head in the photo is too small and her eyes are not in the right place. It is marvelously absurd.
A conversation between Daniel and Elisabeth when she visits him in the care facility goes like this:
But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.
The back of Daniel’s head nods.
Thomas Hardy on speed, Elisabeth says.
I laughed out loud at that one!
We also learn during the course of the novel that Daniel had had an affair with the artist Pauline Boty. Boty takes over the narrative near the end of the book telling about her life and art. It seems rather tacked on and incongruous, but earlier we learn that Boty was nearly forgotten and Elisabeth’s research served to rescue her. What was known until then about Boty was the story everyone else told about her, her wildness, her sexuality, her ambition. And in a book for which story is so important, Boty gets the chance to speak for herself and tell her own story. Yes, this is fiction and it isn’t really Boty, but Smith does frequently use Boty’s own words when shaping the story, reframing, as it were, the things others had said about her.
Now, the Brexit aspect. Brexit is never directly spoken of but is clearly present in a number of situations that have to do with immigrants and perceived threat from “others” whether the threat is real or not. There is the house I mentioned earlier. There is a scene at a transit station in which a family on vacation just arrived and looking a little lost, are yelled at and told to go back where they came from. There is Elisabeth who
wonders what’s going to happen to all the care assistants. She realizes she hasn’t so far encountered a single care assistant here who isn’t from somewhere else in the world.
There is a fence near where Elisabeth’s mother Wendy lives along the coast that has recently gone up, cutting off a public walking path. It is a double electrified fence and in the space between the fences military patrols drive back and forth. Wendy is angry over the fence and regularly walks the path along it and is told to leave by the patrol people. Wendy is an antiques and junk shop aficionado and in order to protest the fence and what it stands for, she begins buying cheap old junk and throwing it at the electric fence,
bombarding that fence with people’s histories and with the artefacts of less cruel and more philanthropic times
I love that! The fence is never explained, nor the reasons for the other incidents. Because it is never explained, it felt like a looming and constant threat not from “the others” but from the white UK citizens (and government) who believed themselves to be legitimate, the ones who belonged and had the right to determine who else could belong and who could not. It felt dangerous in that past acceptance could be revoked and anyone who dared question could be punished.
Autumn is a meditative, thoughtful novel, often lyrical, that doesn’t have much of a plot. Instead it is about the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth and the nature of stories. Even though Elisabeth is the main narrator, Daniel gets some narrative moments of his own. Towards the end as he slips closer to death he muses,
There’s always, there’ll always be, more story. That’s what story is.
It’s never-ending leaf-fall.
I am very much looking forward to what Smith does with the other stories in this quartet.