by Ali Smith
“News right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.”
Widely regarded as the first post-Brexit novel, Autumn is the first title in ‘Seasonal’, Ali Smith’s cyclical tetralogy. It was written rapidly following the UK’s 2016 European Union membership referendum, at a time when many of us were reeling from the outcome, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction the following year.
At the heart of the story is a touching friendship that develops between an eight-year-old girl: Elizabeth – a bright but directionless millennial living with her divorced mother – and an eccentric elderly neighbour: Daniel Gluck, who dwells alone with his music, books and art collection. She cannot realise it at the time, but this will be the defining relationship of her life.
There is, however, nothing linear about Autumn. We move back and forth in time from 1993 to the avant-garde sixties, then forward to the summer of 2016 before returning to the early nineties and so on. Woven into a playful narrative bursting with themes of love, memory and despondency is an engaging backstory, which incorporates the extraordinary life and work of Pauline Boty – a founder of British pop art and the sole female painter in the British wing of the movement. The effect of this cultural and emotional brew can sometimes be unsettling, though it is also gratifyingly quirky.
“It is a Wednesday, just past midsummer. Elisabeth Demand – 32 years old, no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London, living the dream, her mother says, and she is, if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do … has gone to the main Post Office in the town nearest the village her mother now lives in.”
Smith had apparently considered writing a seasonal series of books for about twenty years before doing so. In interviews she portrays the novel as being about “the shortness of life”. In many ways it is an out of sequence string of vignettes or memoryscapes set in a country seemingly divided against itself – yet amid the incredulity, it offers solace, even hope.
Following immediately after the critically acclaimed, 2015 Baileys prize-winning How to Be Both, it is inevitable some of Smith’s regular readers may find Autumn a little too off-centre for their tastes. Nonetheless, I found her tale poignant and amusing, eminently quotable and a wonderfully inventive play on language. Furthermore, it perfectly articulates the conflicted post-Brexit mood of the British people.
“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. 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.”
That last quote is really good, isn’t it? I rather enjoyed reading this, but a few months later I seem to remember more the feeling it left in me rather than the story itself (such as it is).
It’s brilliant! Yes, I can imagine the memory of it slipping away, much as the characters’ memories do in the novel. Have you read Winter?
I loved this book when I first read it. I loved the book when I re-read it. I still love the book both for the main characters and their plays on words and for the way it expresses the atmosphere of the very “now” of story’s setting.
Many thanks for your comment, Ulrike. So glad this novel left a lasting impression on you.
I think you’ve caused me to change my mind on this Paula! I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it, and I’m a big Ali Smith fan. I wasn’t really sure what I wasn’t keen on, but I think it all felt a bit naive. Yet reading your review, I think actually, it’s really captured a moment in time. And I did feel bewildered and a horribly uncertain after Brexit (and furious, which has just become ever more so as the whole mess has unfolded). So what I had reservations about is probably Autumn’s strength in a lot of ways. Thanks for getting me to think this through – and sorry for such a rambling comment!
Gosh, I didn’t expect to change your opinion of Autumn, Madame B. I feel exactly as you do about Brexit – it’s just one horrible mess. However, I can see why you might think the novel ‘naive’ in some ways, but I suspect it is cleverly deceptive and really quite knowing, if you see what I mean. Your comment isn’t in the least ‘rambling’, it makes perfect sense to me. I always appreciate you sharing your thoughts on my posts. So glad you’ve had a change of heart. 😊
Yes, of course Ali Smith is far too accomplished a writer to ever write anything naive! She really has captured that awful reeling fall-out from Brexit. I’m glad you changed my mind – that’s why I so like blogging and discussing books 🙂
This reflects my UK friend’s experience – she was very dissatisfied with the way things were and voted for Brexit, more as a protest. When the Yes vote won, she spent weeks in a state of anxiety not knowing what was going to happen next, as no-one had prepared for such an eventuality. What a great metaphor – ‘the electric wire…whipping about in the air above the trees’.
I always wanted to remain in the EU and feel really downhearted about leaving next March. Nobody knows for sure what will happen, especially if we crash out without a deal. It’s all a dreadful muddle! 😟
Beautiful review, Paula! I own this one, and it’s on my stairs. 😂 I hope I will enjoy it as much as you did. I’m especially looking forward to being amused! 🦋
Thank you so much, Jennifer. 🌺 I hope Autumn isn’t a foundation block for one of your book towers. Removing it may cause a serious litslip on the stairs! 😲 ⚠
😂 Needed this laugh- thank you, Paula!
Excellent review, Paula. That live electric wire seems to be whippng all the faster these days.
Thank you, Susan. Very true!
An interesting book review about an interesting novel. But I think there may be an issue about how books that are made for a moment last. For example, the Brexit vote was a decision that has caused a lot of personal and political grief, but it has opened up exciting political possibilities. For the moment, it would seem that the people on the right and the left are benefiting from the increasing political and economic polarisation- to quote Yeats it would seem that:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
However, the Ali Smith fans, the quinoa eaters, and the Radio Four listeners are not losing the plot. This could be because they are simply complacent. On the other hand, it might be that the British Establishment, deep state, and corporate media are engaged in a bitter struggle for hegemony. In this scenario, something approaching ‘business as usual’ may be maintained via a second vote or a Brexit In Name Only.
William Keegan, one of the few journalists worth reading these days, recently quoted the Chinese politician Zhou Enlai who once said it was “too early” to assess the implications of 1968. So I would urge people to think hard about what would have happened if people hadn’t voted Brexit. Chancellor George Osborne would have continued to pummel the poor. This means that the so-called winners and losers from Brexit might be the same winners and losers from ‘actually existing’ austerity. Looking at the situation in this way shows that the Tories represent specific interests, and it is in the public interest to resist them in every season of the year.
I agree with you on quite a few points, John, but nothing will convince me Brexit is going to be beneficial for the country (other, I suppose, than Brexit actually proving to be beneficial for the country). Also, come next March, we will have Brexit, austerity and an increasingly right-leaning Conservative government in power (heaven help us if Boris becomes leader). I wish I could look on the bright side but I simply can’t see one at the moment.
Ali Smith is a writer whose work I have yet to experience. Do you have a favorite book by here?
I have read only a few of Ali Smith’s books, the first being her short story collection Free Love and Other Stories over 20 years ago, which I enjoyed immensely at the time. I’m trying to find time to fit another of her short story collections, Public Library, into my schedule – I believe this is very good. However, her more recent novel, How to be Both, is probably my favourite so far.
For some reason that seems unclear now, I am planning to wait until she’s published the whole series then get hold of them all. I will have to revisit hundreds of reviews then. But somehow I can’t move away from my plan!
I toyed with that idea too, Liz, but I believe Spring is to be published in February, which means I can at least read the first three at the appropriate times of year. Anyhow, your plan seems sensible. Don’t blame you sticking with it!
Excellent and detailed review. Enjoyed the quotes.
Thank you, so much for your kind and encouraging words. 😃