Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 20, 2017

Autumn, by Ali Smith

Longlisted for the 2017 Booker, Autumn (2016) is first of what will apparently be a series of four.  (Winter is due for publication in November).  I hesitate to call it a novel because although this Hamish Hamilton edition is 259 pages long, it is printed in such a large font that it feels like reading a Large Print edition. It takes only an hour or two to read and if it were printed in a normal font it would be more of a novella.  I looked up the rules of eligibility for the Booker Prize – and found that entries appear to be limited to novels, but presumably they’ve had that argument and resolved it in Smith’s favour.

Perhaps because of the importance of both the author and the book.  According to Wikipedia, Sebastian Barry says that Ali Smith is Scotland’s Nobel Laureate-in-waiting, and her books have won multiple awards and prize nominations, earning her an honorary doctorate and a CBE.  She hasn’t won the Booker yet, but she was nominated for Hotel World (2001, which I read ages ago); The Accidental (2005); and How to Be Both (2014, which I tried and failed to read).  So maybe Autumn will be the one.  It has a currency that makes it important in its own right.

It’s a melancholy book.  It begins with an allusion to the opening lines of The Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens, an historical novel set in London and Paris about the chaos and violence of the French Revolution.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

In the opening lines of Autumn, these words distort:

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.

Written in the aftermath of Brexit, Autumn documents the dismay that many Britons feel.   There is a three-page lament about the divisions rising up…

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 thought it was the wrong thing.  All across the country,  people thought 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.  All across the country,  people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country,  people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country,  people looked up Google: move to Scotland.  All across the country,  people looked up Google: Irish passport applications. 

[…]

All across the country, people waved flags in the rain.  All across the country, people drew swastika graffiti.  All across the country, people threatened other people.  All across the country, people told people to leave. All across the country, the media was insane.  All across the country, politicians lied.

[…]

All across the country, things got nasty.

[…]

All across the country, the country split in pieces.  All across the country, the countries cut adrift.  (p.59-61)

Still, there is the power of love.  Through the main characters of a very old man called Daniel Gluck and the art historian Elisabeth Demand whom he befriended as a child, the book weaves within both the private and the public present and past.  Mr Gluck sleeps through the entire trajectory of the book, which begins with his dream of being young again.  He is very old indeed, frail and dependent in an aged care home where Elisabeth visits and reads to him every day.  Ironically, considering that staff have wrongly identified her as his granddaughter, she has to get a new passport to identify herself as a visitor, allowing for comic scenes in the post office that isn’t a post office any more.

Time shifts back and forth as if flicking backwards and forwards through an old photo album.  In fragmentary very short chapters filled with powerful scraps of words, Mr Gluck  takes the place of Elisabeth’s absent parents.  Her father is literally absent – not dead, but in Leeds – and her mother is emotionally absent throughout her childhood, only late in life becoming the person she wants to be and that Elisabeth can be fond of in an amused and tolerant kind of way.  On long walks Mr Gluck teaches Elisabeth to think, to imagine, to dream and to be playful.  He takes her to a performance of The Tempest.  He describes paintings to her.  He teaches her to make up stories.  He is insistent about the power of reading.

Hello, he said, what are you reading?

Elizabeth showed him her empty hands.

Does it look like I’m reading anything, she said.

Always be reading something, he said.  Even when we’re not physically reading.  How else will we read the world?  Think of it as a constant.

A constant what? Elisabeth said.

A constant constancy. (p. 68)

Is there something autobiographical from Smith’s life in this characterisation?

Mr Gluck, whose sister stood up against fascism in Nazi Europe, is a moral touchstone.  Elisabeth as a child wants him to embroider his past to fool her mother:

Which would you choose, Daniel had said once.  Should I please her and tell her she guessed right, and that I’m a recently retired Rambert? Or should I tell her the more mundane truth?

Definitely tell her the lie, Elisabeth said.

But what will happen if I do? Daniel said.

It’ll be brilliant, Elisabeth said.  It’ll be really funny.

I’ll tell you what will happen, Daniel said.  This.  You and I will know I’ve lied, but your mother won’t.  You and I will know something that your mother doesn’t.  That will make us feel different towards not just your mother, but each other.  A wedge will come between us all.  You will stop trusting me, and quite right, because I’d be a liar.  We’ll all be lessened by the lie.  So.  Do you still choose the ballet?  Or will I tell the sorrier truth?

I want the lie, Elisabeth said.  She knows loads of things I don’t. I want to know some things she doesn’t.

The power of the lie, Daniel said. Always seductive to the powerless.  (p.113-4)

In Autumn, the seduction of the lie at a personal level, also targets the lies in the public sphere.

The corruption of politicians is nothing new: through Elisabeth’s interest in the pop artist Pauline Boty, Smith revisits the Christine Keeler scandal, an allusion that seems to say that governments could be brought down in a more innocent age by a sex scandal, but no scandal is big enough to bring down modern governments.  Elisabeth marches to no avail in the Not in My Name protests against the Iraq War, and her mother has had enough:

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.

I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says. (p.56)

Actually, it’s a brilliant word, isn’t it? Fear that is expressed in animosity.  A word for our times…

Author: Ali Smith
Title: Autumn
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House UK), 2016
ISBN: 9780241207017
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Autumn (Seasonal)


Responses

  1. […] see my review, and […]

  2. I think many of us can relate to the last paragraph you quoted!

    • Absolutely!
      But…
      A book I am currently reading, called On The Burning of Books by Kenneth Baker, warns us that we must not let ourselves get tired. Individually, I believe, we can take time out from what ails the world, but collectively we must be vigilant.
      (Sometimes I get a RAN (Rapid Action Network) notice from Melbourne PEN and I think, I’ll leave it till tomorrow because I’m too tired to do anything right now. And then I remember some poor sod locked up without charge under some oppressive regime, and I do my best to make an effort. But it is good to know that I am not alone… if I do slip up there are others around the world taking action too. And that’s what we need, and we must engage young people more because too many of them leave it up to the Oldies to do the hard work of activism. There is a note of pessimism in Smith’s book that worries me a bit…

  3. I’d like to read more Ali Smith. She’s a surprising writer, if that makes sense.

    I would argue that a novella is a novel, actually. A subset, to be sure, but still a novel. Some pretty short novels have won the Booker in the past – though this sounds like it might be the shortest. I bet Hamish Hamilton have used large print to make it look bigger because, unfortunately, there are those who think bigger is better, whereas I think it can often be the case that less is more!!

    • I suspect that you are right about the size being a marketing decision, but it was nice to be able to read it without glasses!

      • Haha Lisa, you know the answer to that. E-books! You can make the print size whatever you like. Just saying!

  4. I read this back in May because I kind of follow Ali Smith and what all she gets up to in her novels. I liked this almost as well as Hotel World but not quite and better than The Accidental so about the same as How to Be Both.

    It’s funny and sad and scary and lovable – it’s about being human and humanity itself maybe. As I said in my blog/review – “Beautiful book – Smith is a wondrous writer – luminous (if I might use that cliched expression. The book is just for the love of it – if you have time –”

    https://wordpress.com/post/beckylindroos.wordpress.com/30615
    (I even did a page of notes.)

    • *chuckle* I know! When I did my Booker longlist post, I linked to your notes, and they were jolly useful when I was writing my review and trying to find where something I wanted to quote was!

  5. I loved “How To Be Both”, but wasn’t very enamored of “Autumn”. As you say, it is a melancholy novella. I wish I could read at your speed, completing Autumn in one or two hours.

    • Ah, I must have another go at How to Be Both. I borrowed it from the library when it was hot property and couldn’t renew it, and when I just couldn’t get into it, I let it go. But I knew at the time that it was me, not the book, if you know what I mean.
      As I said in my comment to Anna below, there is a note of pessimism in Autumn that troubles me…

  6. I wonder how this book – or the Brexit bits anyway – will look in a few years time, when England is just a minor economy off the coast of France. Maybe by the time she writes Summer Brits will be saying “those were the days”

    • Well, it does seem crazy-brave to announce a series in this way. Theoretically, Spring and Summer ought to be more hopeful…

  7. I feel like I need to read Autumn again. I read it last year when it first came out and whilst suffering from a bout of shingles, and I remember being charmed by it as I am by almost everything Ali Smith writes. I think that’s what I like best about her, her books are charming but that charm conceals a razor-sharp intelligence and a more serious issue. Smith always makes me think. The part I most took away from Autumn was the ‘death of dialogue’, I think she really nailed something there. In an age of twitter and slogans, people shout across a divide, but there is so little discussion and consideration of other opinions.
    Lovely review, Lisa.

    • Thank you, that’s nice of you to say so:)
      I reckon you are right: the reason she is being spruiked for a Nobel is because of that razor-sharp intelligence, that grasp of the intersection between the personal and political and that ability to deal with the here and now. While the rest of us were floundering around absorbing the shock of Brexit, she was writing about it!

  8. I am a huge fan of Ali Smith, and have loved all her books. I keep meaning to get to this one, but those quotes you’ve pulled out make me want to read it even more, so it has moved up my TBR. Thanks!

    • Sometimes I think that the best thing a reviewer can do is to let the author speak for herself:)

  9. I haven’t been inspired to read many of the Booker books but I may read this one. As a big Auster fan I shall have to read 4321 somewhen. I guess they’re the shortest and longest of this year’s crop.

    • I started 4321 (Auster) and it’s fabulous but I had to put it down because life got busy. I look forward to getting back into it.

      • I know what you mean. I want to read it but I’m trying to concentrate on books I already own as much as possible. But there’s no rush…the book will still be there for me to read.

        • Waiting patiently on the shelves…

      • *chuckle* Well, please write a very enticing review because Auster and I have not got on well so far, and only a glowing review from you will make me try it!

        • I haven’t been too keen on his later work which makes me a little wary about this one.

    • Check out Grant’s review too, he sees things in Autumn that passed me by entirely! https://1streading.wordpress.com/2017/06/30/autumn/

  10. This is one of the few Booker contenders that I’m interested in reading. More so now I’ve seen your review and got a taste of the poetry in her prose.

  11. Great review! Apart from Reservoir 13 – any excuse to get a plug in for that, I’m afraid – this is the only Man Booker longlisted title I want to read. The final paragraph sums up how many of us feel in the UK at the moment. It’s not so much the prospect of being ‘just a minor economy off the coast of France’ although that will hurt many, for some of us it’s also the loss of an ideal.

    • Yes, even from far away in Australia, it’s the loss of an ideal that hurts…
      I loved Reservoir 13 too, but I’d also recommend Solar Bones. I have Ministry on my TBR but who knows when I’ll get time to read that…

  12. You’ve made me interested in this one.

    • Good, I want to know what my friends think of this one, it’s so relevant to current events!

      • It is indeed. I have relatives all over the place very concerned about their futures now.

        • Do you hold out any hope that it may not happen? (I read something the other day that suggested that if things stall for long enough, it might fizzle out).

          • No I think it will happen.

            • And the damage to society is already done…

  13. […] Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton) see my review. […]


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