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Autumn: writing the now as we live through it

Published this autumn, Ali Smith's latest novel Autumn explores the political upheavals of summer 2016, as well as issues of love, loss, art and friendship.

Ali Smith. Credit: Penguin Books

There are a number of reasons that make reading Ali Smith’s newest novel, Autumn, an uncanny experience. Two of them are personal, one is universal.

Let’s deal with the personal first.

Firstly, I am exactly the same age as Smith’s protagonist, Elisabeth. Reading the novel, her significant dates are my significant dates – from starting school to protesting the Iraq War to the age we share in 2016. This makes her timeline, my timeline. Her cultural markers are my cultural markers.

Secondly: for a decade I have been close friends with one of the world’s only Pauline Boty academics – the artist whose life and paintings form a narrative arc throughout the book. As a result, I have witnessed first-hand the process of re-discovering and re-evaluating Boty’s work and the placing of her into art history’s canon where she firmly belongs.

Then there’s the universal uncanniness – and the thing that makes Smith’s work so extraordinary. Because despite being called Autumn, Smith’s novel is set in the summer. This summer. Summer 2016 with all its violence and turbulence and uncertainty. It is an incredible feat to write a novel about a moment in history that is not even history yet. It is disconcerting and astonishing and, to my mind, no other novelist could have pulled it off.

The novel follows Elisabeth, a young woman whose career is in limbo and who has gone home to her mother’s. Her childhood friend and neighbour, Daniel, is sleeping and dying in a nursing home. Through delicately placed flashbacks, the reader witnesses the inter-generational friendship between a young girl and a man in his 80s - a man who introduces her to art and storytelling. As a now-adult Elisabeth sits with him and remembers their early friendship, 2016 rumbles on:

            All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.

            […]

            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.

The passage continues, beautifully encapsulating the emotion and conflict of those post-vote days - where ‘all across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland.’ Again, it is uncanny to read a novel that is so centred in the now of this summer and this political moment. As I write this review, the news ticker on Twitter is telling me about a new Brexit row post the Richmond by-election. As I was reading Smith’s version of Jo Cox’s murder, the trial verdict flashed up on my phone.

The novel opens with a riff on Dickens:

            It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times.

We are thrown into an unworldly place of limbo, where an ‘old old man washes up on a shore’. He’s dead, or, if not dead, in some place between death and life.

It’s significant that Smith throws us into this limbo existence. After all, hasn’t 2016 felt rather like living in limbo? Uncertainty has defined the period since 23rd June - be it the uncertainty of the markets or the uncertainty of EU residents or the uncertainty of what exactly happens when Article 50 is invoked. There’s a sense that the country has been suspended in limbo, just as Smith’s Daniel finds himself in neither this world nor the next.

It’s significant too that Smith has her character washed up on the shore. At the end of the first chapter, the reader is confronted with the horror of death on the beaches:

            On the shore, though, there’s a washed up body. He goes to look. Is it his own?

            No. It is a dead person.

            Just along from this dead person, there is another dead person. Beyond it another, and another.

            He looks along the shore at the dark line of the tide-dumped dead.

            Some of the bodies are of very small children. He crouches down near a swollen man who has a child, just a baby, really, still zipped inside his jacket, its mouth open, dripping sea, its head resting on the bloated man’s chest.

Even typing up that passage brings tears to my eyes (I burst into tears reading it on the bus for the first time). In Smith’s limbo we are confronted with the horrors of the refugee crisis - an issue Smith has written on before. There are no people living more in limbo, more stuck between one world and the next, than the refugees arriving on Europe’s shores.

The graphic depiction also challenges the reader to consider how quickly we forget the news stories that at one moment seemed defining. A year before I read Autumn I was gaping in horror at the pictures of children washed up dead on Greek beaches. Now their struggle has almost been forgotten in the endless rush for fresh, new news. Smith explores this speeded-up, desperate news cycle later on in the novel, when Elisabeth hears that MP Jo Cox has been murdered:

            Someone killed an MP, she tells Daniel’s back as she struggles to keep up. A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn’t be enough. But it’s old news now. Once it would have been a year’s worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.

Autumn captures the political upheaval of this moment and the disillusionment so many people felt in the run-up to, and the aftermath of, Brexit, as voiced by Elisabeth’s mother:

            I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore.

However, it is also a novel about love and friendship and art.

The genuine warmth between the child Elisabeth and the old-man Daniel is written with real heart. Smith pulls off the clever trick of imbuing their friendship with joy and colour, while also using their dialogues to explore the political messages found elsewhere in the novel. Smith’s gift, of course, is that she is such a subtle writer. Her reader never feels hit over the head with politics. Instead, we understand how even our own individual choices within relationships and friendships are themselves political, or political metaphors:

            I’ll tell you what will happen, Daniel said. This. You and I will know I’ve lied, but your mother won’t […] 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.

It’s not a huge leap to go from that childish conversation to the mass desire to believe the lies offered in the run-up to the EU referendum, or during Trump’s election campaign.

Art is hugely important in the book, as it was in Smith’s last novel How to be Both. Daniel introduces Elisabeth to the work of Pauline Boty, a woman he knew in the 1960s.

Boty was a pop artist who created bold, beautiful paintings and collages that engaged with many of the key themes of pop: celebrity, sexuality, ‘low’ vs. ‘high’ culture. However, Boty was written off as a dolly bird, as someone who couldn’t paint, as a hanger-on in the movement. After she died tragically young, her paintings were lost until the 1990s. My friend Dr Sue Tate curated the first full retrospective of Boty in 2014, along with the publication of her critical review of Boty’s work.

Smith writes a section of the novel in Boty’s voice. Through her eyes, we explore the struggle of trying to be taken seriously as an artist and a woman - particularly a woman who was not afraid of embracing both her intellect and her sexuality:

            rumour is, that one there’s actually read Proust, she put her arm around the boy and said it’s true darling and Genet and de Beauvoir and Rimbaud and Colette, I’ve read all the men and women of French letters, oh and Gertrude Stein as well, don't you know about women and their tender buttons?

Boty is linked with Christine Keeler in the novel - one a woman who painted pictures of pictures of women, the other a woman who exists in the public imagination as only a picture, a surface.

It’s hard to do justice to such an extraordinary novel in one short review. To fully celebrate its complexity, the trickiness of its narrative, Smith’s ‘deadly serious’ playfulness with words and phrasing, and the cleverness of writing the now as we live through it. It really is a stunning achievement to bring together the different threads and weave the news cycle throughout it; to write a novel about politics and death and friendship and art while never feeling heavy or ponderous.

Autumn is the first in a series focusing on each of the four seasons. I can’t wait to see what her Winter brings. 

About the author

Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist blog sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and her short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on the Kindle. Sian is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein. 

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