Book review: Autumn

Just this side of Easter, Spring having sprung; and Calvin is writing about autumn. He must spend his hours wishing his life away.

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Our first 2018 daffodil (taken last Monday, 10am)… now joined by dozens more daffs and narcissus. This, of course, is ‘Spring’.

And this, of course, is ‘Autumn’. By which I mean Ali Smith‘s first in Seasonal, a series of a promised four stand-alone novels (‘Winter’ has indeed already arrived, a signed copy of which sits on my shelf) documenting life in modern Britain. It may well be the first ‘post-Brexit’ novel, although the publishers here have done little favour to a tale that, while written substantially after the 2016 referendum, is not about Brexit but one which brings to the fore the ever-constant themes of time (as befits a series of novels on the cyclical aspects of nature) and of love – mental, emotional, physical; between men and women; between mothers and daughters; of books and literature; of art; of ideas, and of the idea of vivacity; and of country, of what it was and what it is becoming – against the backdrop of the social and relationship changes in the UK brought before, and then by, the referendum itself.

The plot centres on Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-something art lecturer in an insecure, untenured world; and her relationship with Daniel Gluck, a centenarian and wordsmith who arrived in the UK from war-torn Europe, a neighbour whom she first gets to know as a young girl and from whom she learns many life lessons. Gluck is near death – a source of and explanation for the novel’s many dream sequences – and the symbolism of the key events in his life for the UK’s relationship with the rest of the continent on which it sits, so often uneasily, is clear. As, indeed, is the wise old man-enquiring young girl-in-search-of-a-(grand)father-figure symbolism; and it’s fair to wonder why Daniel Gluck could not, instead, have been Daniela: a wise old woman occupying the same role, and in charge of the same dynamic impetus, is definitely a character in search of a novel.

Ali Smith fans will know what to expect from ‘Autumn’ – endlessly, energetically and artistically inventive with both prose and punctuation, and with textual layout (half of me thinks she must be a nightmare to sub-edit; the other half, a dream because there can be no requirement for subbing), ‘Autumn’ consists of a playful rolling and tumbling of words off the page; parenthetical asides from author to reader; dialogue entirely without speech marks; a timeline that jumps around all over the place; characters who talk to themselves in realistically incomplete, sometimes coherent, sometimes incoherent sentences; and dream sequences that take the reader on apparently unconnected flights of fancy. All this plus the non-linear narrative won’t make this a book which will please everyone and neither, I suspect, will it turn unconverted Smith fans into proselytisers – by itself an interesting comment on the state of public discourse on the big issue of the day.

The way that Smith manages to thread into her novel her research and her reading – chiefly into pop-art and sixties London, again a contemporary theme, judging by one London hotel I’ve recently stayed in – is likely to subject her to criticisms that she has clumsily shoe-horned a ragbag of material into it. This, in turn, and owing to the deliberately short timescale of the novel (it seems to incorporate even a pun on the title of the novel of eventual fellow-shortlisted, and actual Booker winner, George Saunders) is likely to entrench criticism that the book was (too-)hastily written (and, in that context, over-hasty in its search for the tag ‘gifted’ it by the publisher). Rather, I would see this – in combination with the ways in which Smith has adroitly weaved her themes into the novel; her characterful vignettes of modern UK life and the absurdities of the interface of ordinary people with bureaucratic regulation; and of the juxtaposition of the profound and the mundane – as emblematic of the collages of Pauline Boty, the actress, model and pop-artist whose work underpins both the development of the plotlines in ‘Autumn’ and in its overall approach: a riot of colour and apparently abstract thematic disconnectedness but which nevertheless tends towards a statement, a position, a theme, or a development in time. Much, it would seem, like autumn itself.

I’m writing this review on the day ‘celebrating’ the one-year anniversary of the UK government’s triggering of the mechanism to leave the EU. The hope is that, like autumn gives way to winter, but then to spring, the events brought by the referendum will, perhaps eventually and after a painful period, bring new growth and new life; the fear is that, as cyclical as these things are, this may instead lead to a return of the UK to its time of Empire, a retreat into the past in an era when the problems of our time can only be resolved by coming together. Either way – and just as how ‘Autumn’ draws to an end on an unexpectedly positive note – we can take comfort in taking the long-term view: that things are never constant and subject always to change, however difficult and full of foreboding they might look in the short-term. Time is, as Smith herself might have put it, timeless.

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