“Still In The Middle of Happening”: Ali Smith’s “Autumn”

Ali Smith has a right to feel aggrieved by the Booker Prize. Her 2014 novel, How to be Both, won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and was shortlisted for the Goldsmith – sign enough that it was a serious work of fiction, and in my estimation it could easily have been a Booker winner, too. It did not, however, make it past the shortlist, strong-armed out of the way by Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which some reviewers liked even less than I did. (“Do I love it?” I asked you back then, rhetorically. “I’m not sure I do. But will the judges? This one’s a dark horse.”)

Her shortlisting this year, then, may be seen as a chance to redress old injustices. Alas, Autumn is some way from being as good as How to be Both. That doesn’t preclude its winning – it would not be the first time that an inferior novel by a superior novelist won the prize. Nevertheless, and no matter how much Smith might deserve the recognition, the Booker should not not become a lifetime achievement award.

But how is Autumn minor Smith? Partly, perhaps, in conception: the novel was rushed out in the wake of last year’s EU referendum in the UK, and features the aftermath of that vote so fully that those who purchased the book on the day of its publication must at some points have been reading on its pages about the near future. As one might expect from a novel of such currency, occasionally it is a little bluntly close to the bone:

It is just over a week since the vote. The bunting in the village where Elisabeth’s mother now lives is up across the High Street for its summer festival, plastic reds and whites and blues against a sky that’s all threats, and though it’s not actually raining right now and the pavements are dry, the wind rattling the plastic triangles against themselves means it sounds all along the High Street like rain is hammering down.

The village is in a sullen state. Elisabeth passes a cottage not far from the bus stop whose front, from the door to across above the window, has been painted over with black paint and the words GO and HOME. [p. 53]

This is the stuff of a hundred op-eds churned out in the wake of the vote. It feels unusually obvious, curiously near-the-knuckle, for Smith, a writer usually characterised by how askance, rather than dead-on, her glance tends to be. When we read that “the power of the lie” is “always seductive to the powerless” [p. 114], it’s not that Smith is wildly off her mark, but that she’s placed it precisely where you’d expect; when “a bunch of thugs” stand in the street and chant, “First we’ll get the gyppos, then the gays” [p. 197], it’s not that Autumn doesn’t sound the sinister themes of our times – but that her readers could hardly have failed already to have heard them.

That said, this baldness isn’t the novel’s whole story. Autumn is the first volume in a seasonal quartet which Smith has been planning for years, and emerges as a meditation on identity. Understandably, having almost finished writing when Brexit came along, Smith felt she couldn’t publish such a novel without including the vote. That said, Brexit unbalances the novel, and cleaves apart its various moving parts, intricacy of the sort in which Smith specialises finding it difficult quickly to incorporate new elements.

Take her central characters, the fixed-term art history lecturer Elisabeth Demand and her centenarian friend, Daniel Gluck. The pair met years before the novel opens, when Daniel was neighbour to Elisabeth and her mother; we see many flashbacks to this and other periods as the novel builds a chronology from which its protagonists make sense of the depth of their connection, which the reader rather parses as elemental as much as anything else. The truth of Autumn, indeed, is that connections to the past are ephemeral, misleading: “memory and responsibility are strangers. They’re foreign to each other” [p. 160]. Autumn is that season which kills off what went before, resets the world around us so it may begin anew. “We have to forget,” Daniel says in his sickbed. “Or we’d never sleep ever again” [p. 210].

On the other hand, without memory how do we make connections? Even Elisabeth, Daniel’s great – indeed, last – friend, struggles to link up her atomised understandings of his life, to reconstruct a full person:

What did he do in his good long life? After the war, I mean.

Elisabeth realizes she has no idea.

He wrote songs, she says. And he helped out a lot with my childhood. [p. 170]

The inability to connect the legends of “the war” with the present, of course, also underpins the novel’s treatment of Brexit. But some of its other isolated points in time – the increasing focus on the feminist pop artist Pauline Boty, and on Catherine Keeler and the Profumo affair – feel less integrated with the whole, difficult to orient around the novel’s centre of gravity. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the inclusion of “the vote” has thrown the novel out of its putative equilibrium: it is such a vivid example of how identity and memory interact, often negatively, that the subtlety of its other, sometimes apparently truncated, sections simply pales in comparison.

This problem is mirrored, too, in the novel’s prose. In a revealing interview in the Guardian, Olivia Laing argues that “the and/and/and of life is what [Smith’s] fiction is so artful at revealing,” and she’s right. The ways in which Autumn strains to contain not just its themes but, most pressingly, their contemporaneity, however, push this approach to an explicit forefront, to the status too of method:

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. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people felt they 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. [p. 59]

This stuff goes on for three pages and becomes a motif repeated elsewhere: “Time-lapse of a million billion flowers opening their heads, of a million billion flowers bowing, closing their heads again, of a million billion new flowers opening instead” [p. 123] … and so on. Autumn, as befits the opening instalment of a seasonally-themed series, believes in circularity – “Seems the self you get left with on the shore, in the end, is the self that you were when you went” [p. 4] – but its attempts to embody it in the wake of Brexit are just a little on-the-button. In the novel’s most memorable episode, Smith manages to marry theme, form and politics in the mode of farce: Elisabeth enters a special circle of hell – the Post Office – to apply for a passport, and is trapped in a Möbius strip of bureaucratic demands which never quite resolve (“He writes in a box next to the other Other: HEAD INCORRECT SIZE” [p. 25]). This episode, however, stands alone in its wit.

One of the novel’s many sharp edges, Boty’s collages, make sense as an example of the femininised mosaics of identity the novel erects in opposition to masculine lines of chronology. And yet, beyond the Post Office, nothing quite coheres – even in their juxtapositon, as in a collage. This failure to explain or build may be part of the point of a novel about circularity, and Autumn renders itself as a sort of Brexity self-negation, a book about the present which insists that “it’s deep in our animal nature … [not] to see what’s happening right in front of our eyes” [p. 175]. It is as such one to wrestle with, but perhaps not to garland.

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