“Ali Smith needs a second chance?”, cried a bemused fan when, following her event in Edinburgh, I said that I was prepared to give Autumn a go.
You see, if I don’t like the first book I read of a given author, then I take a lot of persuading to pick up a second. I was short and scathing about The Accidental, and no amount of fulsome praise, Booker shortlistings and other literary awards bestowed in the intervening 11 years has persuaded me to return to Ali Smith. But her performance at Edinburgh did. As those you have seen her live will know, she was sparkling, all synapses firing with her intelligence and wit, and, this is where the read of Autumn became a done deal, she read the beginning of Winter. She hadn’t yet handed in the manuscript; there was still 3 weeks to her deadline, but as she was sure that this opening section was not going to change during the final edit, we were treated to a sneak preview of a prolonged riff on A Christmas Carol; angry and passionate, with wow factor in spades. And because I absolutely now have to read Winter, Autumn had to be read first.
I didn’t love it, and in places it irritated me just as The Accidental had. Smith’s stylistic quirks obviously don’t gel with me. I’ve come a long way since reading The Accidental, and now enjoy intertextuality as much as anyone. Autumn is replete with it. It is a celebration of Dickens and Shakespeare and the pop art of Pauline Boty. 2 of the 3 are whom not exactly my cup of tea (Dickens and Boty), but even so I enjoyed Smith’s homage. However, the episodic narrative, chopping and changing, back and forth throughout time without any obvious connections, grated on me so much that one third of the way through, I thought we were heading to a DNF. And then I read this:
Collage is an institute of education, where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative, and because of these skills everything you think you know gets made into something new and strange.
It’s the first passage I marked and I believe it is the key to the structure of Autumn. There are other clues, as in Boty’s pop art collages, for that is what Smith is doing here. Throwing away the rule book with regards to narrative size and space and time – my Scottish literary inheritance allows me to do anything I want in my books, she said at Edinburgh. In the context of Daniel Gluck, the main protagonist, who is lying in a coma, at the beginning of the novel, this makes sense. As memories of his life replay in his mind, they’re not going to do so in chronological sequence. They’re going to form a collage. And once I got that idea in my mind (rightly or wrongly), I began to enjoy the book.
At the heart of the novel is a the story of a friendship between Daniel, an old man, and Elizabeth Demand, child of a single mother, who uses her neighbour as a baby-sitter when it suits. But the mother doesn’t entirely approve of Daniel; she mistakenly thinks he’s an “old queer”, but it’s a case of needs must. He is an educated man, a lover of art and music, and much of the novel consists of conversations between himself and Elisabeth which expand her mind and take her outwith her mother’s limitations. The friendship between the two endures, despite Elizabeth going off to,do what all young people do, live her own life, but Daniel’s influence is never far away,. But when he, now a very old man, is lying in a coma (or is he really just sleeping?) Elisabeth returns to his bedside and reads to him and relates tales from their common past.
Autumn is a melancholy novel about the fleeting nature of life, but also about the divisions we create by not accepting people as they are, or imposing artificial boundaries, or, in the case of politicians, telling lies. Which brings us to the B-word. Marketed as the first post-Brexit novel, published a matter of months after last June’s referendum, Smith uses the infamous Profumo scandal of the 1960’s to draw comparisons with the current state of the nation. The novel was edited following the vote with contemporaneous passages inserted, reflecting the clear dismay of her characters at the outcome. I don’t want to stray into political argument here, but for all the nuance in the rest of the novel, there’s a complete lack in the portrayal of Brexiteers. They’re all thuggish and racist. I’m not saying these people don’t exist but there are Brexiteers from a different mould with whom it is possible to have dialogue (something Smith calls for often in the novel.) They are missing from these pages. Though that is perhaps the point. No dialogue was possible in the days after the referendum The country was completely divided. The arguments were even fiercer than before the vote. It will be interesting to see how she interprets the current aftermath in the forthcoming novel.
To sum up. Autumn is an issues novel with which I had some issues. However, its balance ended in the black, thanks to the credits banked by those appreciative descriptions of trees and leaves. I’m with Smith on the glories of our arboreal cohabitants. (Cf veritable gushing in this interview.) And that’s more than enough to ensure that I’ll be heading towards Winter as soon as I get my hands on a copy.