One cannot just pick up an Ali Smith book to begin reading; it needs a certain mood, a kind of willingness to give oneself up entirely to a writer’s imagination and playfulness. It’s hard for a reader to do this, to bend, but then Ali Smith is a three-time Man Booker-shortlisted novelist – make that four-time, following the shortlisting of Autumn for this year’s prize – and winner of several other awards, besides being a highly regarded books and art critic.
Autumn – the first in a cycle of novels representing the seasons – reflects several enduring concerns of Smith’s, but also takes up, in an oblique and satirical way, the quiet and yet tumultuous effects of the UK’s Brexit vote. Autumn, however, is set in the months preceding Brexit, with suspicion and hate already in the air, visible in the way neighbours view each other and in the abstruse details insisted on by the passport bureaucracy.
The novel also takes up, movingly, the fleetingness of memory – why certain memories linger and change, what memories we are left with in the autumn of our lives, and the strange nature of human connections and relationships. These latter aspects have appeared in some of Smith’s work before.
What lives on
In her second novel, Hotel World (2001), the first of Smith’s novels to be shortlisted for the Booker, and winner of the Encore (for best second novel) Prize, Smith suggests, through the lives of five women characters – two of them “ghosts” – that while our interactions with others, even strangers, may be short-lived and doomed to impermanence, we may yet be united by emotions and situations, uniquely human, such as grief and tragedy. This may sound clichéd, but in this novel, Smith experiments with grief, its stages, and the inevitability of death; a fact that all living creatures must contend with and about which humans live in wilful ignorance, often choosing often not to “live” at all.
In Autumn, Daniel Gluck, ageless and ancient – he could be 110 or just 101 – is close to death and yet Elisabeth (spelt with an “s” in her name, a typical Smith artifice to indicate a character’s combination of uniformity and stubborn uniqueness) knows he has never been more alive than in those moments when she visits him in the care facility. Daniel lies silent, unmoving as he is strapped to his breathing device, but Elisabeth knows he is moved, as she reads to him, from Brave New World and then A Tale of Two Cities – novels that, in Smith’s metafictional way, speak of the present-day world and Britain.
Autumn is a novel that jumps through time, splicing periods. It moves from superficial, mind-numbing interactions with the bureaucracy, and the rich, inexplicably mysterious interactions, sometimes unvoiced, between humans who, at first glance, may have nothing in common. What Daniel Gluck does, and his past, remain always a mystery to Elisabeth, right from the beginning when he arrives as their new neighbour, already old and ancient, to the eight-year-old Elisabeth. But he has stories to tell her, stories that will make her see the world differently, even read old stories and fairy tales in a totally different light.
Daniel tells Elisabeth in the course of a game involving stories:
“What I’m suggesting…is, if you’re telling a story, always give your characters the same benefit of the doubt you’d welcome when it comes to yourself.
And always give them a choice – even those characters like a person with nothing but a tree costume between him or her and a man with a gun. By which I mean all characters who seem to have no choice at all. Always give them a home.”
A “lost” painter
It’s a suggestion that must have remained with Elisabeth in some subconscious way. As an art student, she encounters quite by accident a catalogue listing all the by the radical, innovative Pop Art British artist of the 1960s, Pauline Boty (1938-1966). Boty, who died aged only 28, was a pioneering woman artist (and actor), ridiculed and feted in every measure in her short life, who has, in recent years, seen a rightful resurrection of sorts.
Smith has written of her as well, as in this piece for the The Guardian. In Autumn, via Elisabeth, she retraces Boty’s life and her mysteriously lost paintings, especially one of a nude Christine Keeler, the model involved in the Profumo sex scandal which shook the Harold Macmillan government of the early 1960s, seated in an Anne Jacobsen chair. As with Boty and her short yet very brimful life, Autumn, for all its slimness, is rich in its themes. It prompts, if not a rereading straightaway, certainly a rethink of many of its premises, and even of the definition of a novel.
Smith’s 2005 novel, The Accidental, begins with the arrival of an unexpected, unwelcome guest named Amber into the home of the Smart family. Its second section is an exploration of new 20th century cinema, where Amber imagines herself as a character in several films. This is a narrative device Smith uses to expose the vulnerabilities and unacknowledged flaws in her characters. In Autumn, Smith uses the past in various ways to show up the richness of days, seemingly ordinary, and lives that may also appear ordinary in every measure.
Mysterious and many-themed
One can find shades of Kafka in this novel – for instance, in Elisabeth’s frustrating and repetitive interactions with the post office workers. Or of Joyce, when Daniel, drifting in and out of consciousness, is fleetingly aware of the world around him, lost as he is in the rich imaginings of his own past.
There is in Autumn something of Smith’s other novels, such as There But For The (2011) and How to be Both (2014). The section titled “For” in the former is set entirely in the head and thoughts of May Young, an elderly woman suffering from dementia. Our thoughts are what make us, Smith seems to suggest, regardless of how we may appear to the world. In Autumn, Daniel Gluck believes stories could be one’s truth.
In How to Be Both (2014), the Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa makes a post-modern appearance (as a woman), looking back at her (his) own life as lived four hundred years ago, and bemused at how she is regarded by the boy (who could be a girl) watching her (the artist del Cossa) in turn.
Smith turns fiction into a playful, experimental, wildly inventive exercise. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up, especially if you have just encountered her. Smith demands a certain loyalty and understanding, but there are always new and different ways of looking at the world, ways – as she seems to be telling you in all her novels – that are unique to each reader. Every life must be lived in truth to itself, never to anything else.
Autumn: A Novel, Ali Smith, Pantheon.