literary awards

The serendipity of reading ‘Autumn’ in autumn makes up for Ali Smith’s not winning the Man Booker

A writer (and reader) refuses to mourn ‘Autumn’ did not win in autumn.

“I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on it’s way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars that have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.

I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.”

This is from Ali Smith’s Autumn. Ali Smith doesn’t write. She thinks on the page. She thinks what you think on the page. As if her voice and your thoughts are on two trains on parallel tracks and traveling at the same speed in the same direction, and you feel like you know and don’t know what she will say next. Each sentence seems just as it should be, like familiar things are just as they should be, because how can thoughts ever not be right? They are not actions, after all, visible to the world, open to reaction. They are meditations looping through the whorls inside your head ­– or in this case, inside Ali Smith’s head – about the world outside. Private mullings about the public space. Personal notes about things that affect every person –­ like the seasons, and like this book, Autumn.

Ali Smith and I live in the same city, Cambridge, UK. One day, while standing in a queue at the post office, I turned around to check on my daughter who was looking at some postcards, and there was Ali Smith, right next to me, parcel in hand. I saw her, then turned back towards the till very slowly (like you would if you had a wasp sitting on your arm that you didn’t want to disturb).

Say hello, say I love your work. Say nothing and get out of here as fast as you can. Say hello, say I love your work. Say nothing and get out of here as fast as you can. I had two clear options. I weighed my parcel and my options at one of the tills. She moved forward to the till next to mine. I heard her say, To Edinburgh. I paid the postmaster, took my change, and took option two. Well, I took half of option two to be fair. I got out, then stood outside the window with my face to the glass, and watched her like she was a movie star, and told my daughter who she was and about the books she wrote, and marvelled that no-one in the post office was even glancing at her, let alone falling at her feet.

No one writes like she does, a bookseller told me recently about Smith. No one speaks like she does either – this I know from having been to one of her talks a few years before the post office queueing. She speaks very quickly, as if her mouth is struggling to catch up with her mind. She also speaks rather brilliantly about everything, from music to paintings to people. I remember her saying something about serendipity at that talk, and I remember the book signing afterwards, where I was brave enough to tell her that I loved what she’d said about serendipity, and I remember her writing this in my copy of one of her books: For Pia, all good wishes and serendipities, Ali.

I was reading Autumn when the book moved from the Man Booker longlist onto its much-awaited shortlist. The tree outside my window was changing from yellow to a fiery orange, and I thought of serendipities and of reading Autumn in autumn. Perhaps this would be Ali Smith’s year, I thought, her season to claim.

But it wasn’t. Ali Smith didn’t win the Booker. The perfectly choreographed moment of Autumn sweeping up its prize in the midst of this glorious autumn didn’t quite come to stage. Yet as I sit with her book – this patchwork that sews together politics and paintings, songs and surrealism – it matters little. Its voice needs no prizes to rise clear and strong. Like all books of great beauty, it wins whether or not it wins.

Pia Ghosh-Roy is a writer. She tweets here.

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