Autumn – Ali Smith

[I read this novel in its three parts, and wrote about each part before reading the next. This means that I never knew what was going to happen in the rest of the book.]

24 December 2016
Part 1
Somehow, despite having read a third of the book, I feel that Ali Smith hasn’t quite finished setting out her stall. It has a lot of elements of her recent novels – I long ago reached the conclusion that every fiction she writes is part of a single, bigger project – so, above all else, this feels like what it is. It’s an Ali Smith novel. As so often, it has a precocious girl and a woman born at around the same time as Ali Smith herself. Both of these get to say the sorts of things which, the more of her work I read, I’m convinced are just what this author herself would love to say. As usual, they have to interact with somebody very different from themselves into whose company they have somehow been thrown, and that leads to verbal and philosophical sparks. (There is almost always a sense of at least one of the characters finding themselves plunged into unknown territory and having to deal with difficult conversational situations on the hoof. There is always word-play involved.) There is art, and an emerging theme of the place of women in the art establishment. There are politics and prejudice of various kinds. And I’m sure I’ll notice other tropes as I write.

What gives Part 1 the feel of a work in progress has a lot to do with its contemporary references. This is a novel as much about Britain in 2016 as it is about anything else – it’s partly a response both to the unexpected result of the EU Referendum in June and the repercussions that are continuing to be felt – and I know that this is deliberate because Ali Smith said so when I heard her speaking at a local literary event recently. Nobody knows where this – the referendum result – is taking us, and it often feels as though the narrator, definitely an alter-ego of Ali Smith’s at some level, is as unsure of her ground as her main characters. (The opening lines are a bitter re-working of one of the most famous openings in fiction: ‘It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.’ In bold text.) As I’ve said, I’m only one third of the way through it, and maybe there will be unexpected epiphanies and revelations. But so far it’s all been about disruption and confusion, and it’s hard to imagine that there will be any straightforward resolutions of anything. That’s never what you get in Ali Smith novels.

The young girl is Elisabeth Demand – oh, the fun we have with that unusual spelling of the first name and the ambiguous connotations of the second – and the woman who is approximately Ali Smith’s contemporary is Elisabeth’s mother. The stranger is Daniel Gluck, their next-door neighbour since they moved to this unnamed corner of England six weeks before. Almost from the beginning, we are invited to ponder who are the outsiders in this set-up and, in fact, the novel opens inside Daniel’s head. But we’re inside a consciousness as confused as we are about where this is and what on earth is happening. In that respect it’s very like one of the two alternative openings of her previous novel, How to be both, in which a character who had lived in Renaissance Italy emerges into consciousness in London in the present day. Is the character in that novel dead? Is Daniel Gluck at the beginning of Autumn?

It would certainly seem so. Or, like the David Niven character in A Matter of Life and Death – Smith doesn’t make a direct connection, but I’m sure she’d be happy for her readers to do so – is he in some ambiguous no-man’s-land between dream and reality? That seems more likely, as an old man slowly discovers that his physique and all his senses have been restored to their youthful peak or, somehow, beyond. He is gloriously naked but, as in dreams, he feels uncomfortable in his nakedness. Luckily, he discovers that he now knows how to sew leaves into a kind of tunic, using the needle and golden thread that magically appear….

And then we’re off and somewhere else. We’re in a present-tense 2016, with a thirty-something woman applying for a passport in an England made silly by bureaucracy. (Ali Smith is so proud of the scene in the Post Office she chose it as the extract to read at the literary event I mentioned.) Funny things, passports – and the comedy Post Office apparatchik questions aspects of her identity one by one. The woman is Elisabeth, the same person as the girl in the 1990s that we’re about to meet. Or perhaps we’ve already met her – I’m sure Ali Smith wouldn’t expect her readers to keep tabs on exactly when things appear in this novel. In early adolescence she has the frank, rather implausibly open relationship with her mother that is familiar from Smith’s other novels – I won’t keep banging on about them – as we find out during their negotiations about how she is going to carry out her homework task. She is supposed to interview an older neighbour, but her mother would much prefer her either to base it on a neighbour they knew before they moved or simply make it up. Elisabeth isn’t happy with this, but complies… and we’re into new territory. Or not so new: Ali Smith is reaching out for one of her favourite themes, the different ways that so-called truths can be presented.

And she runs with this. Elisabeth’s mother is pleased by her effort and, somewhat unexpectedly, tells the neighbour all about it. She hasn’t spoken to him before, but sees him in the garden and tells him about it. So… he is at an advantage when Elisabeth, home from school, sees him near his front door and is deeply embarrassed. The conversation that ensues is pure Ali Smith. The girl pretends, absurdly and hopelessly, that the Elisabeth who wrote the made-up interview is her sister, and the 80-something Daniel is able to take this in all sorts of directions to do with names, identity and nationality. ‘Demand’ is French but, he says, probably deriving from ‘de monde’ – of the world, as he helpfully points out, rather than asking questions. Maybe. Is his name foreign too? Yes, and… and so on. Ali Smith could do this stuff in her sleep. (I bet she does.)

And, with one more element, the set-up is complete. The young girl and the old man must have become friends – you should hear how unhappy her mother is about what his motives might be – because, twenty or more years later, she visits him in his nursing home. We are shown the reality of these places – it has some comedy pseudo-friendly corporate name – as overworked staff can never offer the inmates any real attention. It’s best for them to assume that the old people they are supposed to be helping are lost to the world and can therefore be ignored. Elisabeth is convinced that Daniel understands all the patronising nonsense spoken in his hearing, and she might be right: there’s plenty going on inside his head, as we know. But only she seems interested in speculating about what that might be.

There’s other stuff. Daniel tells the young Elisabeth about an artist friend of his. He hasn’t told her at this point, and Ali Smith hasn’t told the reader yet, that this is a real artist, a woman who was one of the leading lights of Pop Art in Britain. As a woman, she has been largely forgotten until recently – and readers of How to be both will recognise a favourite theme here. Another thread is started, or reinforced, In the 2016 time-line: Elisabeth’s mother is appalled that what is designated as common land – it’s marked as such on the maps, for goodness’ sake! – has been fenced off. Their favourite path is inaccessible – and, of course, this is another nudge in the reader’s ribs to do with the fences that have been built recently. Calais, Israel, Eastern Europe – and I don’t even know if Donald Trump had made his Mexican border wall part of his presidential campaign by the time the novel went to print.

Maybe three-quarters of the way through Part 1, Ali Smith allows herself a long cry of confusion and despair. A nine-word opening paragraph – ‘All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing’ – leads to two pages of oppositions and oxymorons. ‘All across the country…’ she repeats, thirty, forty, fifty times – who’s counting? – and I found it one of the least satisfactory chapters in any book I’ve read recently. The last ‘All across’ leads to a longer riff about dividing lines – ‘a line you don’t cross here, a line you’d better not cross there,’ and so on, and on – and yes, Ali, I wanted to say, a lot of us are feeling bad about it. But for fuck’s sake.

That isn’t how Part 1 actually ends. There’s room, among other things, for a snippet of Daniel’s past, as he and members of his family are separated by Nazi soldiers in wartime Nice. Ah. There are meditations about art and story – it’s when we find out about the artist friend – as Daniel attempts to build a collage in words for the young Elisabeth. Maybe she’ll go to collage when she leaves school, he says. And so on. It must be having some effect: in later life she’s a lecturer in the history of art  And… I’ve probably missed out more than I’ve included, but I haven’t got all day.

1 January 2017
Part 2
This feels like confirmation of what was going on in Part 1, rather than development. Am I being too harsh? I might be… but the opening is a bit like the opening of Part 1 – Daniel Gluck in a hyper-real dream world, but this time locked in a Scots pine and feeling surprisingly ok about it – whilst the end is a meditation on October rather than September. I guess – I think I know, really – that the envoi chapters concluding each part in the next three books in the series will take us through December to August. That’s ok. Knowing Ali Smith’s literary garrulousness, she’ll have finished them all by the end of next year. Or, since it’s now 2017, I might mean this year.

The artist that Daniel really did know in the 1960s is Pauline Boty – I can’t remember if she was mentioned by name in Part 1 – who has become something of a feminist cause celebre in recent years. (She was the subject of a BBC documentary in 2011, and had her first retrospective in 2013.) Smith deals with her story in a disappointingly conventional way – yes, Ali, I kept wanting to say, we get it – as Elisabeth’s tutor attempts to veto her decision to write her dissertation on the woman who knew Dylan in London, allegedly, before anybody else did. The tutor, in the early years of the 21st Century, is a throwback to an earlier generation. His views are so predictably sexist it looks as though Ali Smith is letting her schematic project get in the way. Characterisation? Forget it.

[Pause. Next day.]

It’s interesting writing about this novel at this particular moment. I’ve just listened to a radio programme about how 2016 has come to be known as the year of ‘post-truth’ – we all know this – and whether this term has anything to tell us. In fact, it was more about the interest there has recently been in the ways that people resist evidence that runs counter to their own prejudices, and seek to hold on to their own beliefs come what may. It isn’t about facts, it’s about… a lot of other things, including the identity and the perceived affiliations of whoever is presenting them. The idea of the ‘bubble’ is a popular one now, to do with how individuals surround themselves, literally and online, with people who share similar views. (A friend of mine who had listened to the same radio programme tells me she laughed hard when she got a mug as a Christmas present showing ‘As Expected, I was right about everything.’)

The reason I mention all this is that in this novel, I’m being invited into Ali Smith’s bubble. Or, worse, I fear she assumes her readers are already in it, and that her cris de coeur evoke only a doleful nod of agreement: Yes, Ali, we feel your pain. Hm. As it happens, I’m as depressed about the EU referendum result as Ali Smith seems to be – and as everybody in my online social media bubble seems to be – and… so? So to go on repeating how bad it is, and how bad it makes us feel, strikes me as lazy. I guess this is why the novel, deliberately published on the rebound following the result, has the unfinished feel I complained of at the start. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things I like in it. But it’s as though there’s hard thinking to be done that Ali Smith has allowed herself not to do because she’s got a novel to write. Speaking of which…

…where was I? Daniel’s artist friend, and before that the continuing imaginative life of the mind that his carers believe to have closed down to nothing. Elisabeth doesn’t believe anything of the sort, of course, and only pretends that she will pass on a message to her mother that CareCorp, or whatever it’s called, recommend that he shouldn’t be kept hydrated any longer. After all, it’s going to start costing money now that his own finances are running out. This, the sordid reality of life in austerity Britain goes alongside other references to how rubbish things have become. Elisabeth’s lecturing job is unlikely to last much longer as universities have to become ever more businesslike… and so on. There’s more black comedy as she has another go at trying to get her passport photograph accepted before sending it away with a caveat from the Post Office, an encounter with a (totally implausible) security guard who tries to make her move away from the illegally erected double electric fence around the common ground near her mother’s home…. Heavy-handed? I couldn’t possibly comment.

Is there anything new in the encounters between Elisabeth and Daniel? Does it matter? Elisabeth is thirteen, or sixteen, or in her early twenties, or it’s the present, and we have some lively stuff to do with storytelling, again. One time, during what he calls a trifle – no, not that kind of trifle – or a bagatelle he makes her choose between a story about peace or a story about war, and he gets some mileage out of that. And Ali Smith is able to compose the immortal line that Daniel is ‘Ready to bagatelle it as it is.’ That’s our Ali, hiding her serious points about narrative behind wordplay. Another time, he tells her about how he was brought up in England despite his origins, but that his younger sister wasn’t, and doesn’t seem to have survived the war. And… there’s another flashback, this time to the 1930s, when he and his sister overhear a conversation in a train about systematic measurement and categorisation of people’s physiognomies. Which bounces off the faux-comic scene in the Post Office where poor Elisabeth just can’t seem to make herself fit the parameters. Ideas always bounce about like that in Ali Smith novels

And I’ve just remembered the thread based on the classical (and folktale) image of a human being magically being transformed into a tree. Daniel’s suit of leaves in the very first chapter of the novel was just a beginning, and his perception of being locked inside a tree, but comfortable, continued this in Part 2. Now we have a child who sprouts leaves and branches in extremis – I can’t remember the exact circumstances – and, in case we haven’t got the reference yet, Smith has Elisabeth serendipitously picking up a copy of Ovid in a second-hand bookshop, from which she reads to Daniel’s seemingly unconscious form the (unnamed) story of Apollo and Daphne. That’s the one in which, in order to avoid being raped by the god, the hapless girl morphs into a laurel tree. (There are a lot of versions of this in Western art, and I’m wondering if Smith will get Elisabeth to visit one of them in Part 3. It would tick a lot of boxes.)

What else? It’s still about division and the way things can be presented – ‘The power of the lie, said Daniel’ – did I mention there’s no direct speech punctuation in this novel? – ‘Always seductive to the powerless.’ Ok, Ali, again. Got it, again. And if I’ve forgotten anything important – I can’t imagine that I won’t have – I’m sure it’ll still be there in Part 3.

4 January
Part 3 – to the end
As I was reading this section, I found myself feeling more relaxed about this novel. Maybe all the hopeless-seeming threads of Parts 1 and 2 had been getting me down – as I said, I’m as depressed about the EU referendum result as Ali Smith seems to be – and I’d been confidently stating that she isn’t an author to offer straightforward resolutions of anything. Well, it looks like she was fooling me all along. Part 3 is so full of things being worked out it made me think it should be subtitled, like one of the Star Wars movies, A New Hope. Elisabeth gets her passport despite the best efforts of the bureaucracy to thwart her; her mother – a shadowy and underdrawn character in the first two parts – finds gay love by way of TV nostalgia and daytime television; the fence-builders find that they aren’t going to get away with their shenanigans without a lot of protest – it’s actually Elisabeth’s mother who throws an old barometer at the electric fence and short-circuits it – and… you’ll never guess. The 101-year-old Daniel comes magically back to life.

Underpinning all this is the healing power of art. In the final chapter (before the November envoi) Daniel, newly awake, doesn’t seem to remember that Elisabeth has been reading Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities to him. This doesn’t matter, because it’s clearly done its work on him. And Ali Smith gives her unjustly neglected artist sub-plot a lot of work to do in this section. While she can’t change the sad truth of Pauline Boty’s biography, she can compose a hymn of praise to the way one painter’s vision can transform the way we all look at the world. In fact, as I think about it, whilst it might not offer the only hope, this strikes me as the most carefully crafted weaving of any thread in the novel: from very small beginnings in Part 1 – any hope seems to be drowned out by Ali Smith’s howls of despair – it’s art that wins. Watching The Waltons on the night of your father’s funeral might not bring him back to life – this is a story told by Elisabeth’s mother – but… time and television, in this universe, prove to be great healers in the end. It’s no accident that her new love is the former child actress who starred in a TV show she grew up with.

Is it all a bit ridiculous? Yes, I think it probably is – and I’m starting to think that that’s the point. Ali Smith doesn’t write novels like anybody else, and she makes up several new rules for herself every time. So it’s completely ok for Elisabeth’s mother, the same age as Ali Smith, to find love through her own appearance on one of the antiques road-shows that fill the daytime TV airwaves – and for it to be based on a shared sense of humour so that she and the former celebrity keep cracking up and spoiling the takes. (Elisabeth’s mother – we discover she has a name near the end, but I’ve forgotten what it is – also spoils a sequence by refusing to pretend she hasn’t already met the owner of one of the shops they visit. It just feels false, says this character in a novel that has been playing with truth and presentation since the beginning.)

Elisabeth herself doesn’t have a new love. She has an old love, Daniel, restored by – by what? By a combination of her own faith in his continued survival – he’s not comatose, she insists, he’s just having a long sleep – and, we have to believe, Ovid and Dickens. The Tempest is in there somewhere too, as an alert reader might have predicted from Daniel’s imprisonment in a tree in Part 2. Transformations, that’s the overriding theme of this novel and, Smith insists, they can be positive as well as negative. Ten years before Elisabeth’s recent visits to the care home, she had fallen out with the old man because she didn’t think he was taking her dissertation on Pauline Boty seriously enough. (We witness the conversation, but only later find out that it caused a completely unnecessary rift.) That’s not what he meant at all, of course. He had failed to make an impression on Boty himself – in a chapter centred entirely on her, we find out that she saw him only as a rather quaint middle-aged man – but, as he puts it, he had fallen in love. Not with her, but with her eyes, with the way she could make the viewer of her paintings see the world afresh. The transforming power of art itself transformed into love.

That chapter that focuses on Boty allows Ali Smith to add other layers. Instead of being an art historical footnote and a figure in a fictional character’s story, she becomes a red-blooded woman, full of life and, apparently, as determined to question gender stereotypes as Ali Smith herself. (I said she makes her do a lot of work.) The image of Marilyn Monroe that makes up the novel’s endpaper isn’t the usual male view but, Smith has somebody arguing, is what it feels like to be a woman. Those red shapes are little orgasms. Well, maybe. But Boty is fascinated by another literally iconic 1960s woman, Christine Keeler. Smith knows we will be completely familiar with the famous image of her astride an Arne Jacobsen chair – another icon – and a lost painting of Boty’s references it. But, crucially, that isn’t the image that Boty used as her starting-point, but a different one from the session. Instead of the confident gaze, as forbidding as a mask, the image in Boty’s painting shows a more vulnerable side. There’s even a bruise, not seen in the image we all know. And, by a clever sleight of hand, by having Boty do it, Ali Smith has forced us to alter our view of a picture we thought we knew all about. Transformations.

So, hopeful, yes? New love, restored friendship at the end of life, a reputation re-established…. Well, yes. As ever, there’s plenty more as well, including the incontrovertible fact of the death of Daniel’s younger sister, much cleverer than he ever was. But it’s hope that Ali Smith wants to leave us with at the end. And all I can say is, thank goodness for that – I couldn’t have borne yet more misery. Even the envoi, full of the dark shades of November, doesn’t end with them. ‘But there are roses, there are still roses. In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still. / Look at the colour of it.’

Has Ali Smith earned that ending? Yeh. Maybe not a knockout, but she’s definitely won on points. She makes so many points.