Smith, Ali: Autumn

Ali Smith was born in 1962, in Inverness. She studied English at the University of Aberdeen and then enrolled for a PhD at the University of Cambridge (1985 to 1990) but started writing plays and consequently did not complete her degree.  Some of her plays were staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Cambridge Footlights. She came to Edinburgh and worked as a lecturer of Scottish, English and American literature at the University of Strathclyde. Now she lives in Cambridge, writes novels and publishes articles in The Guardian, The Scotsman, New Statesman and Times Literary Supplement. 

Published in 2016, this is her 8th novel. It’s the story of a life-long friendship between a woman and a much older man. The friendship begins when Elisabeth, a child of eight, meets a senior neighbor uDaniel Gluck. They get talking, and the conversation will last until he dies at the age of 101 in an old peoples’ home. It’s a book that is somewhat unsettling, and often divided the opinions of our members.

An over-arching idea emerging from the book is the non-linearity of time. This reminded us of a novella by Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat, which we read last month. Of course, time proceeds relentlessly. It ticks by and we grow older and wiser, and the book certainly deals with aging and learning as they relate to the human condition. In the physical sense (notwithstanding Einstein!) time is linear and therefore can be measured with a clock.  We use the clock to regulate our lives. But memory doesn’t work like that. It jumps about. We frequently time-travel in our imagination. Certain episodes are recalled: some tragic and some comedic events stand out, and certain things become confused. We remember low points and highlights – they come to us in flashbacks, and that’s how this novel is structured.…yes, it can be confusing, dream-like, chaotic and with frequent digressions.  Does it matter?  It matters not in art, poetry or music, but perhaps in a novel it does matter. Does a novel need narrative drive to sustain interest? Half of us confessed to having read the book twice in an effort to trace the story.

Sometimes the text reads as poetry. The EU referendum has just taken place and Elisabeth (or is it Ali) says:

All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. 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.

This passage, and more that follow, has the rhythm and power of poetry, and exposes the raw nerve of divided contemporary Britain. The New Yor Times called the book the “First Great Brexit Novel”.

Smith doesn’t pull her punches. She uses digressions (flashbacks) to tilt at bureaucracy, the establishment and ‘normality’. Elisabeth’s efforts to get her passport photo approved by the Post Office are comical, but the episode is part of her attack on the hopelessness of the individual in the face of overblown bureaucracy. Likewise, we may smile at the encounter with the medical receptionist. These sections refer to the middle part of life when we are forced to comply to ludicrous norms. And there are the sinister scenes at the metallic fence: we don’t actually know what the fence is for. Is it a detention centre for illegal refugees?   Or a metaphorical fence, standing for one of the many we come across in everyday life. One member took a historical view and saw it as a reference to the Enclosure Acts 1700–1801. The question of immigration is here, reinforced by Daniel’s past as a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Smith saves the best until nearly the end when she launches a crusade against the art establishment of the 1960s, exposing the male domination of the pop-art scene and the rejection of the real-life artist Pauline Boty (who turns out to have been one of Daniel’s girl-friends).  You don’t have to be a feminist to believe that women’s talents have been ignored by the all-controlling male establishment. And Boty’s work is the visual analogue to Smith’s literary style – both are collage. However, Smith is widely accepted as a creative writer whilst Boty, back in the 60s, was overlooked as a creative painter because only men were assumed to hold such talent.

The first chapter is possibly the most perplexing part of the book: it’s the end of the story but placed at the beginning. But what does it mean? Has Gluck arrived in heaven? Is it rebirth? Or is it a dream of re-kindled youth that he’s having in old age? This part is highly imaginative and makes riveting reading. In fact, the whole book is a tour de force of imagination – and the subject matter is a rare portrayal of a relationship between an older man and a younger woman in which the male is not a potential sexual predator.

One or two members felt the author was trying too hard to show how clever she can be. There are lots of literary allusions –  the opening sentence echoes Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and there are references to John Keats’s To Autumn and Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind.  Ovid, Shakespeare, Blake and Huxley are in there too.

Almost all of us grimaced at the awful puns – for example the ‘patient smile’ of the medical receptionist.

One of our members, who couldn’t attend has sent written comments that summarise the book very well:

….it’s less a classic novel than a poetic and political entertainment, and indeed a sort of crazy hymn to life. It conveys very effectively the feeling of things just happening, and the scope and variety of a human life – through the vast age of Daniel. The interplay between Daniel and Elizabeth is moving – as indeed is E’s relationship to her mother.

Autumn is the first of four seasonal ‘state of the nation’ novels promised by the author. Some of us have already ordered Winter for our summer reading, and one or two may be eagerly awaiting Spring and Summer.  Perhaps Summer will come before Spring. But others will steer clear.  It will be interesting to see whether the author can sustain the energy levels required to complete the set.

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