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Ali Smith: Autumn

This the first in Ali Smith’s Seasons tetralogy and allegedly the first post-Brexit novel. In it we follow two main characters: Elisabeth Demand, who is thirty-two, single and is a lecturer in history of art. (Her surname is, according to Daniel, a corruption of the French de monde, i.e. of the world.) As a child, she and her mother lived next door to Daniel Gluck. Daniel acted as what Elisabeth described as her unofficial babysitter, though her mother denied this. Daniel is now a hundred and one, living in a care home and clearly dying. Elisabeth seems to be the only person who visits him.

In this interview, Smith mentioned that his book is, not surprisingly, about time. We’re time-containers, we hold all our diachrony, our pasts and our futures (and also the pasts and futures of all the people who made us and who in turn we’ll help to make) in every one of our consecutive moments / minutes / days / years. Obviously many novelists look at time in a non-diachronous way and time is a key topic of many novels.

We see this from the start in the novel when Daniel is dreaming that he is dead. We do not initially know that he is not, in fact, dead (and nor does he) but lying in the care home where Elisabeth is frequently told that he is near death, not least because he sleeps a lot, apparently a sure sign of imminent death.

There is a huge age difference between Elisabeth and Daniel, sixty-nine years to be precise, yet they are friends from when she was a young girl (fatherless) and he is a next-door neighbour. She likes the art and music she finds in his house and they share a common love for storytelling, telling each other odd stories.

The book is also about autumn: a book about autumn would be about the shortness of life – there’s no avoiding Keats, though, given Daniel is 101, shortness of life may not the appropriate description. Smith is also a tree-lover and autumn is, of course, associated with trees losing their leaves, certainly an indication of the transience of life.

I mentioned above that this is said to be the first post-Brexit novel. The idea certainly makes an appearance in this book. 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. Smith certainly shows how different people reacted in different ways to the referendum result. It is the end of dialogue, she comments, and I can only agree with her there. We see examples of post-referendum racism (a Spanish couple is told to Go Home!) and there is a concern that the care home assistants will leave the UK (there are no British staff) leaving care homes bereft of staff.

The other key issue is, naturally, feminism. There are two key women whom Smith uses to make her point. The first is Pauline Boty, the only female British Pop Art painter, who sadly died at the age of twenty-eight. Elisabeth’s tutor says there were no female Pop Art painters and when Elisabeth mentions Boty, he claims that her work was entirely derivative. When Elisabeth wants to do her thesis on Boty, he refuses to let her and she has to change tutor.

Boty was apparently a very attractive woman, nicknamed the Wimbledon Bardot. She had a minor career as an actress, to help pay the bills, but always thought of herself as a first and foremost a painter, despite her father’s disapproval and being put down (because she was a woman) by others, who did not think art was a suitable career for a woman.

The other feminist icon Smith uses is Christine Keeler, famous for her involvement in the Profumo Affair, a notorious spy scandal, involving prostitutes. While Keeler may well have been a (high-class) prostitute, she also stood up for herself and it is in this regard that Smith uses her in the book, outlining her involvement in the Profumo Affair.

I found this novel somewhat bitty, jumping around from place to place, even if the main theme is the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel and, to a lesser degree, Elisabeth’s relationship with her mother. We learn something of Daniel’s background, but almost as an afterthought. We also learn of Daniel’s interest in Boty, which does link Boty to the main story, while Boty clearly had some affection for Keeler, using her in her work. However, other incidents, from Elisabeth’s mother’s appearance on TV in a variation of Bargain Hunt to Elisabeth’s travails in getting a new passport (which she does not really need), from casual mention of Elisabeth’s love life to her mother being scammed all add to the bittiness of the book.

Smith is of course, is a first-class writer so this books was still an enjoyable read, despite my reservations. However, she does more or less end the book with an interesting view: A great many men don’t understand a woman full of joy, even more don’t understand paintings full of joy by a woman. It’s really all based on sex, the whole thing.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by Hamish Hamilton