Louise O’Brien walks through the gloom of Ali Smith’s latest novel, set in a racist, malicious, post-Brexit England.
Ali Smith’s latest novel is a beautifully written and rather glum vision of the state of the world today. The first in a planned seasonal quartet of novels, Autumn was published unusually quickly after the events it describes. Set in the immediate aftermath of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, referencing the murder of British MP Jo Cox and the British government’s responses to asylum seekers and refugees, it reflects ourselves directly and immediately back to us. It’s a world of increasing isolation and isolationism, of cold and petty bureaucracy, pervaded by a miasma of selfishness and unkindness, all set against a background of xenophobia and racism both effortlessly casual and deeply, nastily malicious.
It centres on a strange and unrequited love story which exists only in the memory and imagination of the narrator, Elisabeth. She has moved back in with her mother in order to be closer to Daniel, now a century old, who played a formative, crucial role in her early life as a neighbour, mentor and friend; now she sits and reads by his bedside as he sleeps, silent and still, approaching death.
Yet Autumn hangs so much more on this scaffolding of plot. It’s primarily a work of social observation and commentary. The seasonal metaphor, with all its considerable literary freight, adds to the gathering gloom. The light of summer is fading, and the characters long for those bright and golden days now past when the world was kinder. And so it’s a nostalgic remembering, an attempt at a kind of time travel or resurrection, and also a means by which to measure the present, which is found sadly wanting.
In Autumn, the present is ghastly, and meaning and beauty exist in the past. Elisabeth looks backwards, despite her youth (she was born in 1984), seeing “a future in the past”: a lecturer in art history, she vividly describes the vibrant pop artworks of her favoured period of the 1960s, and reads once-loved, second-hand classics (including Brave New World, each layer of irony successively grimmer than the one before). Her mother is similarly obsessed with antiques, as the artefacts of a better time. Even at the level of the prose, the delightful and very clever mash-up of literary relics, ideas and phrases which hark back to a glorious cultural past is a constant reminder of how good things used to be. And, of course, Daniel, who represents the summer now gone (his sister helpfully, but rather unnecessarily, calls him “summer brother”), is inert, and near death.
In counterpoint, the novel also – though much less persuasively – offers some glimmering rays of hope that the effects of summer may linger on. Daniel’s not dead, after all, just in a coma, and the influence he had on Elisabeth shapes her still, just as her love for him endures past his summery prime.
Moreover, the seasonal metaphor imposes a logic of hope in the eternal cycle of the natural world which will inevitably bring us back to spring, and then to glorious summer again. Nature, and its (largely untended and unappreciated) beauty, is a constant theme. As Daniel lies in his hospital bed, he dreams of being renewed and restored, with sap rising and in green-leafed vigour (literally: Daniel dreams that he grows leaves). The metaphors are occasionally heavy-handed.
But the coming of spring seems a long way off, certainly too far away to hang all one’s hopes on, so perhaps, instead, it’s suggested, we should accept that loss and change aren’t always bad. Elisabeth, at a precocious 13 years old, thinks that, though the imprints of the circus tents may have gone from the grass, leaving no lasting sign of their summer joys, that perhaps that doesn’t matter, that things are not meant to last, that the seasons turn and things end and that can be okay: “melancholy and nostalgia weren’t relevant in the slightest”.
The end of things may even be a relief, it’s suggested. Or maybe summer wasn’t actually that good and needn’t be mourned: is that the point of Elisabeth’s one-sided memories of her relationship with Daniel? Besides, don’t forget that it’s happened before: every year the summer goes and autumn falls and the winter darkness seems endless, but we endure. The book begins: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the things about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.”
“Hmmm”, as a lecturer used to write in the margins of my essays; these arguments trail a whiff of desperation with an undertone of panic.
Who is Smith trying to convince here? Because in many, rather unsatisfying ways, despite Smith’s undeniable skill, Autumn is gestational, even tangled, unsure of its position, trying to talk itself into (or out of) something which is as yet unformed. Perhaps this is because it’s only the first part of a larger work yet to be seen, or because of the lack of distance from the world it describes, in time and in objectivity: “Here’s an old story so new that it’s still in the middle of happening, writing itself right now with no knowledge of where or how it’ll end.”
Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, $34) is available at Unity Books.