Autumn by Ali Smith review — ‘the first serious Brexit novel’
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.” This sentence, two-thirds of the way through Autumn, Ali Smith’s eighth novel, goes some way to explaining the organising logic of this impressionistic and intricate book. The first of a quartet of season-themed novels, it begins with the Brexit vote and spools forwards in time (and backwards, and sideways, as is Smith’s wont) towards November 2016. I looked up at one point when I was reading, and realised that the time of the novel had just overtaken real-world time. It’s a brilliant and unsettling conceit, leaving you marvelling that writing this good could have come so fast.
Elisabeth Demand is a 32-year-old “no-fixed-hours casual contract lecturer at a university in London”. She’s a typical Smith heroine — questioning, fragile, still bearing traces of the precocious child she was. We are dropped down into brief vignettes of her early life with a hard, hedonistic mother; we see her good-humouredly battling bureaucracy trying to get a passport in the Post Office; we enter her visionary, art-filled dreams. Mostly, though, we encounter her in the company of Daniel Gluck, her 101-year-old former neighbour, who is sleeping out the last of his days at The Maltings Care Providers Plc. She sits at his bedside, remembering their strange friendship, the way he ushered her into a world of art and literature.
Not a great deal happens, but then, as George says in Smith’s 2014 Man Booker-shortlisted novel How to Be Both, plot is “the place where a dead person’s buried”. Or, as one character puts it in Autumn, “This isn’t fiction . . . This is the Post Office.” Autumn is a novel of ideas, and plot isn’t the reason we keep turning the pages. What grips the reader is the way that Smith draws us deeper into Elisabeth’s world, interlacing her story with that of the tragic 1960s artist Pauline Boty, and the way the amiable, big-hearted Daniel triangulates and illuminates these lives.
In Smith’s Artful, a JM Coetzee-like interweaving of essay and fiction published in 2012, she wrote about how she sought to overthrow, or at least refashion, EM Forster’s idea of the “interminable tapeworm” of narrative time, saying that, “however hard writers might try, there is one feat they cannot achieve, that is to put into writing, in the same tense, two events which have occurred simultaneously”. How to Be Both obviously found one way of doing this, with its dual-narrative structure. Autumn is equally time-obsessed, but here Smith is trying to show how a novel can deliver time past and time present at once, with narrative threads that spread like roots rather than growing like trees. “Time travel is real,” Daniel says at one point. “We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.”
The novel begins with a misquote of Dickens: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” — a fitting start to the first serious Brexit novel. Daniel is a German Jew — “Daniel’s not gay. He’s European,” Elisabeth tells her mother — and the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel is partly a beacon held up against the darkness that falls in the wake of the vote. Smith is brilliant on what the referendum has done to Britain, the fissures that have appeared in the semi-rural landscape of her mother’s East Anglian home. “People she passes on the streets on the way from the bus stop to her mother’s house regard her, and each other, with a new kind of loftiness.”
Later, there is a bravura piece of writing, spewed over several pages, which is at once sardonic and heartbreaking. “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. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.” Smith doesn’t appear to take sides in the debate, but rather presents the vote and its after-effects as a form of collective psychosis: “It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with.”
I can think of few writers — Virginia Woolf is one, James Salter another — so able to propel a narrative through voice alone. Smith’s use of free indirect discourse, the close-third-person style that puts the reader at once within and without her characters, means that Autumn, for all its braininess, is never difficult. Smith feels like a genial guide leading us through a torrent of ideas — about art, history, literature, feminism, memory. This is a novel that works by accretion, appearing light and playful, surface-dwelling, while all the time enacting profound changes on the reader’s heart. In a country apparently divided against itself, a writer such as Smith, who makes you feel known, who seems to speak to your own private weirdnesses, is more valuable than a whole parliament of politicians.
Autumn, by Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99, 272 pages
Alex Preston is author of ‘In Love and War’ (Faber)
Illustration by Tommy Parker