Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. That’s what it felt like for Keats in 1819. How about Autumn 2016? Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic, once-in-a-generation summer. Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand-in-hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever.
Ali Smith’s new novel is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. It is the first installment of her Seasonal quartet—four stand-alone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are)—and it casts an eye over our own time. Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearean jeu d’esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s pop art: the centuries cast their eyes over our own history making.
Here’s where we’re living. Here’s time at its most contemporaneous and its most cyclic.
From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in time-scale and light-footed through histories, a story about aging and time and love and stories themselves.
Review: Ali Smith, CBE, already a three-time nominee of the Booker Prize, has chosen Autumn, the second-last season of the year, for the title of the first of four novels of her “seasonal quartet” or “state of the nation” works.
It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.
The book’s opening line is a nod to Charles Dickens’s timeless masterpiece, A Tale Of Two Cities. But there is a slight twist to it. Reason? This is post-Brexit Britain. Autumn explores the theme of discrimination in the name of land of birth. It is also a sharp critique of bureaucratic red tape. Furthermore, it is also a comment on the way we lament things after they have happened, sad about the way things turn out rather than stopping them from happening in the first place. This is shown through the life story of Daniel Gluck, one of the two main characters in the book, apart from young Elisabeth Demand. Yes, you read that right. There’s an ‘s’ in her name and her surname is ‘Demand.’ The book is self-conscious enough to have a passage devoted to explaining those two things.
The story harks back to a time when non-English people could live with native folks in peace and not be bothered to “go back home.” However, the bile that has been unleashed in the wake of the Brexit vote has drawn sharp lines between natives and foreigners. Autumn looks at these two facets mostly through the eyes of Elisabeth, and Daniel, who’s over a hundred years old in the book’s present.
We have to hope, Daniel was saying, that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.
However, not all is rosy here. At times, passages, gorgeous passages that drew aahs from me, seemed to be telling their own story, removed from the central plot. My knowledge that the book was about Brexit did help with staying on. But there are more than a few occasions here where I felt I needed to either take a break or consult the internet to understand what the writer was talking about. Case in point – the stories of Pauline Boty and Christine Keeler. While I had heard about Christine Keeler somewhere, I knew nothing about Ms. Boty and who she was or what she did. Incidentally, she is a relative unknown in the book too, despite her pioneering work in pop art.
Now normally, this wouldn’t have been an issue. But here, with the author mixing in entire chapters that felt like Daniel’s dreamy rambling, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was reading about. Complicating it was the fact that even after I finished the book, I had a nagging suspicion that I had not grasped all the themes of the book, or that there still were some real-life references that went over my head. While the final few chapters and the climax here did make me content, I was less than enamoured by the chapters preceding that section.
There is no point in making up a world, Elisabeth said, when there’s already a real world. There’s just the world, and there’s the truth about the world.
The book, as my collaborator Writenlive said to me, has strong feminist overtones. The last quarter of the book’s 168-page count takes a turn towards feminism and the oppression, apathy and misunderstanding that women have to face in society. The key characters here are Ms. Boty and Ms. Keeler, through whose experiences the author pushes forward the idea of how men struggle to handle women. Another strong theme is homosexual relationships, especially between women, the depiction of which is used to critique society’s ‘ownership’ of women’s bodies.
I also kept thinking, for quite a long time, whether Daniel Gluck was a metaphor or allegory for Britain. Or a symbol for humanity, something more than a mere character in a fictional world. Couldn’t exactly decipher that one, though.
Besides, leaves are a constant motif throughout the book. Leaves falling from trees, new leaves growing, people morphing into leaves, tendrils and leaves growing out of body parts. Almost all-pervading, the impact of leaves, on human beings and entire governments.
Time-lapse of a million billion flowers opening their heads, of a million billion flowers bowing, closing their heads again, of a million billion new flowers opening instead, of a million billion buds becoming leaves then the leaves falling off and rotting into earth, of a million billion twigs splitting into a million billion brand new buds.
The book has dry humour that is expressed in the interactions Elisabeth has with various people. Plus, as we get to know Elisabeth’s mother better, the interactions between the two of them start becoming funnier.
Pretty gloomy song for supermarket advertising, her mother says. Then again I can’t listen to anything these days without feeling maudlin.
Oh, I don’t know, Elisabeth says. You’ve always been maudlin.
True enough. Over the years I’ve had a substantial career in maudlin, her mother says taking the computer.
Has her mother been this witty all these years and Elisabeth just hasn’t realized?
Ultimately, Autumn is a story of love, loss and friendships, as also how decisions like Brexit impact people’s lives, much in the way hatred for Germans led to discrimination against innocent people in the period after the Second World War, despite the fact that people love and hate almost everywhere, and can be rich or poor too, regardless of where they are born.
Verdict: Autumn is a searing critique of the male privilege as well as being an examination of the fallout of the Brexit saga.
I am a lecturer, cinephile, ManU fan, cricket fanatic and aspiring writer.Thanks for dropping by on my blog.If you like(or not so much like) my posts,don't shy away from commenting. Follow me on Facebook @ Musingsite, and on Twitter @bloggeray23
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This is a wonderful review of a wonderful book.
For me, the best part was discovering Pauline Boty and her work, first through Daniel’s description and then through the catalogue that Elisabeth finds. Though I have looked up the paintings on the internet, I still have a fondness for Daniel’s words.
The image you shared of ‘Scandal 63’ is interesting because this painting figures prominently in the book. The real painting has been missing though.
There are themes and themes and the book seems multilayered. Thank God, I did not read the blurb beforehand, it sounds complicated!
Daniel, as a symbol of something is plausible but for me he is just an old man who represents the season, Autumn.
The leaves as a motif are curious. These leaves are green, shooting forth as in spring, in a book about death and finality?