“’I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing mothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.’”
Autumn is said to be the first in a series of books by Ali Smith set in each of the four seasons, and it’s the first work of fiction, to my knowledge, which deals with the breach that Brexit tore in the heart of Britain. Recent news has bubbled it to the surface again, and it’s proving to still be a raw and divisive issue which is going to polarise Britain for some time. Sigh. Though perhaps Autumn denotes the start of something which may bring about a healing process. If anyone can pull it off, Ali Smith can. Ostensibly Autumn is about two key characters: Daniel Gluck, a 101 year old man who is approaching death in a care home and Elisabeth Demand, his former child neighbour who formed a friendship with Daniel when she was a teenager and may, perhaps, just be a little bit in love with him. Daniel is of German descent, and there are links to pre-war Germany though not in the way you might imagine, because in an Ali Smith book whatever you might imagine is probably nothing like what actually occurs. Alongside both is the pop artist Pauline Boty, an artist I’ve never encountered before but whose work I’ll be exploring in more detail.
Autumn is a time of transformation, and this too is a key theme of Smith’s book. We begin the book observing Daniel’s transformation, a transformation from a living man to a dying man. Trees figure heavily in these transformations, he is a tree growing or taking root, he becomes a tree, a man in a tree suit confronts a man with a gun and asks him ‘do you really want war?’ There’s a hint of Midsummer Night’s Dream about it, with dreams merging into reality. It’s bewildering and it’s grounding all at once. As Daniel sleeps and dreams, Elisabeth sits by his beside reading and reminiscing on their joint past. Elisabeth first met Daniel after being asked to interview her neighbour for a school project. Daniel was their neighbour of the time. Her mother wouldn’t allow her to interview Daniel (who she was convinced was gay, until Elisabeth was older and then convinced he was predatory!) but instead asks her to make up the interview. Elisabeth, reluctantly, does as asked and when her mother shares the result with Daniel there begins a lifelong friendship between the two of them. Daniel has a massive influence on Elisabeth’s life, making her think differently and live her story. His discussions of Pauline Boty’s art in particular push Elisabeth down a route which takes her to art student, to feminist, to lecturer in art history. All along, Smith reminds us of how important it is to keep our eyes open to what is actually happening, the complexity and truth of the world, not disguised by tricks, like here when Daniel performs a magic trick for a cat:
“He opened his eyes wide at Elisabeth. Then he put his hand in his pocket, took out a twenty pence piece, held it in front of Barbra the cat. He did something with his other hand and the coin disappeared! He made it disappear!
The song about love being an easy chair filled the room. Barbra the cat was still looking in disbelief at Daniel’s empty hand. She put both paws up, held the hand, put her nose into it to look for the missing coin. Her cat face was full of amazement.
See how it’s deep in our animal nature, Daniel said. Not to see what’s happening right in front of our eyes.”
Elisabeth’s mother is another key character in the book, as is Elisabeth learning to understand and see the people around her. A discussion with a nurse in the care home reveals that Elisabeth doesn’t know Daniel as she thought she did; an appearance on an antiques show reveals that her mother isn’t what she thought she was either. Elisabeth’s ignorance is unsettling (to her) but as Smith elucidates, people are never just one thing, never just an ‘immigrant’ or a ‘leaver’, never just ‘gay’ or ‘black’, people are infinitely more complex than that and reducing them to one attribute means that we are impoverished, not that they are just that one thing. It’s a theme which harkens back to Smith’s brilliant How to be Both, a book so complex I could still think about it even now, how people cannot be forced into a stereotype, and trying to do so only weakens ourselves and forces division rather than encourages dialogue. In fact dialogue is something, as Smith observantly points out, which is really at threat here:
“It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with. It has become a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it ever becoming a dialogue.
It is the end of dialogue.”
This divisiveness and lack of dialogue is represented in the book by a fence which appears on common land. The fence is electrified and it is patrolled by a security firm who appear unable to explain what the fence is for or why it’s there, but merely seek to enforce its presence. Both Elisabeth and her mother find themselves in trouble for challenging the presence of the fence. There’s a Kafkaesque element to this, but perhaps it is true that we are living through a Kafka novel right now and it’s time to see what’s in front of our eyes and start challenging the existence of the fence.
Autumn is a brilliant, clever and entertaining book. Smith plays with words, with transformations, she puts into words and pictures the way we are built up of many things and way in which the reduction of that to a single statement or question betrays us all. Smith is deft and has a lightness of touch, a lightness in general, which is astonishing. It is a beautiful book, a sad book. To be honest, it all still feels a bit raw but perhaps it is the right time to confront it. We need to believe in dialogue again, we need to believe in complexity, we need to see the world as it is. And yet we need to see the magic too, the beauty. It brought to mind Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent TED talk, the danger of a single story, and I think this is something we ought now to be pushing our politicians to start doing, reflecting all of our stories not just one. Then, perhaps, we can begin to understand each other.
Autumn is published by Hamish Hamilton