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.
Ali Smith’s Autumn has claim to be the first Brexit based novel, published less than four months after the United Kingdom voted, on June 23rd, to leave the European Union in a referendum, surprising most pundits and exposing new political fault lines that cut across the usual left / right divide.
Smith’s previous novel, How to both, swept the United Kingdom’s literary slate in 2014, winning the Goldsmiths Prize, the Costa Novel of the Year, and the Bailey’s Prize, while being shortlisted for the Folio Prize and the Man Booker Prize, an unusual feat given the diverse criteria of each award. It also came with a distinctive feature: written in two halves set 500 years apart, 50% of the copies were printed with the present day story first, and 50% started with the 15th century part.
The ability of her publishers to accommodate this unusual request so quickly inspired Smith to adapt Autumn, a novel long-planned as the first in a quartet on the seasons, to incorporate the emerging events.
Her publishers have certainly delivered with the physical book. The hardback cover is a rich autumnal reddish-brown and comes with a wrap-around of Early November Tunnel by David Hockney.
The story starts in late June, days after the Brexit vote, opening with, “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” (Smith hardly disguises her personal view on the E.U. vote) in a conscious echo of Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, and takes us up to November 2016. Tackled now, the reader experiences the present day world of the novel as he or she reads it, both current affairs and the changing of the seasons.
October’s a blink of an eye. The apples weighing down the tree a minute ago are gone and the tree’s leaves are yellow and thinning. A frost has snapped millions of trees all across the country into brightness. The ones that aren’t evergreen are a combination of beautiful and tawdry, red orange gold the leaves, then brown, then down.
The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.
On the warm days it feels wrong, so many leaves falling.
But the nights are cool to cold.
Elisabeth Demand (the non-standard spelling of her first name, and the unusual surname both feature in Smith’s, at times, overdone word play) is 32 years old in 2016, a “no-fixed-hours casual contract lecturer at a university in London” concerned personally for the loss of E.U. funding as well as what the Brexit vote says about her society.
She has a long-standing and deep friendship with Daniel Gluck, 70 years her senior and now in an “increased sleep period” in a care home, having first met him when, aged nine, she moved in next door. The novel takes us back through the history of their unusual friendship.
Gluck himself reveals little of his own story, although from what is said we can infer that his adored and brilliant younger sister (“he now knows for sure that when she grows up she is going to be a great force in the world, an important thinker, a changer of things”) was lost in the Holocaust in her early 20s and that Gluck himself, although safe in England, was interred with his German father.
Gluck also found brief fame as writer of an early 1960s one-hit wonder, Summer Brother, Autumn Sister, inspired by Keatsian imagery and his own sister, and through that becomes involved in the pop-art and music scene, meeting the, unreciprocated, love of his life, the real life British female pop-artist and actress Pauline Body, dubbed the “Wimbledon Bardot.”
Boty’s true story, as told by Smith, is in many respect the novel’s most interesting. Renowed for her stunning beauty, her artistic contribution was often overlooked. A write up of her work in Scene magazine in November 1962, intended to be supportive, read:
Actresses often have tiny brains. Painters often have large beards. Imagine a brainy actress who is also a painter and also a blonde, and you have PAULINE BOTY.
And after her early death, itself a tragic and fascinating story, Boty’s work was largely forgotten. Elisabeth as a fictional character, and Ali Smith as the author, play an important role in bringing her back to our attention.
Boty’s most famous painting, now lost, was Scandal 63, based on (a variation of) the famous Christine Keeler photograph by Lewis Morley. This brings the story neatly on to the 1963 Profumo Scandal, where the British defense minister and a Soviet attaché shared a high-class call-girl lover, Keeler, leading to the resignation of the minister and indirectly the retirement of the Prime Minister. The scandal rocked the public’s trust in politicians, and Smith draws a direct link between that and the political mistruths on both sides of the rather demeaning 2016 referendum campaign.
Gluck’s relationship with Boty verges on that of an elder brother, and one cannot help but conclude that Boty represents a substitute for his sister, as, 30 years later, does Elisabeth.
The friendship between the young Elisabeth and a man in his 80s is replayed in the novel in conversations involving word-play and deep discussions on the nature of stories and fiction that don’t ring entirely true, at least as far as the, in this passage 11-year-old, girl’s contribution is concerned:
The word gymkhana, Daniel said, is a wonderful word, a word grown from several languages.
Words don’t get grown, Elisabeth said.
They do, Daniel said.
Words aren’t plants, Elisabeth said.
Words are themselves organisms, Daniel said.
Oregano-isms, Elisabeth said.
Herbal and verbal, Daniel said.
But we are later told Elisabeth herself doesn’t remember the conversations at all today, and Daniel in the present day is largely lost in dreams, so I came to think of Elisabeth’s side of the verbal sparring as largely imagined by Daniel in terms of how his verbally brilliant sister once spoke to him.
Daniel does inspire in Elisabeth a love of books, and she returns the favor as he lies dying, reading to him from the key texts on which the novel is based, Keats’s poems, Brave New World, The Tempest (from which Huxley took his title), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The Brexit vote itself at times feels a little shoe-horned in. It is most memorably captured in an extended chapter, of which a brief part reads:
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. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country people looked up Google move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google Irish passport applications. All across the country, people called each other cunts. All across the country, people felt unsafe. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and sick.
But throughout the present day parts of the story, the shadow of the vote hovers. The intolerance, on all sides, and the lack of mutual comprehension is best expressed by Elisabeth’s mother:
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 nothing 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, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how these 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.
I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.
I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.
This is a lengthy review because Smith has packed a lot in what is actually quite a short novel. At one point, Elisabeth finds her mind drifting over various images from the preceding days: some cow parsley in the background of a TV show about antique bargain hunters, flowers painted over xenophobic graffiti on a house, and Pauline Boty’s painting of Jean-Paul Belmondo. She wonders if she can pull this together: “The cow parsley. The painted flowers. Boty’s sheer unadulterated reds in the re-image-ing of the image. Put it together and what have you got? Anything useful?”
Playing devil’s advocate, one could argue that the novel has a similar issue. Smith has taken her original idea of an Autumnal novel, her discovery of the life and artwork of Pauline Boty, her research into the Profumo scandal, and the current events around Brexit, and put them together in a slightly uneasy mix.
One key theme of the novel is how, in today’s society, times and current affairs move so fast that they leave no trace. Elisabeth listens to the news “to catch up on the usual huge changes there’ve been in the last half hour,” and referring to the real-life killing of the British MP Jo Cox by someone angered by her support for Syrian refugees:
Someone killed an MP, she tells Daniel’s back as she struggles to keep up. A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn’t be enough. But it’s old news now. Once it would have been a year’s worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.
That very effect highlights one key weakness of the novel. The novel is so much based on its time and place I wonder how it will age and travel.
While the wider social forces behind the Brexit vote would certainly resonate, e.g., with the U.S. Presidential election or indeed rise of populist parties across Europe, specifics such as the extended, and amusing, story of Elisabeth’s struggles with the Post Office’s hapless Check and Send passport service and their incestuous relationship with Snappy Snaps, may not.
The effect of reading it almost in real-time, in today’s United Kingdom, is very effective, but the novel will, I suspect, read very differently in ten years’ time, perhaps even next year.
Indeed like autumn leaves, the brilliant colors of Smith’s prose may also mark its ultimately short life expectancy.
Highly recommended, but best read while its colors blaze.