Relations in dull times

Autumn Ali Smith Hamish Hamilton 2016, pp 260 449

Relations in dull times

Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton
2016, pp 260, Rs 449

When Ali Smith’s eighth novel, Autumn, was published in Britain last fall, it was hailed as the first serious work of post-Brexit fiction. It takes place after the events of June 23, when Britain voted to leave the European Union.

This is no strong claim on our attention. This book is the first of an anticipated four novels in a seasonal cycle, in the manner of Vivaldi’s violin concertos or George Winston’s Schroeder-like piano albums, and clearly it was written quickly.

Timeliness in fiction is nearly always overpraised. “The measure of a work of art is how much art it has in it, not how much relevance,” Edward St Aubyn wrote in his novel Lost for Words (2014). “Relevant to whom? Relevant to what? Nothing is more ephemeral than a hot topic.”

Autumn is about a long platonic friendship between an elderly man and a much younger woman. His name is Daniel. He’s 101 when the story begins, in a nursing home, and just barely sentient. He’s frail and “thin as the skeleton of a cartoon fish left by a cartoon cat.” Once he was a songwriter.

Her name is Elisabeth. She’s a 32-year-old fitfully employed art lecturer at an unnamed university in London. She comes to read to, and be with, him. The novel flashes back to moments in their friendship. He once lived next door to Elisabeth and her single mother, and was sometimes Elisabeth’s babysitter. They’ve long shared a passion for books, art, nature, satire and rambling conversation. They’re a rosy intellectual army of two.

There’s a bit of a Harold and Maude thing going on here. Daniel is a Manic Pixie Dream Oldie, to twist a phrase, as was Harold’s much older friend, played by Ruth Gordon in Hal Ashby’s indelible 1971 movie. While on a stroll with Elisabeth, Daniel even impulsively tosses his nice watch into a canal, in much the same way Gordon tossed a ring into a river in Harold and Maude so that, as she put it, “I’ll always know where it is.”

As Elisabeth and Daniel talk, and as Elisabeth processes the events of her life, a world opens. Autumn begins to be about 100 things in addition to friendship. It’s about poverty and bureaucracy and sex and morality and music. It includes a long and potent detour into the tragic life and powerful painting of the British pop artist Pauline Boty (1938-66), whose work, Smith makes plain, should be better known.

All along, in the background, like the lounge music of the damned, there is a sense that a certain kind of world is coming to an end, post-Brexit. People watch the evening news with their hearts tucked up under their ears. When a member of Parliament is murdered, Elisabeth says: “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.” She describes the evening news these days as “Thomas Hardy on speed.”

Behind this political gloom is ecological gloom. Recalling how she and Elisabeth would set up a film projector outside on summer nights, her mother says: “That was back in the years when we still had summers. When we still had seasons, not just the monoseason we have now.” Autumn is an elegy for, among other things, the idea of autumn. This is the place to come out and say it: Ali Smith has a beautiful mind. I found this book to be unbearably moving in its playful, strange, soulful assessment of what it means to be alive at a somber time. Smith is Scottish, and she’s written plays and journalism in addition to many novels and books of stories. I’ve not read all of them, though I will. I have no early quibble with the novelist Sebastian Barry’s comment that she may be “Scotland’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting.”

Autumn has a loose structure, almost like that of a prose poem. This form is perfect for Smith, because her mind will go where it wants to go. And where her mind goes, you want to follow. Elisabeth is charming because she’s a resolute and witty and well-read woman whose life, like an oxford cloth shirt, will not stay tucked in.

This novel is elastic and strange enough to give us a scene in which Elisabeth shouts out a window: “Foreskins come and foreskins go! But Mozart lasts forever!” If this book gets the readership it deserves, perhaps this will be someone’s tattoo. This novel, all about talk, is, in the end, about how we can no longer talk to one another. “It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with,” Smith writes. “It has become a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming dialogue. It is the end of dialogue.” I suspect that this shrewd and dreamy, serious-but-not-solemn novel will be an uncommonly good audiobook, for people who are into that sort of thing. Spring can really hang you up the most, but for now I am struck by, and stuck on, Autumn.

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