Book Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

Book Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

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A Literary Novel About the fragility of mortal lives

I just finished reading Autumn by the Scottish author Ali Smith. It’s her first literary novel in a series on time and how we experience it. Struggling for the precise words to describe the essence of this imaginative, unconventional novel, I found a blurb from the London Guardian by Joanna Kavenna, which I could not improve upon:

Autumn is a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams, and transient realities; the endless sad fragility of mortal lives.Smith builds the story around the relationship between Daniel Gluck, a very old man, and Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-two year old woman–“a no-fixed-hours-casual-contract junior lecturer at a university in London.”

Daniel Gluck is Dying

Daniel is 101 years old and dying in an elder care facility outside of London. As he sleeps and dreams, he sometimes imagines himself dead. He also remembers his past–his sister, the woman he loved, and his history with Elisabeth. As his dreams go, Daniel’s memories come in– fragmented, random, and free-floating in time. Thus, the reader often finds it difficult to discern their chronology.

But that’s just the point, isn’t it? Memories don’t come to us in chronological order, and time does not proceed for us in a linear fashion. They shift from present to past to future like light dancing off the water or sand shifting on the shore.

Elizabeth Visits Daniel to Sit with Him and Read

Elisabeth visits Daniel to sit with him and read to him. She’s convinced he knows she’s there and can hear her. Even so, the care assistant on duty always tells her he may be in a coma. And, she never fails to remind Elizabeth that he is in an increased sleep period, which happens when people are close to death. He doesn’t speak, but Elisabeth imagines what he would say, as she sits with him there in his last days.

Daniel lies there very still in the bed, and the cave of his mouth, its unsaying of these things, is the threshold to the end of the world as she knows it.

The Relationship Between Daniel and Elizabeth Emerges

Through Daniel’s dreams and Elisabeth’s memory flashbacks, we come to understand the origin of their relationship. And, we learn a great deal more about Daniel’s complex and varied life as an art lover and song writer.

Elisabeth is eight when she and her mother move in next to Daniel. Elisabeth’s school assignment is to interview a neighbor about what it means to be a neighbor, and to create a portrait in words from the questions asked in the interview.

A single parent pre-occupied with her own life, Elisabeth’s mother sees no point in the assignment. She persuades her daughter to make up the interview. She tells her if it sounds real enough to convince her teacher, she’ll buy her a video and replace the broken video player. When her mother reads it, Elisabeth’s portrait moves her enough by its charm to share it with Daniel.

Daniel is sitting on the garden wall next to her front gate when Elisabeth comes home from school the next day.
“Very pleased to meet you,” he says. “Finally.”

Elisabeth wants to know why he says finally when she only moved in six weeks ago.

The lifelong friends, he says. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.

Elizabeth Learns of Pauline Boty.

Their friendship continues. Daniel, delighted by Elisabeth’s precociousness and insight, piques his young friend’s interest in art by sharing stories about his love for the forgotten pop artist, Pauline Boty. Pauline had been twenty years his junior and had married Clive, despite Daniel’s efforts to win her over. She had died of cancer at age twenty-nine.

The rich colors and creative design of Boty’s collages had intrigued Daniel. He first introduced Elisabeth to them by describing the details from memory. He tells Elisabeth she doesn’t need to go to college but to collage to learn about all sorts of disciplines and their relationships to one another. Later, Elizabeth attends university and  writes her dissertation on Boty. She finds an exhibition catalogue that includes Boty’s work and takes the book to Daniel. Daniel reveals to Elisabeth the nature of the love he had for Boty.

It’s possible to be in love not with someone but with their eyes. I mean, with how eyes that aren’t yours let you see where you are, who you are.

Whoever Makes Up the Story Makes Up the World

The description may also have been apropos to Daniel’s feelings for Elisabeth as well as hers for him.
Daniel teaches Elisabeth about stories and about love and friendship.

Whoever makes up the story makes up the world. So always try to welcome people into the home of your stories. That’s my suggestion.

We have to hope people who know us and love us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, nothing else matters.

He always asks her what she is reading. We later learn that’s what his sister always asked him. It’s the sister the Nazi’s took in France, when Daniel remains in England with his father.

Elisabeth’s Lover and Her Mother Question Her Relationship with Daniel

Elisabeth’s mother comments that she thinks Daniel may have been a ballerina because of his youthful appearance and ability to sit holding his feet. Elisabeth then encourages Daniel, as a joke, to lie to her mother and tell her she is right. It would be their secret; no one else would have to know. Daniel gives Elisabeth the choice, but warns her that if he lies to her mother, Elisabeth will stop trusting him.

Though their relationship is purely platonic, it causes jealousy between Elizabeth and a lover, when Elizabeth repeats Daniel’s name aloud in her sleep. The relationship even raises her mother’s suspicion about Daniel’s motives, enough to forbid her daughter to see him again. Elizabeth defies her mother’s wishes and continues to see Daniel over the years. Now that he is dying, she wants to sit with him and be there for him.

Tired of the News…Tired of Not Knowing the Right Words

The characters’ memories swirl around in time. However, the story itself begins just  after the Brexit vote in 2016, in which the UK decided to leave the European Union. The author reflects the sense of uncertainty brought about by the results of the referendum.

All across the country there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live, electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roof, the traffic.

Perplexed over the polarization the referendum has caused in their small community, Elizabeth’s mother says,

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 people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity.

I’m tired of pusillanimity.

I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I’m tired of not knowing the right words.

As the story unfolds, Elisabeth’s appreciation for her mother grows from annoyance at her mother’s lack of understanding and intelligence, to one of affection and approval of how her mother begins to take risks and embrace the life she has been reluctant to pursue.

HEAD INCORRECT SIZE!

The author weaves a thread of humor into the scenes where Elisabeth confronts the absurdities of bureaucracy. She visits the post office to do Check and Send with her passport. The service supposedly expedites the renewal process. However, the wait is so long, she’s almost reads the of copy Brave New World, which she brought with her.

When she finally reaches the counter, the clerk questions the spelling of her name. It’s Elisabeth with an “s” and not a “z”. And then, he tells her that her face is the wrong size on the photo. He also refuses to process the form and insists she must have a correct one made at the Snappy Snaps. He stamps the form HEAD INCORRECT SIZE before posting a CLOSED sign in the divide.

Later, Elisabeth falsely tells the receptionist at the elder care facility that she is Daniel’s granddaughter. She gives her own mobile number, as well as her mother’s address and number. When the receptionist asks for further proof of identity, Elisabeth hands her the passport.

“I’m afraid this passport has expired,” she says.

When Elisabeth tells her it only expired a month ago and she intends to renew it, the receptionist lectures her on what the rules permit and do not permit.

Time in Its Observations of Post-Brexit England

Autumn speaks to the universal theme of time cycling through the seasons of nature and of life. Through the images and  glimpses of the characters’ pasts, interwoven with scenes from their present lives, the author explores the nature of friendship, love, and loss, and the universal power of art to bring meaning and connection between the old and the young.

The book is timely in its observations of post-Brexit England. It is also timeless in its assertion that the current era is no different from past eras. As Daniel says,

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 their nature.

However, he remembers his sister’s words from long ago,

Hope is …a matter of how we deal with the negative acts toward human beings by other human beings in the world, remembering that they and we are all humans. That no thing human is alien to us. The foul and the fair, and that most important of all we’re here for the mere blink of the eyes, that’s all.

Thoughtful and Engaging as a Stand Alone Novel

Autumn is a thoughtful and engaging stand alone novel. It is also a compelling beginning to Ali Smith’s Season quartet on time and the way we experience it. Anyone who reads this first book will be anxious to discover what comes next.

Finally, for more reviews of literary novels, see my blogs on Lincoln in the Bardo and News of the World.

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