‘ It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again.’
Last month the Book Club read Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’. Published in 2016 soon after the Referendum, it is the first of four seasonal state of the nation novels and was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize. It is a novel that has haunted me since reading and re-reading it, largely due to the poetic flow of the language, which has been described as ‘a beautiful poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities’, but also to the complexity of the ideas, the richness of literary allusions, the use of symbolism and the treatment of time. It is an elusive, multi-layered novel.
At its heart, however, is the platonic relationship between Elizabeth and her neighbour Daniel, which starts when Elizabeth is eight years old and Daniel is 65. It is this relationship which gives a crispness to the flow of ideas in the novel, and, for me, makes it an enjoyable read. As the book opens in the present, Daniel, now aged 101, lies dreaming in a nursing home in the increased sleep period before death. Elizabeth sits beside him reading aloud, as she regularly does. The novel then moves back to the time when Elizabeth was a child: then their friendship was formed through her clear-sighted literal view of the world, her innate honesty and her rebellious nature that refused to compromise with convention. Daniel was the one who questions her and makes her think – ‘What are you reading?’ his invariable greeting. Their dialogue sparkles with wit, something that Elizabeth carries into adult life as she confronts what is often a sombre, mindless bureaucracy in a drab world. At times her confrontations, such as the scene in the post office, where her head in her passport photo is judged ‘too big’, have a Kafkaesque quality.
And so one of the themes of the book is about the nature of enduring love. Daniel still mourns his younger sister who died when just a girl soon after the war. It was she who first asked the question ‘what are you reading?’ and taught Daniel to think. His other great love was for the real life pop artist, Pauline Boty, who created witty, subversive, colorful paintings and collages: she becomes a symbol of all those who are lost and ignored. Her vitality as part of the sixties scene is contrasted with the grey, unhappy world of the present, summed up by the sadness in the eyes of the clerk in the post office. Elizabeth goes on to write her PhD thesis on Boty who remains a recurring motif in the novel.
.The novel is full of literary references which enrich its meaning. Thus Daniel’s dying dream which opens the novel has connotations of drowned refugees washed up on the shore but also of the Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Tempest. But it is a state of the nation novel in which frequent references to the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Brave New World’ reflect the chaotic divisions opening up in society and the increasing hostility between groups of people. There is real anger in the writing here, but also some sense of hope as shown in the rose at the end. For perhaps the main theme of the book is time itself as Smith sets out to explore what time is and how we experience it. Smith writes elsewhere that we are all ‘time containers’; she is interested in the cyclic nature of time and it is this that gives the sense of hope.
There were a variety of book club responses to ‘Autumn’. One member said that if anyone would like to read it, they have a half-read copy going spare and if you really only enjoy narrative-led novels, this is not the book for you. Others enjoyed the poetic prose combined with wit and humour and warm human relationships. if you can tolerate a degree of uncertainty and experiment, you will find this a rich and rewarding novel that gives more on each re-reading.
Ali has just published ‘Spring’, the third novel in the quartet to great critical acclaim, and I look forward to reading it. Our next book is a complete contrast, Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’.