Autumn, by Ali Smith
Ali Smith’s latest novel, Autumn, is a positive joy to read. Its prose, audacious and bold, crackles off the page. Smith writes with such brio, such verve and such warmth that it’s easy to overlook the precision and the learning that goes into her work. Autumn opens at the close of Daniel Gluck’s long life—after a century and a year, he is dreaming his last in the Maltings Care Provider plc., in an “increased sleep period” that heralds his death. He dreams of a bare beach “where his eyes are “unusually good […] I mean, I can see not just those woods, I can see not just that tree, I can see not just that leaf on that tree. I can see the stem connecting that leaf to that tree.”
The way that everything connects is not an artefact of Gluck’s dream, but rather of Smith’s prose. Daniel Gluck, a dying lyricist from the earliest days of the 20th century. Pauline Boty, Britain’s only female pop artist, victim of cancer and male privilege, whose paintings found their way onto Gluck’s walls. Christine Keeler, the woman at the centre of the Profumo scandal, and subject of Boty’s portrait Scandal ’63. And Elisabeth Demand, who reads to Gluck on his deathbed, and is one of the very few people who can claim to know much about Boty at all—she’s an art historian who specialises in the painter’s works.
Outside of Gluck’s marvellous, tangled dreamworld, Demand is holding a vigil for her friend. Outside the walls of the Maltings Care Provider plc., Demand is stuck in the Post Office, queueing “to do Check & Send with her passport form,” in a scene that reads like Kafka has been smashed with Little Britain in a particle collider. Her photo is wrong. Her hair is too close to her face. Her head is too small. And Britain has just voted to leave the European Union. Democracy has become “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 actually ever becoming dialogue.”
When dialogue goes, what’s left? Although the ravages of 2016 loom large over Smith’s book, what really lies at the heart of Autumn is the friendship between Gluck and the young Demand, told in flashbacks. It is he who introduces her to “arty art” and he who teaches her to always be reading a book, on their long, rambling walks and in their long, rambling conversations. The younger Elisabeth Demand has some of the cynical naivety (or naive cynicism, perhaps) of Amber from The Accidental, seeing so much and so little at the same time. And perhaps Smith’s evocation of Pauline Boty’s bright, bold paintings has more than a little in common with her descriptions of the work of Francesco del Cossa in her last novel, How to be both.
It might be easy for a cynic to say that Ali Smith’s novels are all pretty much the same—curious evocations of quiet but fiercely intelligent people whose middle-class lives quietly explode without that much ever happening, all rendered in a sing-song prose. But what prose, what people. Smith’s writing is never less than joyous, her characters never less than fully-fleshed human beings. Autumn promises to be the first in a series of four seasonally-titled books, and the next three can’t come soon enough.
Hamish Hamilton generously provided a review copy of Autumn.