"From the Man Booker-shortlisted and Baileys Prize-winning author of How to be both: a breathtakingly inventive new novel--about aging, time, love, and stories themselves--that launches an extraordinary quartet of books called Seasonal. Readers love Ali Smith's novels for their peerless innovation and their joyful celebration of language and life. Her newest, Autumn, has all of these qualities in spades, and--good news for fans!--is the first installment in a quartet. Seasonal, comprised of four stand-alone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as are the seasons), explores what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative. Fusing Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness with the vitality, the immediacy, and the color hit of Pop Art, Autumn is a witty excavation of the present by the past. The novel is a stripped-branches take on popular culture and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means"--
You mean, there's the truth, and there's the made-up version of it that we get told about the world, Daniel said.
No. The world exists. Stories are made up, Elisabeth said.
But no less true for that, Daniel said.
That's ultra-crazy talk, Elisabeth said.
And whoever makes up the story makes up the world, Daniel said. So always try to welcome people into the home of your story. That's my suggestion."
This is an excerpt from a delightful dialogue between Elisabeth and Daniel, a dialogue about the nature of truth and stories and Goldilocks.... well, not so much about Goldilocks but the story of Goldilocks and the three bears plays an important part in Daniel's attempt to challenge young Elisabeth's prosaic conception of the world. I LOVED this novel. Through the friendship of the elderly Daniel and the 13-year-old Elisabeth, Smith explores so many themes: the fragility of democracy, the nature of truth, the passage of time, shared humanity across vast age differences.... Funny, poignant, at times lyrical, it's a novel to relish and savor.
Okay, Elisabeth said.
Then you tell me the story that comes into your head when you hear that first line, Daniel said.
Like, a story that already exists? Elisabeth said. Like Goldilocks and the three bears?
Those poor bears, Daniel said. That bad wicked rude vandal girl. Going into their house unannounced. Breaking their furniture. Eating their supplies. Spraying her name with spraypaint on the walls of their bedrooms.
She does not spray her name on their walls, Elisabeth said. That's not the story.
Who says? Daniel says. Who says the story isn't happening right now?
I do, Elisabeth said.
Well, you're going to lose at Bagatelle, then, Daniel said, because the whole point of Bagatelle is that you trifle with the stories that people think are set in stone. And no, not that kind of trifle-
I know, Elisabeth said. Jeez. Don't demean me.
Demean you? Daniel said Moi? Now. What kind of story do you want to trifle with? You can choose."
This is a gem. It just pulled me into it's pages, and I read it in one day. It goes back and forth in time, revealing our two protagonists, Elisabeth and Daniel, as various stages of their lives. Elisabeth meets Daniel in her childhood when he is a neighbor. Daniel is already old, and the two form a friendship that will help to chart the course of Elisabeth's life.
I liked the nonlinear progression of this book that showed glimpses of memory and also of fact that memory had forgotten. I liked that the author did not feel the need to tidy things up for us or to explain everything. Smith leaves the reader to interpret and follow both Elisabeth and Daniel's stories. She does not sell us short or feel the need to explain every literary reference, and this little book is full of them -
tucked into the dialogue and the corners of the story without seeming gratuitous or gimmicky.
This is the first book in a planned quartet, and I cannot wait for the net installment. Highly recommended. And two more quotes because I cannot resist:
"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. Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there's even more language waiting to come up."
"It is like democracy is 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 becoming dialogue.
It is the end of dialogue."
So what is the book about? It's the summer of 2016, going into Autumn, after the Brexit vote, and Elisabeth Demand, a lecturer in art history at a university in London, traumatised by the result and the consequent changes she's seeing in society, retreats to her mother's house in the country. Every day she visits a neighbour from her childhood, Daniel Gluck, who at the age of 101 is close to death in a nearby nursing home. Each time she visits he is asleep, (he's entered an 'extended sleep phase' explains the care assistant) but she reads to him anyway from A Tale of Two Cities. The novel alternates between the present day, Elizabeth's childhood (when Daniel, already an old man, was a somewhat unconventional baby sitter, and later friend), and Daniel's own earlier life. Throughout the novel the works of the (real-life) artist Pauline Boty recurr: Daniel was in love with Boty (or is it with her work) in the 1960's and introduces Elisabeth to the almost forgotten artist at an early age.
By bringing these threads together Ali Smith is bringing together periods of upheaval. One of Boty's better known works is a collage based on a photograph of Christine Keeler, the woman at the centre of the Profumo affair of 1963, a scandal which threatened to topple the government of the time, and could be seen as signalling the beginning of the changes in society of the 1960's. 2016 is another year of change, with the result of the referendum which bringing down the Prime Minister, and throwing the country into political turmoil. It isn't hard to guess at Ali Smith's opinion of the Brexit question, (as a writer born in Scotland who ended up in Cambridge it seems virtually certain that she was going to support Remain), and the first lines of the book make that clear '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 in their nature.'
I love the cover of my hardback, which has a partial dust jacket showing a country track heading into the distance through an autumnal landscape. But on close inspection there's a very fine vertical line across the track which unless you look very closely seems to be a join in the paper: the future is divided from the past.
I would also question Penguin’s decision to present it without double-justified pages. To my perhaps jaundiced eye, the effect was not one of quirky charm; I merely felt that the typesetting was as slipshod as the writing.
While Brexit is never named, she refers to the vote throughout the novel:
All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there,
a line you don't cross here,
a line you better not cross there,
a line of beauty here,
a line dance there,
a line you don't even know exists here,
a line you can't afford there,
a whole new line of fire,
line of battle,
end of the line,
But the divisions do not just apply to Brexit; we can see Trump and his followers here as well, and Smith also takes us back to WWII.
Yet, there is also love and beauty. Daniel Gluck, who is 101, and Elisabeth Demand, in her 40s, have been friends since Elisabeth was a child. Now, as he lies in a nursing home, asleep, Elisabeth visits him every day and reads to him. As she sits with him, she thinks about the seasons they have spent together, and how he opened her eyes to art; her dissertation was about Pauline Boty, whom she learned about from Daniel.
Daniel, asleep, thinks about his sister who was killed in WWII, and what she wrote him: "Hope is exactly that, that's all it is, a matter of how we deal with the negative acts towards human beings by other human beings in the world, remembering that they and we are all human, that nothing human is alien to us..."
The language is pure poetry as well. Wonderful novel.
So on to the characters. When Elisabeth and her mother first moved to their neighborhood, she found a friend in Daniel, a man who introduced her to art and music and opened her mind to new ideas. Daniel is the person who introduced her to the work of Pauline Boty, a now mostly forgotten pop artist who was the only woman at the heart of this '60s movement, and Boty becomes the topic of Elisabeth's PhD dissertation. Elisabeth shares professional memories of her research on Boty, including her rather tragic biography. But in his "long sleep" before death, Daniel's memories are much more personal. Elisabeth's mother is a strong secondary character who adds to the themes of the perseverance of hope, the necessity of love, and the possibility of change--all of which come as something of a surprise, as indeed they do in real life.
Autumn will not be for everyone, particularly not for those who prefer a linear plot, a straightforward narrative, and a readily decipherable theme. But if you are willing to let go and let the book carry you along, you might find yourself well-satisfied with the outcome.
Hope is exactly that, that's all it 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 human, that nothing human is alien to us, the foul and the fair, and that most important of all we're here for a mere blink of the eyes, that's all. But in that Augenblick there's either a benign wink or a willing blindness, and we have to know we're equally capable of both, and to be ready to be above and beyond the foul even when we're up to our eyes in it.
Autumn moves back and forth in time, between Elisabeth now, staying at her mother's house so she can visit Daniel every day in the hospice, and as she watches neighbors fail to greet one another, and she battles with the postal clerk as she tries to renew her passport, and Elisabeth at eight, meeting and becoming best friends with the elderly man next door, who loves to discuss books and to tell her about art and music.
I'm eager to see where Smith takes the rest of the quartet. Autumn was a quiet book, but deceptively so.
I liked How to Be Both and this novel picked up Smith's themes around time, relationships and really looking at art. With Elisabeth, a young art historian, we remember her childhood with Mr Gluck, the neighbour who introduced her to the work of Pauline Boty. She reads to him in the hospital bed and lives in a hostile post-Brexit-vote village. The dry humour is laced with anger at the intolerance and little Englander attitude.
Elisabeth’s relationship with Daniel was one of a few plot threads in Autumn, and the one I found most meaningful and moving. Another thread about an artist friend of Daniel’s, who later became the subject of Elisabeth’s academic research, was interesting but felt somewhat disjointed. Elisabeth’s relationship with her mother and interactions with British bureaucracy were amusing.
I wanted to love this book and can see why others did. I appreciate what Smith has done here. I was left feeling like this book was well-written and poetic, with more to say than I was able to receive.
The reader learns a little about Daniel Gluck through Elisabeth's recollections as she now sits beside his hospital bed while old age slowly takes his life. At this time, we also learn a little more about Elisabeth too and her admiration of 1960's artist Pauline Boty, who seems to have some connection to Mr. Gluck. Possibly, Smith's next installment (for Winter follows Autumn) will reveal the connection and this is why there is no resolution to the story at the conclusion of this book. Overall it is a lovely book with philosophic undertones and thought provoking ideas.
I don't know where Ms. Smith is going with this proposed quartet of novels, but I am already excited about reading the next one, and the next one, and the next one.
Smith is playing with words here and larding the copy with Joycean puns, wordplay, and allusion as she shifts through time in a pointless tale sort of but not really about the friendship between a young woman and an older man; sort of but not really about Brexit; sort of but not really about op art and The Tempest and Brave New World and A Tale of Two Cities. Basically a waste of time.
She loves to play with words, play with scenes, this is sometimes challenging but if you just read, not expecting her to follow the supposed rules of fiction, these things are often delightful. She explores time, it's passing, autumn into winter, past into present, young into old, as the seasons change so do we. She throws in a pop artist, the Christin Keeler scandal, which I had to look up not being from Britain. Her description of the natural world absolutely gorgeous. As I was reading at times I was frustrated, wondering where could she possibly be going with this? Why does she throw this in? Yet, at books end I find myself thinking of what she wrote, wishing I understood more, but finding it nonetheless undeniably imprinted in my mind. May have to reread at a later point.
ARC from publisher.
Daniel Gluck and 30-something Elisabeth Demand, an art history lecturer. Elisabeth has a special interest in a somewhat obscure pop artist, Pauline Boty. Smith alludes to current events in the form of the refugee crisis, and borrows language from literary giants like Dickens and Achebe (“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 in their nature.”) It's a gem of a book and well deserving of its spot on this year's Booker shortlist.
This review is based on an electronic advanced readers copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
I found parts of this, especially Elisabeth's trips to the post office and her dealings with her mother, very entertaining. The other sections, which were more or less stream of consciousness, were quite trying. (I'm a fan of dialogue.) There were things left unexplained; what were the parallel fences? Were they merely a symbol of the effects of the Brexit vote? Why did Elisabeth turn her back on Daniel for 10 years? Speaking of dialogue, the absence of speech marks made reading tricky in places. This is the first Ali Smith novel I have read and I'm on the fence about trying another.
Autumn is the story of Elisabeth and her relationship with her mother. It is the story of Daniel, a centenarian who has been mentor and friend to Elisabeth. It is a story about bureaucracy and the results of Brexit, a tale of acceptance and prejudice. It is a story as old as Keats and as 'contemporary' as Trump. And it is the tragedy of Pauline Boty, 1960s British pop artist. It's Boty's story that really pulls the reader in. Despite the wonderfully written sentences and the joys of watching Elisabeth apply for a passport, nothing stuck with me in this story more than the tale of Boty.
I hadn't heard of Boty prior to reading this novel. I doubt many readers will have. I wondered whether she was even a real person or merely a fictional creation of the author's, so I hopped on over to my local search engine and began a research project that ended hours later. Being a relatively little known but successful artist and actress during her brief life, it is a wonder Boty is not better known today. The fact that she's not, paired with the story of her tragic death (...and her husband's … and their daughter's), makes her story all the more interesting. It's a family tragedy that draws comparisons to the Brontȅ's. You can feel, in this novel, that Smith was getting sucked into the story of Boty, whether that was her original intention with the novel or not. In turn, the reader, attracted by that passion, is easily pulled in too.
Elisabeth is a wonderful character. She is funny in her moments of desperation; she inspires during her more reflective moments. The whole cast is fine. The story is jumbled, but it's certainly not bad. The language is, as I mentioned, phenomenal. The scenes are drawn with skill. Autumn is a very capable novel, but what sticks with me in the end is the story of Boty. But Boty is only a fragment of what this novel is about. It's about so many things. That lack of focus kept me from loving this novel as much as I might have otherwise.
Man Booker Prize 2017:
Although I had planned on reading this novel eventually, I was spurred to read it sooner as an attempt to make it through the 2017 Man Booker longlist. I may revise my thoughts on Smith's chances of winning after I've completed more of the books on this year's list, but I think Autumn stands a fair chance to make it to the shortlist. It's intelligent, beautiful, and extremely poignant, and those are three factors that tend to play into the Man Booker Prize. Not having read enough of the other nominees at this point, I can't attest to Autumn's overall chances of taking the prize, but I think there have got to be better candidates amongst this year's nominees. I will not be shocked if Autumn makes it to the shortlist; neither will I be shocked if it is cut.
However, there's much more to the book - it's an exploration of time and how we don't necessarily experience it in a linear fashion; it's more circular because of the way we hold on to the past (as mentioned by Smith in interviews). The structure of the book reflects this, as it skips back and forth in time from the starting point of 2016.
The most compelling thing about the novel for me is the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel, as they're both wonderful characters and I enjoyed the way they interact throughout. I'd never heard of Boty, so those sections were also very interesting.
Really, though, Smith's writing is just incredible throughout. I'm not at all surprised this made it onto the Booker shortlist!
Ali Smith’s infectious verve and wordplay is in full flow here. As ever, she is at her best when dealing with the precocious 11 year old Elisabeth. That is not surprising. What may be surprising is her affection for Daniel, a sad figure but filled with hidden joy. Mingling Daniel’s life with Elisabeth sets a number of challenges. As does mingling current events into a story that isn’t really about those events. (This was touted as being the first novel to tackle the after effects of the Brexit vote in the UK.) Some of it works very well. Some of it falls flat. And riding above all that is Smith’s prose styling, which now seems very familiar after more than 10 books. It is an enjoyable and quick read (the publishers insist on taking a very brief novel and increase the font size, reduce the page size, and include many half blank pages to make this look like something more substantial than it is). If you like Ali Smith’s writing, there is no reason you will not like this. As I did.
The chapter is just the right length.
Unfortunately, the plot then devolves into a seriously BORING and unfunny post office passport chapter which
ended with the book going into the donation box.
As with Knausgaard's 4 Seasonal volumes, I won't be following the trips and wonder about all the praise.