Ali Smith – Autumn
- Brian Donaldson
- 3 November 2016
A well-seasoned first installment of Smith's projected quartet
A strange thing happened this autumn: Ali Smith didn't find a spot on the Booker Prize shortlist. Yet, here she is, with Autumn, and continuing to be in the literary form of her life as she launches the first of a projected quartet (we can all accurately surmise the titles of her remaining trio). This tale is ostensibly the portrait of a fond lifelong friendship between a now very old and comatose man, Daniel Gluck, and Elisabeth Demand, a feisty 32-year-old art history lecturer on a 'no-fixed-hours casual contract'.
Gluck is a survivor of everything the 20th century threw at European Jews like him, and has been an artist, musician and poet, with strong hints that he wrote chart toppers in the 60s and penned unrecorded songs for Streisand. Meanwhile, Demand goes around getting into reasonably minor spats with people in (and out of) authority.
Interwoven through the main narrative of their close companionship (Elisabeth is sorely in need of a father figure) are period musings such as the Christine Keeler / Profumo scandal and the tragic life and death of Pauline Boty (British pop art's sole female painter). Alongside those passages run more modern concerns such as the shape of a post-EU UK (Smith paints a pessimistic picture of an increasingly intolerant and violent Britain: one critic has dubbed Autumn 'the first serious Brexit novel').
Smith keeps to the word of her title by invoking imagery of nature turning a different colour as the seasons shift while humans' physicality alters as age creeps up on them: time and memory are core to the book. The Invernesian author's ability to shift in and out of startlingly different thematic tones between chapters, and even on the same page, from the seemingly pop-trivial to the philosophically dense makes the consumption of Autumn a seamless and permanent joy.