Autumn

Just over a year ago I listened to Ali Smith read from Autumn at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She was reading from a manuscript – any hope of an early copy of the hardback being available (as they often are at book festivals) was made to look ridiculous by her declaration that she had only just delivered the final version to the publisher. Two months later it was on the shelves. Smith was upfront about the haste with which the novel had been written, her intention being to write about what was happening in Britain today: it was the first ‘post-Brexit novel’.

I was in the audience for Ali Smith’s reading because I have been a reader (and admirer) or her work since Free Love and other stories was published by Virago in 1995. I mention this because I have some concerns about Autumn, most of which originate from the identification of the novel as a reaction to Brexit. Brexit features prominently in the novel:

“It’s just over a week since the vote…
The village is in a sullen state. Elisabeth passes a cottage not far from the bus stop whose front, from the door to across above the window, has been painted over with black paint and the words GO and HOME.”

It’s also the subject of what might be described as prose poems which occur throughout the narrative:

“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.”

The divide created is echoed in the novel by the appearance of a fence on what was common land:

“Apparently a fence three metres high with a roll of razorwire along the top of it has been erected across a stretch of land not far from the village. It has security cameras on posts all along it.”

The fence leads to a confrontation between Elisabeth and one of the security guards – a scene Smith read out in Edinburgh:

“Fine day, she says.
You can’t walk here, he says.
Yes I can, she says…
This is private land, he says.
No it isn’t, she says. It’s common land. Common land by definition is not private.”

Of course, the audience, and the reader, are on Elisabeth’s side, just as we are in numerous other encounters in the novel – when she’s getting her passport application checked; when she’s asked for ID at the nursing home where her friend and ex-neighbour, Daniel, is dying; when she tackles the receptionist at the doctor’s surgery… On each occasion she deflects authority with wit – which is really just another way of saying that she proves she’s cleverer than the other person, rather than right. Note, it’s not enough for her to say it’s common land – she must go on to refer to the definition of common land, which she knows, being cleverer.

“You are unlawfully trespassing.
As opposed to lawfully trespassing? she says.”

An earlier conversation with another nameless character doing his job in the Post Office is also instructive. The banal language he must use when describing the Check & Send service he offers is, of course, amusingly contrasted with Elisabeth’s ready wit, but when he attempts to be humorous, Smith (presumably via Elisabeth’s viewpoint) undercuts it with reference to his silent laugh: “Shoulders. Up, down.”

It’s interesting to compare this to Smith’s description of the Christine Keeler case:

“The prosecuting lawyer has the air of a foxhound. He makes fun of her.”

This seems very much Elisabeth’s attitude to those who are not as clever as she is. Is this Smith’s intention? Perhaps. It certainly won the approval of the audience in Edinburgh, possibly lacking in security guards, Post Office workers, and receptionists. It strikes me as particularly unfortunate in the ‘first post-Brexit novel’, however, as Brexit has been frequently characterised as the educated against the uneducated. Smith herself used education as an escape route, from Inverness and her working class background. It’s possible she believes that this path is open to everyone, and that those who take low paid jobs, often accompanied by mundane, repetitive language as restrictive as a strait jacket, are culpable in their routine functions. But, as Daniel advises Elisabeth, “Always give your characters the same benefit of the doubt you’d welcome when it comes to yourself.”

Elisabeth has her own escape route: art, and her imagination. It’s instructive how much of the novel takes place in her head: “That moment of dialogue? Imagined.” This is the gift her friendship with Daniel has given her. As a child, Elisabeth tells Daniel:

“There’s no point in making up a world…when there’s already a real world.”

Daniel convinces her otherwise. It is also through Daniel that she finds the (real life) pop artists Pauline Boty – the present day Elisabeth is a junior university lecturer in Art History. This means, of course, that the real world is only half the story – it’s her mother who takes action against the fence, not Elisabeth.

Don’t get me wrong – Autumn is a vibrant, pulsing novel of ideas bursting with wit, humour and passages which thrill and soar. As a political novel, however, it fails.

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9 Responses to “Autumn”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s so interesting to hear about your response to this novel. A little like you, I am a long-standing fan of Smith’s work – Hotel World was my first and since then I’ve read most of her other novels. She’s such an engaging writer – intelligent, playful and artful. And yet I hesitated when it came to buying this one. For some reason, it just didn’t grab me in spite of the positive reviews at the time of its release. Given your reservations about Elisabeth’s attitude (which seem entirely understandable), I’m happy to pass on it.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I had heard that this wasn’t Smith at her best. To be honest that element you pick out of, basically, class condescension is really offputting.

    What point a political novel with muddled politics?

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m attracted to the idea of trying to write the novel as news (a la Gordon Burn) but I’m not sure that Smith is the first writer I’d associate with this style.

  3. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel Says:

    Lovely review. I have not read Ali Smith previously and Autumn was my first novel by her. It was interesting to read a different perspective about the post office incident in this review. I enjoyed the read but now you have made me think about it from another angle.

    • 1streading Says:

      My initial reaction was simply to find it amusing. It was only thinking about it later that I began to worry a little about other interpretations. However, I’m still looking forward to reading Winter.

  4. Lisa Hill Says:

    Hi Grant, I’m here via your tweet about meeting the author…
    I am fascinated by the different ways we have read this book.
    Australia is a long way from the on-the-street ramifications of Brexit, but I read it through that lens because I have residual British tendencies on account of being born (rather a long time ago) in England. I was devastated by Brexit… and you can see that in what I have focussed on in my review https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/08/20/autumn-by-ali-smith/

    Being more Australian than residually British, however, I never even noticed what you have observed as class condescension. We don’t do class consciousness here in Oz, but we do have encounters with people trained to parrot the inflexible rules of whatever, most recently for me on the phone with an AMEX operator in the Philippines or somewhere, who said that these days I didn’t need to notify them of travel plans because they knew when I was going overseas because the travel tickets would show up on my statement. Telling this person that no, not so, because (a) The Spouse bought the tickets on his card which is not linked to mine and (b) he has a different surname to me and AMEX doesn’t even know that we are married, was hilarious. Then she told me that anyway they would text me on my phone if there were any suspicious transactions from places not Australian so I could confirm that they were mine or not… She was flummoxed when I said I had no intention of taking my phone with me, and insistent that I must.
    And then there was the young man taken aback by my perverse insistence that I want a new car with the obsolete technology of a CD player not a whatsit that plays music through my phone. The market has decided that I must move with the times, but my money and I don’t want to go there. Don’t get me started on that one…
    So I found the post office scenes comic. Here, it would be material ripe to be satirised on our TV series Utopia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfTBdqF5Vgw
    For me, the only way we can cope with the nonsense of the modern retail experience is through humour. Smith is articulating the wit that we fantasise might have an effect but which in real life we don’t ever inflict on the hapless worker trained to parrot the rules. Even if we have impulses to be unkind or rude, we have all learned not to waste our time being witty or clever at their expense, but rather to submit, because the truth is, they have the power, not us. I thought Smith was satirising the bureaucratisation of everyday life by showing us a fantasy i.e. the vain attempts of the powerless to confront it.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think I was particularly aware of class in this novel as class was an important facet of Brexit (though British life is riddled with class generally). One theory as to why so many people voted for Brexit, especially from poorer areas, was they were fed up with the condescension of the political classes. I think you are wrong when you suggest Elizabeth is ‘powerless’ because language = power, and though we all encounter bureaucracy, the articulate middle classes can navigate it more easily (see I, Daniel Blake for real powerlessness). It seemed to me Elizabeth was using her intelligence and wit as a weapon against characters in lowly positions who were more powerless than her – they can’t break the rules, they can’t escape, they can’t hit her or swear at her… This, in turned, seemed symptomatic of one of the causes of Brexit – looking down on those who are less educated and have to work at a job they probably don’t choose to. As Ali reminded me, however, she is not her characters, which suggests that Elizabeth may have things to learn.
      On a different note, the opening of Winter is based on A Christmas Carol.

  5. Lisa Hill Says:

    Well, I am not so sure that you are right about who is and isn’t powerless. I think we are all powerless when we come up against the inflexible systems of big corporations, and sometimes, in my experience, the people with whom we must deal enjoy exerting their power, perhaps because they don’t have much of it in other contexts.
    I noticed that when I waited in the Q to talk to AMEX there was a recorded warning that even the waiting period would be recorded. I found this rather alarming because I have sometimes vented my exasperated feelings, not always very politely and not always in a ladylike way, while waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, and then switched immediately to polite and humble once connected to a real human being. Because of course they can, and do, simply hang up on us, and then we have to go through the whole schemozzle all over again.
    But now it seems I can’t even swear at the recorded messages…

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