Posts Tagged ‘Ali Smith’

Autumn

June 30, 2017

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.

‘The Child’

November 2, 2009

first person

Reviewing collections of short stories is a difficult art. You may love one, then find the next rather dull. The more similarities, the easier to discuss, but doesn’t that make the collection as a whole less interesting? Above all, you will be unlikely to be able to examine any of the stories in detail. So instead of attempting a review of Ali Smith’s latest collection, I intend to simply discuss one of the stories, ‘The Child’. It is, of course, my favourite, but it also highlights one of the advantages the short story can have over the novel: the ability to develop the surreal.

The story begins in a deliberately ordinary manner:

“I went to Waitrose as usual in my lunchbreak to get the weekly stuff.”

Notice the emphasis on routine and the intentionally vague “stuff” – too banal to merit further description. However, this is simply to provide a credible background to the first unusual event, the appearance of a child in the narrator’s shopping trolley. Here Smith’s descriptive powers come into full force on the basis that the more unlikely something is, the more the reader needs to picture it – and, as this story rests entirely on the child, we are treated to an extensive portrait:

“The child in it was blond and curly-haired, very fair-skinned and flushed, big-cheeked like a cupid or a chub-fingered angel on a Christmas card or a child out of an old-fashioned English children’s book…”

Interestingly, though the description is intended to make us believe in the child’s existence, it relies heavily on the mythological and fictional. It also presents us with an ideal child, “embarrassingly beautiful” – though “a little crusty round the nose,” a touch of verisimilitude which actually makes it more adorable. Like any rational person, the narrator takes the child to Customer Services, but unfortunately no child has been reported lost, and the woman behind the desk automatically assumes the child is the narrator’s, as do a succession of customers. It is not so much no-one believes the narrator, as they do not hear her – the picture of her with the child creates the automatic assumption she is the mother, and any protestations are put down to the fact she is having a ‘bad day’. When the child starts to cry a woman hands him to the narrator and he stops:

“I had never felt so powerful in all my life.”

This is the first sign of any attraction to owning the child. Whether partly for this reason, or simply because she is bowing to the opinion of those around, the narrator takes the child to her car.

It is at this point the story moves from the unlikely to the surreal, and from the simply interesting to the exceptional: The child suddenly speaks:

“You’re a really rubbish driver…I could do better than that and I can’t even drive.”

The child speaks in a “charming” voice, but what it has to say is less so: a litany of racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks that would make the Daily Mail blush. The narrator’s reaction?

“I was enchanted.”

So much so that when she realises the child is hungry she immediately begins to breastfeed, and plan “how to ensure the child’s later enrolment in one of the area’s better secondary schools,” one of the story’s funniest lines. This despite the fact that we know the narrator is a Guardian reader. The contentment does not last, however, as the child proceeds to tell a series of politically incorrect jokes, and the narrator eventually (in fairy tale fashion) abandons him in the woods.

This story is funny, surprising (even shocking) and thought-provoking. It has a lot to say about the relationship between mothers and children, and society’s assumptions in that area. The non-PC child might represent the more right-wing views that can come with family; the fear of producing a child alien to your own sensibilities; or the link between child-rearing and the disempowerment of women (many of his remarks and jokes are sexist).

And, no, she doesn’t leave the child in the woods. Of course, she worries and goes back for him, and then…well, when it comes to short stories, I think you have to discover the denouement for yourself.

‘The Child’ can be found in The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith.