While I was getting ready to review Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016) I thought I should read a few online reviews. I was prepared for the usual Ali Smith fan-club slush about Autumn being a journey, one woman’s passage to self discovery, a celebration of nature even.
Most reviewers seem to have seen something in Autumn that has gone completely over my head. I’m tempted to suggest that because Smith’s work hints at greater meaning, these reviewers have mustered one out of thin air.
The story centers around the comatose nursing home resident Daniel Gluck and Elisabeth Demand, a woman who was Gluck’s neighbour years ago. Elisabeth reads to Gluck weekly, posing as his daughter for the beady-eyed nursing staff. Flashbacks are frequent, and show the friendship between Daniel and Elisabeth as the latter goes through her difficult teenage years. If the dialogue is anything to go by, the 32 year old Elisabeth seems not to have evolved from her teenage years: she is confrontational and uncompromising.
The dialogue and third person narrative style of Autumn keep the reader hovering just above surface level. Here is an exchange between Daniel and Elisabeth:
‘What are you reading?’ he’d say.
Elisabeth would hold it up.
Brave New World, she’d say.
Oh, that old thing, he’d say.
It’s new to me, she’d say.’
The New York Times writer Sarah Lyall hailed Autumn as the ‘First Great Brexit Novel.’ In reference to Elisabeth reading works like Brave New World and A Tale of Two Cities (readers open the first page of Autumn to the sentence: ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.’) Lyall writes that, ‘Smith teases out big ideas so slyly and and lightly that you can miss how she goes about it.’
Literary references aside, Smith’s approaches prose the same way a wood cutter might approach a log. No love is lost on the chapter beginnings. Two of my favourites are: ‘Time lapse of a million billion flowers opening their heads,’ and, ‘It was one of the days of a week in one of the seasons in one of the years.’
Perhaps it is disingenuous to show you these chapter beginnings on their own. I wouldn’t mind them so much if they weren’t so gimmicky. Smith’s prose screams gimmick. Thoughts like ‘It’s funny to be sitting on such an uncommunal communal chair’ fall flat.
Everything pointed to this book being about nature, the beauty of it and how it relates to human life. Girl Meets Boy (2007) was bearable because of how well Smith used naturalistic imagery. I was expecting something Forster-esque, Larkin-esque from Autumn, or at least something that mirrored the intricate naturalistic imagery in Girl Meets Boy, and instead I got: ‘Time lapse of a million billion flowers.’
I felt deflated reading Autumn. Worse than anything else is Smith’s half-hearted attempts to create meaning out of her half realised imagery. While unconscious, Daniel dreams that he is on a beach, and ventures into some nearby shrubbery for coverage. Smith had the perfect opportunity to create a link between nature and the fact that Daniel is said- later on- to be nearing the end of his life. Instead, the writing is so detached from reality that the reader has to work hard to make sense of it.
Another comparison to Girl Meets Boy: I can appreciate Smith’s 2007 novel because she tackles an admirable cause: Smith reimagines one of Ovid’s metamorphosis (the myth of Iphis) and in doing so examines the complicated gender politics in modern day lesbian relationship in Scotland. In Girl Meets Boy there is triumph for a group of people who are marginalised, belittled, and stigmatised. In Autumn there is a few half-hearted references to Brexit.
Lucy Scholes, writing for The Independent, labels Smith as one of the ‘country’s foremost chroniclers, her finger firmly on the social and political pulse.’ At the first hints of immigration and Brexit, I expected Autumn to progress in much the same way Girl Meets Boy did: I thought Smith was saving herself for the denouement of the story, where she would bring all the strands of the novel together and reveal some underlying political subtext.
It must have flown over my head.