In the fraught political times we live in, Scottish writer Ali Smith crafts a poignant story set in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, using this critical juncture in our nation’s history to subtly explore the delicate relationship between nationalism, the self and the complexities of time. It is a deeply moving novel – the first in a four part series to be named after each of the seasons – and features thematic nods that most of us will relate to.
Ali Smith has long been hailed as one of the most deeply perceptive novelists currently writing in the UK today. Ideas of existentialism and the endless loop of time, her greatest thematic niche, was expertly explored in her previous Bailey’s Prize winning novel (and one of my personal favourites) How To Be Both, a narrative simultaneously set in modern-day Britain and 1400s Renaissance Italy. Indeed, even from the first quarter of Autumn, it is obvious that Smith is aiming to continue in this fascinating vein, crafting a similar narrative of time being something tangible, where past, present and future can collide in a timeless kind of purgatory. Over and above this, however, Smith delivers on the keenness of her exploration of societal fears and frustrations – her finger relentlessly pressed on a stark and brutally honest view of a divisive and corrupt political pulse. In this way, Autumn is deeply rooted in the chaos and lost intricacies of the now post-Brexit society we occupy, and the uncertainty of the years to come. This reality -our reality- is explored at length by Smith, succinctly described by her narration as “…an old story so new that it’s still in the middle of happening.”
Autumn follows unlikely and equally lonely best friends Elisabeth, an art lecturer in her early thirties, and her next-door neighbour Daniel, many decades her elder. From flashbacks to their long past, we understand that Daniel – an art collector – has irrevocably influenced Elisabeth’s character, interests and outlook on life, having always encouraged her to be a girl “…who reads the world.”. Now that their time together is coming to an end, Elisabeth now dedicates most of her free hours by Daniel’s care-home bedside, reading Shakespeare and Huxley to him.
Using these characters and the unique political time-frame the novel is set in, Smith propels us into a expose of sorts: paralleling the Brexit vote and the Profumo Scandal of 1963 as what she perceives to be two sets of deeply ingrained myths featuring endemic political dishonesties. Through the interlacing of both scandals with Elisabeth and Daniel, we are introduced to the story of the tragic demise of Pauline Boty (1938-1966), the only female British Pop Artist, whose legacy and work often teeters on the edge of the complete unknown. Smith astutely links Boty’s forgotten life and work to her explicit use of the famous photograph series by Lewis Morley of the women at the heart of the Profumo scandal in a collage painting which has been mysteriously missing soon after she had painted it – unsubtly named Scandal ‘63.
By so deeply exploring and highlighting feminist artist Boty, Smith offers another expose on the position of women in art. In Autumn, she gives loud voice to Boty, who proclaims “…I am a person. I’m an intelligent nakedness. An intellectual body. I’m a bodily intelligence. Art’s full of nudes and I’m a thinking, choosing nude. I’m the artist as nude. I’m the nude as artist…” Then, as now, art – just like politics, just like almost all aspects of life – is still a man’s world, and because of this, we find corruption, extortion and lies. Both in art and politics alike.
The surprisingly energetic and fluid pace of Smith’s writing, brimming with feminist, witty wordplay, modern literary references with the distinctly melancholic, politically subversive ‘English old boy’s club’ undercurrent of the novel makes Autumn feel somewhat transient. We understand; people, young and old, die. No matter what happens – political or societal – and the common divisions caused by the decisions of the elite, the world continues to turn, time continues to march, and history continues to repeat. Just like seemingly “eternal” decisions made centuries ago show, everything, even referendums, even the EU, is temporary like the leaves that fall in autumn. Entering history equals finding simultaneously rebirth and loss; an ‘endless sad fragility’:
“But now you couldn’t tell that any of these summer things had ever happened. There was just an empty field. The sports tracks had faded and gone. The flattened grass, the places that had turned to mud where the crowds had wandered round between the rides and the open-sided trucks of the driving and shooting games, the ghost circus ring: nothing but grass.”