Man Booker Book Review 3: “Autumn” by Ali Smith

This is a beautifully crafted novel. It is so clever on so many levels. I’m writing this having not long finished the book, which is difficult since it would probably be better to let it sit with me for a while. The blog plan must be stuck to, however, so here goes!

Autumn imgAli Smith has said that she wrote this book very quickly in the aftermath of the EU referendum in the UK last year. As UK citizens will all understand by now, as we continue to reflect upon/reel over the events of Summer 2016, the outcome of that vote was about so much more than should Britain remain in or leave the European Union. That our social, cultural and political path in this country could be determined by a simple yes or no answer to that question now looks absurd. The election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency in November last year was another cataclysmic event, which provides the context to this novel. Ali Smith has, I believe, outside this book, nailed her political colours fairly firmly to the mast. (I’m not going to do that.) But what we are seeing now, I believe, is the response of artists and writers to the shock of last year’s events, and Autumn is for me, my first foray into a literary reflection.

We mustn’t forget it’s a novel, not a piece of journalism; the two main characters in our story are Daniel Gluck, a 101 year-old former refugee from Nazi Germany, and Elisabeth Demand, a 32 year-old lecturer. It is Autumn and Daniel is at the end of his life, lying, mostly asleep, in a care home, not far from Elisabeth’s childhood home. Daniel and Elisabeth developed a close and unusual friendship when Elisabeth was a child, living alone with her mother, who, although she never really either understood or fully trusted their neighbour, would leave her daughter in Daniel’s care when she had to go out.

Despite their age difference, Elisabeth found Daniel’s company stimulating and energising. His love of stories and story-telling, his artistic sensibility, his appreciation of nature, his philosophical mind and his enigmatic past, all served to enliven Elisabeth’s imaginative powers and develop her intellect. He was like an oasis in her otherwise culturally barren life.

Written in the context of Brexit and Trump, the novel is essentially about fracture and is rich in metaphor. There are barriers, fences and separation in the novel, symbolic of our increasing desire to shut out, or, as we seem to see it, to protect. Those who appear different or unconventional are excluded or feared, or simply denied existence. The artist Pauline Boty, the subject of Elisabeth’s PhD, serves as a metaphor for this; she was the only British female Pop Artist of 1960s, but has effectively been written out of art history. Elisabeth’s supervisor (representing authority) refuses to approve her subject proposal, saying that Boty is insufficiently significant, but Elisabeth goes ahead anyway (defiance of authority). In a nice symmetry, Elisabeth discovers later on that Daniel in fact had a connection with the artist.

There are wider concerns here other than Brexit, however. Arguably, Brexit is just one symptom of a wider cultural shift; the phenomenon of Trump is another. The boundary between truth and lies has become blurred, marketing and PR have taken over, such that we no longer know what is objective reality. You can see it in the following quotes:

“The power of the lie…always seductive to the powerless” (p114)

“Whoever makes up the story makes up the world.” (p119)

“Facts don’t work. Connect with people emotionally.” (p133)

These are frightening thoughts. And we should be worried.

Ali Smith also laments the attempt to homogenise culture and our experience of everyday life – from the bizarre bureaucracy of the post office queues and the ‘Check and Send’ service (hilarious!) to Elisabeth’s mother’s nostalgia for the comfort of prevailing weather patterns (“That was back in the years when we still had summers. When we still had seasons, not just the monoseason we have now.”)

Ali Smith presents us with much to be worried about, but she also offers us glimmers of hope: the very friendship between Daniel and Elisabeth shows that it is possible to bridge the generation gap that appears to have surfaced in the wake of the EU referendum. Also, the descriptions of Autumn itself which pop up regularly in the novel, are as fine as any in the English language, and show that if we pay attention, then we can still experience the beauty of the seasons, so long as we are vigilant in the fight against forces that may alter that (climate change maybe?):

“The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.” (p177)

A very powerful novel, skilfully done in such a compact form. Highly recommended.

My 100th post! (And the Man Booker shortlist)

This is my 100th post and I feel it’s quite fitting that I should be writing on the very day that the Man Booker 2017 shortlist has been announced. Last year, I set myself the task of trying to read all six books on the shortlist before the prize winner was announced. I managed three and a half! This year, I’ve cleared the decks and am going for it again – all six books by 17 October…34 days.

If you haven’t seen the shortlist, here it is:

 

Autumn and Exit West have been on my ‘to-read’ list for a while. Autumn is a post-Brexit novel and is about the fissures that became apparent in UK society after that referendum, seen through the eyes of elderly Daniel and youthful Elisabeth. It may help with understanding this social turmoil. Exit West is also about social and political turmoil and its effect on the lives of ordinary people, lovers Nadia and Saeed, forced to flee their homeland when it is torn apart by civil war, and seek refuge in the West.

Veteran prizewinner Paul Auster’s latest novel, 4 3 2 1, has won praise for the deft handling of a complex storyline in which he explores four possible paths that an individual’s life could take. It’s the longest book on the list by some distance! Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is the first venture into fiction by a well-established writer and is a fictionalised account of the true story of Abraham Lincoln and the loss of his eleven year old son at the start of the American Civil War.

Finally, from two less well-known writers, to me anyway, A History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, which is about a fourteen year old girl living a sheltered life in rural Minnesota, with unusual parents, and her association with a new family that moves into the area, forcing her to confront some uncomfortable truths. And Elmet  by Fiona Mozley, another first novel from a young British writer, is also about the effects of growing up in an unusual family and how that prepares people for a challenging world.

I haven’t read any of these (no head start for me this year then!), so I can’t judge the shortlist at the moment, but I am surprised by some of the omissions. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are everywhere at the moment and have been highly praised. It’s always surprising to see Zadie Smith left out of this kind of list, huge talent that she is. Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I reviewed here in June,is possibly the best book I have read this year and I’m astonished that it’s not shortlisted. That novel will be my benchmark for judging these.

Anyone care to join me in the shortlist challenge?

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