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.

Book review: “Post-truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it” by Evan Davis

I love Evan Davis; I think he is probably the cleverest journalist on telly at the moment. I marvel at his ability to cut to the core of an issue and his mastery of material across a broad range of topics. His analytical ability, tenacity and eloquence made Newsnight unmissable during the UK election campaign earlier this year. I actually felt a bit sorry for some of the second and third-rate politicians he had to interview at times because he was clearly so much cleverer and in command of the brief than they were! He never goes for the jugular though, as Paxman used to, it’s just more like watching a grown-up talking to a child.

Post truthThis is actually my July reading challenge book, which was to borrow something from the library. I read it in virtually one sitting on a train journey to London. For a weighty non-fiction book it’s very readable and the writing is resonant of Evan’s relaxed and articulate presenting style. There were parts where I could almost hear him reading it out. There are many references to the help and support he has had in the acknowledgements, so I’m sure he had plenty of research assistance (how could he not – with Newsnight, The Bottom Line and Dragon’s Den he is a very busy fellow!), but the authorial voice is definitely authentic, and I would bet it isn’t ghost-written, which just makes me love him all the more!

The central premise of the book, and indeed which lends him his title, is the concept of “post-truth”, which was the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year in 2016 and is defined as:

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

For Westerners, key events which have lent prominence to this concept are, of course, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. More latterly, for those of us in the UK, the British election campaign is pertinent to the discussion, though the book was written before it was announced.

The book is divided into three sections: What, Why and How. In the first part “What” Evan (is it okay to call him that? I spend most weekday evenings with him, after all!) deconstructs his subject, looking at the various forms BS takes in our society today. His starting point is the professionalization of the information industry and the increasing desire to ‘sell’ rather than ‘tell’ in order to further a cause. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the unprecedented amount of information that we as citizens and consumers have access to, our weak ability to navigate it makes us vulnerable to those who would convince us that their particular interpretation of the facts is the one and only truth.

If you were unhappy with the UK European referendum campaign (regardless of which side you were on) or opposed the election of Donald Trump, there are times in the first section where you will be screaming “Yes, yes, yes”, but the second part is more sobering as it looks at the social forces that have enabled BS to become the new norm. Basically, we are all at least a little bit guilty. Haven’t we all, at some point, slightly misrepresented ourselves, or exaggerated our strengths in order to achieve something? Have you ever overstated an achievement on a CV, pushed up a price estimate of a job, in the knowledge you’ll be negotiated down by a percentage, been a willing accomplice in overpaying for desirable commercial goods (mobile phone, car, clothing, etc) simply to get a bit of the status that rubs off from owning it? We’re all at it. And as for those of us (irony alert) who might look down on the poor unfortunates misled into voting for the ‘wrong side’ Evan simply says the

“Disposition to accept bullshit probably derives from a sense of tribalism fuelled by feelings of grievance. The bullshit becomes more than just a signal of tribal allegiance; it becomes a way of strengthening a sense of membership of the tribe.”

In the final section of the book, Evan flags up a number of ways that we can all halt the rise of the post-truth tendency. He acknowledges that, basically, we get the BS we deserve, so the power lies with us to change it. Firstly, he says

“Where you have a craving for something to be true, apply a double dose of scepticism to anybody telling you that it is?”

We all have to do more research to ensure we are given the full facts and hold professional communicators to account rather than be complicit in the deception, what he refers to as “information hygiene”. (Using product X will prevent condition Y – show me the evidence?)

This book is quite an accomplishment which made me think very hard about the world we live in and what I am teaching my children. Undoubtedly, we all need to improve our skills when it comes to challenging what we are being told. A fascinating and engaging read on a very current issue.