December 5th, 2017

Ali Smith's Autumn

Novelists usually write about the past- even if its the very recent past- or else about a timeless present, shorn of specific cultural or political markers. To write about the present in all its specificity, taking in its trends and fads and headlines-  trying to catch the moment as it flies- is risky. H.G. Wells did it- with varied results- through his long career- and Ali Smith is doing it now- with her Seasonal quartet- which is two books in and still writing. Autumn, the first of the series, has been called the first Brexit novel. It deals with issues of nationality, identity,  gender and governance- and references events that are still raw- like the murder of Jo Cox. The word Trump appears.

Wells wrote a book at the end of the 30s called Babes In The Darkling Wood which attempted nothing less than a complete survey of the mind of the nation as it then was. He was proud of it. But no sooner had it hit the bookshelves than the second world war broke out and rendered it completely irrelevant and uninteresting. I have a copy, I've glanced at it and decided it's unreadable. He did better twenty years earlier with Mr Britling Sees It Through- which was written about and during the course of the First World War. Britling records history as it happens-and is- in parts anyway- thrilling in its immediacy. So this, you think, is what people actually felt at the time. Britling surfed events. Babes got whited out.

A central character in Autumn , though not so much a character as a talismanic figure- is the British pop artist Pauline Boty- who died aged 28 in 1966. Boty painted Christine Keeler, the Beatles, the death of Kennedy, Playboy centrefolds and other current icons, taking a punt on posterity continuing to be interested in them. She wasn't wrong. It's exactly the gamble that Smith herself is taking.

Boty is a link between the two protagonists- Daniel, a centenarian Jewish songwriter and Elisabeth, a thirty something lecturer with parental issues. He loved Boty from a distance, she is writing about her. Daniel and Elisabeth met when she was a child and have had a master and chela relationship ever since.  Now she drifts round the world observing things and he lies in a nursing home bed in a Bardo state weaving past and present together. If he were not so sprightly, witty and genuinely wise Daniel might be insufferable- as it is Smith has risen to the challenge that has floored so many and created a character who is both shiningly good and also interesting. 

I found Autumn hard to put down. 

And now for Winter...