WHEN Autumn was published last month, just as the leaves were turning russet and gold to match the book’s binding, Ali Smith wrote an article in the Guardian about the marvellous, neglected Pop artist Pauline Boty.
Of Boty’s appearance in Ken Russell’s superb documentary Pop Goes the Easel, Smith says: ‘The other three artists play with toy guns, drive around, paint doors and flags and Americana. Boty, conversely, drops us head-first into a dream, and when the dream turns into a nightmare she slaps it in the face, wakes up into what’s now a multilayered narrative of dreamworld and mundanity, then, dressed in a top hat and tux, she mimes bizarrely in full adult voluptuousness to Shirley Temple’s child-voice singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop”, until the screen itself ruptures in a cartoon explosion.’
Shirley Temple lip sync notwithstanding, this is not too far removed from the experience of reading a novel by Ali Smith. In Autumn we’re dropped into a dream that turns into a myth, then shaken awake and transported to the wittily-rendered bureaucracy of the Post Office, and from there into a multi-layered narrative that embraces the mundane whilst always keeping one eye out for the absurd. Boty, who died in 1965, is one of the characters, largely present in the memory of another, Daniel Gluck (now in an extended sleep period in a care home, ‘like a person in a fairytale’) and the academic work of the main protagonist, art historian Elisabeth Demand.
The novelist and critic John Lanchester once wrote that the problem with a ‘writer’s enthusiasm to expose the ﬁctionality of a ﬁction’ is that it ‘tends to be paralleled by the reader’s consequent freedom not to care what happens in the book’. Smith is a writer who loves to throw the conventions of fiction up into the air and start juggling with them. We see it in the titles of her story collections, in the structures of her novels, in her narrators, in her opening lines. Autumn begins: ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature. So an old old man washes up on a shore.’
And we’re off. Like all of Smith’s work, Autumn is concerned with the process of storytelling. We could say that the fictionality of fiction is highlighted, certainly: ‘That moment of dialogue? Imagined.’ Or might it be the tricky symbiosis between imagination and reality that’s being exposed? Even within one sentence, Smith can accommodate shifts in register that might leave others floundering. Her frames of reference are refreshing. Shakespeare nestles up to Snappy Snaps, and we whirl from Ovid to daytime antiques shows without a misstep. The effect of these juxtapositions isn’t bathos but something more generous and inclusive. As a novel, Autumn is all of a piece. We do not worry that our spritely narrator is going to drop any of the balls that have been set spinning in the air as we progress, moving backwards and forwards in time, from dream to reality to somewhere in between the two. One of Smith’s great successes here is that we do care what happens, very deeply indeed.
This is partly because her characters and their relationships are so finely-drawn. Daniel was Elisabeth’s neighbour when she was a child, and later in the book we read her fictional ‘portrait in words’ of him, written for a school project. Intriguing and ‘elegant’, he befriends Elisabeth and instils in her a passion for ‘arty art’. As he lies in bed in the care home, aged one hundred, his mind circles around the people he has known and the stories he remembers; Boty, who he loved, and Christine Keeler, the subject of a missing picture by her. Elisabeth visits to read to him, and we read the story of their friendship. When Elisabeth was thirteen, he told her, ‘whoever makes up the story makes up the world . . . So always try to welcome people into the home of your story. That’s my suggestion.’
Meanwhile, the world itself is a miserable place, in which many people are without homes, and being made to feel extremely unwelcome. The Brexit vote has led to racist graffiti and thugs in the street, not to mention bad behaviour on Radio 4. While Elisabeth’s mum fantasizes about moving to Scotland and staying in the EU, others are still googling, ‘What is EU?’ There’s a tremendous amount going on, in reality as in the novel. Its themes are not only the big ones, love and death and art, but specific iterations of politics and society in the Brave New World of Britain in 2016. Elisabeth, born in 1984, is reading Orwell as the novel begins.
Another of the stylistic triumphs of the novel is that the words of others filter through in a way that’s nothing short of exhilarating. After the success of Up the Junction, Nell Dunn interviewed nine women for her second book, Talking to Women. Pauline Boty was one of them, and Smith transposes her voice from it – as well as quoting from various other texts – throughout Autumn. The interview took place in 1964, when conservative Republican Barry Goldwater was running for President. Goldwater said that he ‘had been branded as a fascist, a racist, a trigger-happy warmonger, a nuclear madman and the candidate who couldn’t win’, which forms a timely parallel between the race for the White House in autumn 1964 and autumn 2016. Dunn asked Boty whether she felt one should try to make the world a better place: ‘I still get terrible doubts — I used to call it sort of social conscience and — I mean if Goldwater becomes President I’ll especially do it, but I want to do a picture about America which would be very much on that kind of side you know because of what’s happening there and everything, but I again feel like I think so many people feel, you know, that it’s a hopeless sort of thing, what can you do . . . But well, yes one should try to really.’ Later in the interview Dunn wonders whether the only two options for living in the world are either ‘getting hard or having a nervous breakdown.’ Boty concedes that while she puts on ‘hard acts’ as a way of coping, ‘I’d hate to be hard, that’s the very last thing of all.’
Smith is a writer with plenty of social conscience. At times it can be easy to forget, when we read their lauded novels, that our literary heavyweights inhabit the same world as the rest of us. Smith conveys that world in all its frightening, foolish contemporaneity, without ever resorting to hardness. Elisabeth is one of the teachers who prop up the university system, ‘a no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer’. The people hanging out in the Post Office aren’t there to use its services: ‘Since the library closed this is where they come if it’s raining or intemperate.’ We know from Smith’s last book, Public library and other stories, how strongly she supports our libraries. We might extrapolate that she’d agree with many of the opinions and actions in Autumn too. Daniel tells one of the care assistants at ‘The Maltings Care Providers plc’, all of whom are ‘from somewhere else in the world’, that when the state is not kind, ‘the people are the fodder’. Daniel has lived for a century, and remembers World War 2 first hand. Elisabeth sometimes doesn’t see what’s at the end of her nose, as her relationship with her mother shows. It’s near the end of the novel that she wonders, ‘Has her mother been this witty all these years and Elisabeth just hasn’t realised?’ Meanwhile, the bigger picture unfurls, obscures, implodes: ‘All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there . . .’
Much of this novel is to do with reading. ‘What are you reading?’ is the question that Daniel asks Elisabeth each time they meet, exhorting her always to be reading something, even when she isn’t ‘physically reading’: ‘How else will we read the world?’ Autumn reminds us, gently, that reading the world is what we all should be doing, even when it’s as difficult and confusing as it has been in 2016. Ali Smith is very good at doing so, and at welcoming us into the home of her story. As a writer, she never stops taking risks, and these risks continue to pay off. I thought How to Be Both was her best novel yet, and Autumn is as good, if not better. It’s a spectacular, dizzying tour de force, with all the humour and depth of one of Pauline Boty’s pictures. It’s tantalising to anticipate the further books still to come in this seasonal series, as we move from mists and mellow fruitfulness to the black elm tops ’mong the freezing stars. Never did I expect to say it, but roll on Winter.