When Ali Smith’s Autumn was released in the UK this past October, it was greeted as the first “serious” Brexit novel. Yet its ostensible subject is the friendship between an old man and a young woman, and it neither accounts for why a majority of British citizens voted to leave the European Union in July 2016 nor predicts the repercussions. Autumn isn’t about the past or the future, but about the present of that vote, the hinge between before and after. When it was released in the US last month, it became the first novel to address the 2016 US presidential election as well. Reading Autumn, the time of the novel overtakes the now, and the verb tenses of criticism loop and tangle. It’s not a contemporary novel, but a contemporaneous one.
There are already too many lists of TV shows and movies and books that predicted the Trump presidency—Smith has a different quarry (though Trump’s name does at one point flash across the page as a character scrolls through the headlines on her phone). The autumn of the title is autumn 2016, but it is also every autumn: season of harvest, soft-dying days, and the promise of cyclical renewal. Autumn is the first in a quartet of seasonal novels Smith first envisioned 20 years ago, but as her summer 2016 submission deadline approached, she asked her publisher for another month, to make the novel’s setting truly contemporaneous with the Brexit vote, and the book was sped through the production process for an October release. A novel so explicitly blending contemporaneity and cyclical time would seem to offer the same advice that President Obama did on election night, when he reminded everyone that “No matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning.” The long view invokes the rotation of the earth or the turn of the seasons as consolation against the shocks of history.
In epoch-making-event novels, readers want an impossible combination: topicality plus the good manners of that long view. In Autumn, Smith sews contemporaneousness into the cyclical turning of the seasons with a quick basting stitch—she has no interest in consolation or in good manners. No time for bromides about distance and perspective, for example, like those we’ve come to find so mortifying in Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland, or Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Autumn is unashamed about the form it takes, and indeed Smith is well-known for her experiments with form. Artful (2012) consists of a series of fictionalized lectures Ali Smith herself delivered at St Anne’s College, Oxford. How to Be Both, which won the Goldsmiths Prize for formal innovation in 2014, was published in two different editions, with the order of its two sections reversed. Autumn is also a novel interested in how to be both: both timely and timeless, both of its moment and an escape from it.1
Ali Smith’s latest is not a contemporary novel, but a contemporaneous one.
Rather than giving us the consoling reminder that time passes, Autumn ends with an imperative. In the final section of the novel, the harvest is over, the season is turning, souls are out marauding, and we are left with a single image of a rose. Too clichéd? Well, yes. “Look at the colour of it,” we are told, as it clings in the cold to an otherwise-spent branch. This is a temporal image as much as it is an aesthetic one: a novel about the now can’t possibly look at a rose as if it existed solely in its contemporary moment—it is undoubtedly one of the oldest and most clichéd images out there. And yet this rose can’t exist solely in the timeless realm of art either, because it is also here and now. Autumn is part of a quartet of novels about time, but it is as much about seeing, a subject Smith often examines in her fiction. In bringing together the present and the seasons, Smith brings to contemporary politics the timeless injunction of art: to stop and look.
Autumn begins in June 2016 and unfolds in three parts, each of which concludes with a seasonal mediation on a month: first September, then October, then November. Daniel Gluck is 101 years old and has fallen into an increased sleep period at his nursing home in an English village. He will sleep through the Brexit referendum Rip-Van-Winkle-style; we meet him dreaming of washing up on Phaeacian shores like Odysseus. His friend and former neighbor, 32-year-old Elisabeth Demand, visits him to read aloud Huxley’s Brave New World, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. While Daniel dreams, Elisabeth is the character tasked with facing up to our contemporary world. She is a casual contract junior lecturer in art history; we meet her waiting in line to renew her passport at the post office. Within each of the three seasonal mediations, the novel jumps around between Daniel’s dreams, Elisabeth’s present, and scenes from the history of their friendship, which began when Elisabeth, age 8, was assigned to write a portrait in words of her neighbor. Like many Ali Smith characters, Daniel and Elisabeth enjoy nothing more than wordplay and puckish literary reference. Elisabeth imagines Daniel waking up and asking what’s she’s reading. She will hold up Brave New World: “Oh, that old thing, he’d say. It’s new to me, she’d say.”
Daniel is old, Elisabeth young, Daniel asleep, Elisabeth awake, but topical references and the digital wash of contemporary life course through both characters’ thoughts. Elisabeth stops reading to inform Daniel that someone killed an MP. The Phaeacian shores in his dream are strewn with the bodies of migrants. A chain-link fence appears on what used to be the commons outside the village. On the radio, Elisabeth hears someone say: “Get over it. Grow up. Your time’s over. Democracy. You lost.” (She hears this months before Van Jones and Corey Lewandowski’s CNN exchange at 2 a.m. on election night: “Say it again. I didn’t hear you.” “You won.” “That’s right.” “Corey, you’re being a horrible person right now.”) Later, it is Elisabeth who scrolls through the news on her phone and comes across the single word: Trump.
This sounds as if the timely overwhelms the timelessness of art and the cyclical time of the seasons, but early on Smith punctures that kind of dialogue one dreads in the epoch-making-event novel. Elisabeth’s mother (a very funny minor character) sinks to the ground by the fence and announces: “I’m tired … I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. … I’m tired of liars. … I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. … I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.” Elisabeth, who is tired of her mother, says dryly: “I don’t think that’s actually a word.”2 Beyond the contemporary, then, this is a novel about a man who has lived the best and worst of times with a ring of joyful girls dancing round him: Nausicaa, Miranda from The Tempest, his sister Hannah Gluck, the pop art painter Pauline Boty, Elisabeth herself. And it’s about a young woman of good humor and comic timing. She’s full of joy, but also stunted: we learn well into the novel that she loves Daniel—really loves him—and seems destined never to move forward in time.
Elisabeth shares this kind of foreshortened joy with Boty, the only female British pop artist, who died at just age 28 in 1966. Boty is the guiding spirit of Autumn—Daniel knew and loved her in the 1960s, Elisabeth writes her dissertation on Boty, and Smith reimagines, reanimates, and reclaims Boty’s paintings throughout the novel. In this way, Boty is the latest in a string of real artists Smith celebrates through fiction: the Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa returns from the dead in How to Be Both, and the Greek actress Aliki Vougiouklaki dances through Artful. Boty was the ’60s incarnate: her paintings, full of joy and color, brim with contemporary references, pop images, flowers, erotic nudes, and female pleasure. Boty herself described her art as having a temporal quality, a “nostalgia for NOW.” She filled her work with figures like Marilyn Monroe, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Christine Keeler in the midst of the Profumo affair of 1963 (a political scandal that plays a minor part in Autumn as well). The rose is one of her most frequent images.
Boty’s paintings are exuberant paintings of images, paintings meant to look like collages of the pop detritus of the ’60s. Smith makes much of the idea that Boty painted “images of images.” And these paintings appear at one more remove from readers and from Elisabeth, because long before she ever sees one of Boty’s paintings Daniel describes the paintings to her from memory. He “tells” Elisabeth a picture that consists of a woman’s silhouette filled with a collage of images: Karl Marx’s head, a gangster pointing a machine gun right out of her chest, an owl, a sunflower. These verbal images are not just handy in a novel, but also convincingly realistic, since Boty’s work was lost for several decades after her death—Daniel would only have had access to her paintings in his memory.
In the early 1990s, just when Daniel and Elisabeth embark on their friendship, scholars in fact discovered Boty’s paintings stored in an outhouse on her brother’s farm. It makes sense, then, that in 2003, when Elisabeth is 18, she finds an art catalogue in the bargain section of a London bookstore and opens to Untitled (Sunflower Woman), c. 1963, by Pauline Boty, the very painting Daniel had described to her years before. This remove—verbal images of painted images of pop images—seems to provide an allegory of aesthetic distance both for Smith and for Boty. Art is eternal, it escapes its present, you need time to have perspective. Yet Smith uses Boty to make the case for aesthetic distance that is also temporally engaged. At the end of the novel she ventriloquizes the painter: “To take the moment before something had actually happened, and you didn’t know if it was going to be terrible or if it might be very funny, something extraordinary actually happening and yet everybody around it not taking any notice at all.” That is the project of Boty’s paintings and Smith’s novel: to make you stop and look. This seems crucial in the contemporary moment, when to look at an image, a tweet, or a headline is to participate in its elevation, and yet to look away seems to replace complicity with complacency. For Boty and for Smith, to stop and look is to take notice, to act.
In addition to being a Brexit novel and a Trump novel, Autumn is a contemporaneous one, and that needn’t have anything to do with the state of the EU or with the Trump administration. Boty paints to express her 1960s “nostalgia for now”: she doesn’t know if her present moment will in retrospect be terrible or funny, but she’ll make it extraordinary. Smith writes what almost seems like a work of historical fiction, but without the totalizing view of historical hindsight. In history’s place is the act of seeing, seeing even as we do now, images of images everywhere, endlessly fragmented, recombined, and refreshed. Art still insists we stop and look. Autumn shows that the contemporary novel can be both timeless and timely. This may simply be what good novels always have done, but Smith reminds us how to do it, even now.
- This is a very different “both” than the one a UK reviewer assumed when he worried that the novel doesn’t present the opposing view—as if fiction must also pander to our present’s most degraded of journalistic principles. See Leo Robson, “Ali Smith’s Autumn Attempts Something Rich—but Sometimes Ends Up Overripe,” New Statesman, October 31, 2016. ↩
- Then again, it probably should be. ↩