As we inch toward spring, a novel titled “Autumn” may seem as inviting as a summer read called “Winter.” But the author is the evergreen Ali Smith, one of Britain’s more innovative writers. Her risk-taking, convention-defying fiction resembles a dizzying high-wire act performed above stiffer competition. “Autumn” is another breathless feat. It might sound unseasonal, as if inhabiting another time, but in actual fact it engages acutely and beautifully with topical concerns and perennial issues.
“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,” runs the opening line, and for a moment we wonder if Dickens will permeate the proceedings, as he did in Smith’s 2013 book, “Artful.” He turns out to be the first in a chain of literary and cultural references around which Smith’s narrative ebbs and flows. By the time “Autumn poet” John Keats pops up, we are fully immersed in the nightmarish dreamscape of Daniel Gluck. Keats died young but Daniel is old; in his feverish thoughts he lies washed up on a beach, surrounded by bodies and contemplating his mortality.
We cut to Elisabeth, a 32-year-old history of art lecturer, who, while trying to renew her passport, ends up wrestling with an officious post office employee. He cannot process her application because her face is too small in her photo (“you’re wrong in the head”). Defeated by inane bureaucracy and banter, she heads to a care home, finds Daniel lying in his trance, and sits by his bedside.
Having introduced her two main characters, Smith takes us further into their minds to reveal their shared history and individual fears. “He wrote songs,” Elisabeth tells a care assistant. “And he helped out a lot with my childhood.” Stages of that childhood and their unlikely friendship are replayed in flashback fragments. We witness a young, headstrong girl and her wise, secretive mentor uncovering worldly truths, telling tall tales and forging new identities.
In and around them, Smith muses on art, literature and memory, plus the transience of life and the horror of Brexit. Some of her meditations are imbued with autumnal tones and textures (melancholy, regret, nostalgia); others are flecked with wit. As ever, Smith regales us with endless wordplay, from Daniel’s strained rhymes to “the poor man’s currency,” groan-inducing puns.
“Autumn” feels less like a standard novel and more like an intricate collage of ideas and impressions. Smith’s most substantial components speak volumes with poetic intensity and lucidity about an enduring companionship, a fractured Great Britain, the tragedy of aging and the cyclical nature of time.
“What pensive beauty autumn shows,” wrote Wordsworth, “Before she hears the sound of winter rushing in.” In time, and in fiction form, winter will rush in, for “Autumn” is the first installment of Smith’s “Seasonal” quartet. If this brilliantly inventive and ruminative book is representative of what is to come, then we should welcome Smith’s winter chill whatever the season.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Ali Smith.
Publisher: Pantheon, 264 pages, $24.95.