A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.”
These lines, taken from Ali Smith’s latest novel (and first part of a quartet of seasonal novels) Autumn, were written in the context of the UK’s Brexit referendum vote in June this year, but have taken on even more resonance after the US Presidential election last week. We are living through strange times and this strange – but beautiful – novel is an extremely timely exploration of how we live.
Elisabeth Demand is 32 year old university lecturer in art history on a zero-hours contract. She spends much of her time at the bedside of her 101 year old former neighbour, Daniel Gluck, who is in as “increased sleep” phase in a care home. It is just post-Brexit vote and the world is feeling increasingly unfamiliar. Swastikas and racist graffiti have started springing up. Fences have inexplicably appeared around what was until recently open land, a security guard aggressively keeping Elisabeth out without being fully able to explain why. Even Elisabeth’s mother, who it is suggested has not always been necessarily politically aware, is feeling weary with the world:
“I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that is on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”
Among the chapters where Elisabeth is grappling with the oddness of the here and now are flashbacks showing the development of her and Daniel’s friendship when they were neighbours and Elisabeth was just a child. They went for walks and spoke about art and literature and the world. Back to the present and Daniel is dreaming about what death might look like, about his sister lost in World War II, about the bodies of the desperate washing up on beaches while holiday-makers sun themselves a few metres away.
Autumn is a beautiful mosaic of decidedly unbeautiful times. Its extraordinariness is all the more remarkable given the speed at which it must have been completed and produced. Its references are pure 2016 (Happy Valley fans will recognise a reference to that scene from the most recent series) but its message is larger than that: people are scared and life is fragile and art can help us make sense of the world. Like most of Smith’s work the prose is poetic and dreamlike, and oh how I wish much of this year had been just a dream.
What an Autumn. Winter can’t come soon enough.
Ali Smith: Autumn (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016). ISBN 9780241207000, RRP £16.99.