by Eli Lambe
Rich with reference and metaphor, Ali Smith’s Autumn is a triumph. Published incredibly quickly following the chaos of the EU Referendum in June 2016, it fully captures the feelings of isolation, division, and distrust that seems to have characterised the 12 months since. The atmosphere of unreality is masterfully tied together with dream-sequence, ekphrasis, and lies. The principal character, Elisabeth sums it up concisely as an eight year old in 1993: “It’s about history, and being neighbours.”
Elisabeth’s ongoing battle with bureaucracy at the post office in the small town her mother lives in expresses such alienation, such a feeling of not-able-to-connect-ness, that the people interacting with are described like art, like an abstract painting of a person:
“The man creases up. It seems he was joking; his shoulders go up and down but no sound comes out of him. It’s like laughter, but also like a parody of laughter, and simultaneously a bit like he’s having an asthma attack. Maybe you’re not allowed to laugh out loud behind the counter of the main post office.”
This unsettling moment is shortly, after another potential joke, followed by “I’m not joking, the man says. You can’t joke about passports.”
There’s an awkwardness, and a fumbling, through so many of the personal interactions in this novel, and a humour which underpins everything. Words are played with, people are ridiculous, and the artmosphere of alienation is made lighter by the moments of genuine friendship and love expressed between Elisabeth and her neighbour, Mr. Daniel Gluck. This friendship feels redemptive, it feels both whole and wholesome – Ali Smith has referred to it as a love story, and has asserted that Daniel and Elisabeth are, in fact, in love.
Their friendship is hopeful, it is a series of connections present in a novel about division.
In an interview with Eric Karl Anderson, for Penguin, she explains their relationship as being one of lifelong friends, “I have a theory that we do know our lifelong friends, we intuit it as soon as we meet them. It’s something about recognition. And love takes all sorts of forms that the clichéd archetypes of love don’t habitually leave much room for.” And at the UEA literary festival on the third of May she described them as “soul mates” in a sense. Daniel and Elisabeth interact on the planes of imagination, he describes paintings and challenges her to think. Their friendship is hopeful, it is a series of connections present in a novel about division. The conversations they have make the book, make it timeless and contemporary. Something as innocuous as telling Elisabeth’s mother that Daniel is secretly a retired ballet dancer, becomes a stunning and relevant meditation on truth:
“I’ll tell you what will happen, Daniel said. This. You and I will know I’ve lied, but your mother won’t. That will make us feel different towards not just your mother, but each other. A wedge will come between us all. You will stop trusting me, and quite right, because I’d be a liar. We’ll all be lessened by the lie. So. Do you still choose the ballet? Or will I tell the sorrier truth?
I want the lie, Elisabeth said. She knows loads of things I don’t. I want to know some things she doesn’t.
The power of the lie, Daniel said. Always seductive to the powerless. But how is my being a retired dancer going to help in any real way with your feelings of powerlessness?
Were you a dancer? Elisabeth said.
That’s my secret, Daniel said. I’ll never divulge. Not to any human being. Not for any money.”
Every word and space and line in their conversations is heightened, nothing is wasted. The dialogue is heightened and clarified by the simple dialogue tags – “Daniel said,” “Elisabeth said” – and the shortness of the sentences. They are genuine. They talk like people and they talk like philosophers and they talk like art and they are able to be all of these things and also be a young girl and an elderly man.
They take on aspects of Socrates and Plato, questioning and teaching, describing art and lies and people. The novel is a Socratic dialogue in a time that is “the end of dialogue”, and a dream sequence where dreams are useless, and a meditation. The confusion and distrust of the now are processed and expressed here, through Elisabeth’s mother, Wendy, we are offered an affective outburst of this:
“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 the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s 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 it 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 any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity… I’m tired of not knowing the right words.”
The pressure of the moment is tactile, it builds in the book and is here released. Release is possible – the fences that prompt this tiredness are shorted by Wendy’s thrown, antique barometer. The right words might evade her, but action does not.
They are genuine.
I have been tempted, in writing this, to simply list some of my favourite quotes and let the language speak for itself, but that wouldn’t be very hospitable of me, would it? This book is one to both take time over, and to speed through. It is one to speed through and then take time over. To read repeatedly and read next to the news and to ask your reactionary relatives to read and read it to them when they stop caring.
Featured image via UEA Alumni Association Facebook
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