Autumn by Ali Smith
“We are living in a time when lies are sanctioned”, said Ali Smith recently in The Paris Review of Books.
Autumn 2016. Britain has voted to leave the European Union. A shocking event that revealed an ugly, deep rift in the British society. A result that turned the country into a different, unfamiliar place, in just a matter of days.
“It was the worst of time, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, ..”
As Brexit starts to happen, Elisabeth Demand, a contract art history lecturer in London, returns to her mother’s house to visit Daniel Gluck, an elderly neighbour, 101 years old, who is now in a nearby care home, and asleep most of the time. Daniel is an immigrant, art enthusiast, and Elisabeth’s unofficial babysitter when her single mother was absent. It is an extraordinary friendship, bound by their love for art and the stories they read and share.
“It isn’t that kind of relationship,” Elisabeth says to a lover. “It isn’t even the least physical. It never has been. But it’s love. I can’t pretend it isn’t. “
In Autumn, Ali Smith plays with time. Daniel is old, then young, another life, another place, long-ago memories are still close and painful.
Elisabeth as a child, is trying to make sense of the world through art and literature. Then she is a young woman waiting in the village’s post office to renew her passport. She has an absurd, Kafkaesque encounter with the post officers that seem determined to stop her from leaving the country.
Both have a shared interest, the sixties pop artist Pauline Boty, an extraordinary woman, the first female and one of the founders of the British pop art movement whose career was tragically cut short when she succumbed to cancer at the age of 28. Smith has incorporated her short life into the storyline; it is one of the most interesting stories of the book. Boty’s story remind me Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life: “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”
Autumn is multi-layered book. It is a book about Britain now. It is about zero-hours work, about those with no ability to plan ahead, let alone apply for a mortgage. It is a book about Jo Cox, the racial abuse and hate crimes that followed the results of the Brexit referendum. It is also a book about the shortness of life, about love and friendship, about the beauty of art.