A Novelist in Season

Ali Smith’s new quartet starts with Autumn and is set right … about … now.

London, 2016.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

If authors can be seasonal, then Scottish writer Ali Smith is, to my mind, a summer novelist. Her fiction, even when it depicts upsetting events, has an Arcadian atmosphere reminiscent of As You Like It, as if her characters were wandering through a green glade on a sunny day. These people shine brighter and are also a bit more straightforward than the people you meet in the course of real life; psychological complexity is not a hallmark of Smith’s work, but its buoyancy and charm more than make up for that. In Britain, Smith has won the Whitbread, the Goldsmiths, and the Costa prizes, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker three times. American readers ought to be better acquainted with her genius.

Given her estival nature, it was a tiny bit disconcerting to learn that Smith chose to make Autumn the first novel in a projected four-book series, each titled after a season and each apparently to be written in the heat of the historical now. Autumn takes place just after last summer’s Brexit vote, and the story runs up through last November. It was published in the U.K. in October, causing reviewers to marvel that by the time they’d finished reading the book, the action in it had caught up with their present. Borders and division slice through the rural England where Autumn takes place. Some of these barriers are overt, like the chain-link fence that appears seemingly overnight, topped with razor wire and inexplicably enclosing “a piece of land that’s got nothing on it but furze, sandy flats, tufts of long grass, scrappy trees, little clumps of wildflower.” Someone has spray painted “GO HOME” across the front of a house. The painted response by the residents of the vandalized cottage could not, in all its passive-aggressive politesse, be more English: “WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU.”

Autumn’s main character, Elisabeth Demand, spends weekends with her mother, in the village where she grew up, so that she can visit an old man, her former neighbor, who was her closest companion as a child. Daniel Gluck now lives in a nursing home, sleeping most of the day away at the age of 101. “The lifelong friends,” Daniel told her when they first met in Elisabeth’s ninth year: “We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.” Autumn is the theme of this novel not only because Daniel is nearing the end of his life but because all the characters live in a world growing darker and colder, heading toward the winter of our present discontent. Donald Trump only gets mentioned once in the book (which was, after all, published before America’s own catastrophe), but the gloomy post-Brexit mood that hangs over Smith’s characters and their world is unmistakably relatable. Nasty spokesmen on the radio say, “Get over it. Grow up. Your time’s over. Democracy. You lost.” And Elisabeth thinks, “It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with. It has become a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming dialogue.” That’s one of the echoes in the novel of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, especially the pendulum swing of that book’s celebrated opener:

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. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country people looked up Google: Irish passport applications. All across the country, people called each other cunts. All across the country, people felt unsafe. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked. All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick …

And so on for another splendid page and a half. Smith knows how to tease the glory out of the most plainspoken English.

Smith is sometimes classified as an experimental novelist, a label that may impute for some readers a grim, chorelike quality to the reading of her work. But Smith’s literary spirit is essentially playful, and in Autumn it finds its counterpart in a little-known (but real) painter of the Pop Art period, Pauline Boty. Elisabeth, a “casual contract junior lecturer” in art history, wants to revive Boty’s reputation, which dwindled to nearly nothing after her death from cancer at 28. Boty’s work (most of which gathered dust in her brother’s barn until she was rediscovered by curators in the 1990s) is bold, witty, and impish, filled with color, eroticism, and images of movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Jean-Paul Belmondo, as well as Christine Keeler, the show girl at the center of a sex scandal that ultimately brought down a prime minister. Boty was beautiful and fearless, a free spirit who dabbling in acting and, as Elisabeth sees it, had the rare ability to represent female pleasure and joy on canvas. (You can see a rather fabulous Ken Russell documentary short in which Boty cavorts with her fellow Pop Art sybarites here.) Trying to produce a dissertation on Boty, Elisabeth frets that acceptable academic style makes it impossible to simply write, “She made it look like a blast.” You can see why Smith thinks of the painter as a kindred spirit.

Time, the stuff that novels are made of, is the element Smith has chosen to play with most recently. Her previous novel, How to Be Both, is divided into two parts, one narrative set in the present day and the other recounting the life of a 15th-century painter. The novel was printed so that half of the copies put the historical narrative before the contemporary one, and the other half reversed them. It’s possible to read the novel both ways, of course, but you can only read it for the first time in the particular order that chance dictates.

Autumn’s most daring formal move is to attempt the immediacy of journalism, depicting the national mood while the nation is still feeling it. But Smith also juxtaposes another understanding of time against the doomy apocalyptic climate experienced by Elisabeth and her mother as they witness Spanish tourists harassed at a taxi stand or hear hoodlums crowing in the streets about who they’re going to kick out of the country next. Watching a reality TV show in which antiques-pricing contestants cruise through the countryside in vintage cars, Elisabeth notices cow parsley growing by the side of the road. The plant, also known as Queen Anne’s lace, is “tall, beaded with rain, strong, green. It is incidental. This incidentality is, Elisabeth finds herself thinking, a profound statement. The cow parsley has a language of its own, one that nobody on the programme, or making the programme knows or notices being spoken.”

In Autumn, you can sense the slow, elliptical movement of the cow parsley’s language revolving behind the hectic, jittering rhythms of the news, as the government cuts funding for child refugees and closes libraries and while mysteriously officious men in black SUVs patrol the pointless chain-link fence running through what’s supposed to be public land. Daniel himself has lived through such times, something the novel gradually reveals, and he can’t be said to have emerged from them unscathed. But he did emerge, in time to meet Elisabeth, to teach her to love books and to describe Boty’s paintings to her in such vivid detail so that when she stumbles across an exhibition catalog in a bookstore years later, she instantly recognizes them.

“That’s the thing about things,” reads the novel’s second sentence. “They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.” But Autumn hopes to remind us that’s as true of the bad things as it is of the good. Winter (as well as Ali Smith’s Winter) may be coming, but winter too ends, and “the eggs for the coming year’s butterflies are tucked on the undersides of the grassblades, dotting the dead looking stalks on the wasteland, camouflaged invisible on the scrubby looking bushes and twigs.” At first Smith’s choice to start with autumn seemed out of character, but of course that means that this ambitious four-novel sequence will end with summer and Smith in her element. If we are all very lucky, perhaps the world will catch up with her there, too.

Autumn by Ali Smith. Pantheon.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.