Bri­tain on edge as friend­ship blos­soms

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

“Gen­tly dis­in­te­grate me”, a line from Scot­tish poet WS Gra­ham’s En­ter a Cloud, is one of the five epigraphs in Ali Smith’s new novel Au­tumn. In­ter­leaved on the page, they bounce off one an­other, col­lec­tively ges­tur­ing to­wards the novel’s ter­rain. Keats’s lyri­cal “If I am des­tined to be happy with you here — / how short is the long­est Life” sits along­side this spare re­portage: “At cur­rent rates of soil ero­sion, Bri­tain has just 100 har­vests left.”

Dis­in­te­gra­tion is one thing (one char­ac­ter notes: “[t]hat’s the thing about things. They fall apart”) but hu­man de­struc­tive­ness is an­other. The lu­mi­nous friend­ship be­tween Smith’s pro­tag­o­nists Elis­a­beth De­mand and Daniel Gluck draws the novel’s strands to­gether. Around them, Brexit, news of war, en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion, the mur­der of MP Jo Cox and xeno­pho­bic graf­fiti ar­tic­u­late “a frac­tion of some­thing vol­canic”.

Bri­tain is sim­mer­ing. Democ­racy is “a bot­tle some­one can threaten to smash and do a bit of dam­age with”. It is a time of “peo­ple say­ing stuff to each other and none of it ac­tu­ally be­com­ing di­a­logue. It is the end of di­a­logue.” Coun­ter­point, con­so­la­tion and hope take the form of di­a­logues be­tween reader and writer, and the idea of deep hu­man con­nec­tions knit­ted by cre­ativ­ity, art, words and love.

Daniel and Elis­a­beth meet when he is the el­derly neigh­bour the young Elis­a­beth chooses to in­ter­view for a home­work task. Their friend­ship re­volves around words, art and imag­i­na­tion, and re­mains one through which they stroll while the rest of the world scrolls. Daniel be­lieves “who­ever makes up the story makes up the world”, and to­gether he and Elis­a­beth em­bark on a game of story mak­ing. He al­ways asks her what she is read­ing, un­til it is 2016 and she is read­ing Dick­ens to him (“we had ev­ery­thing be­fore us, we had noth­ing be­fore us”) as he dozes in a nurs­ing home bed.

Elis­a­beth has be­come a “no-fixed-hours ca­sual con­tract ju­nior lec­turer” in art, writ­ing a dis­ser­ta­tion on Bri­tish pop art painter and col­lage artist Pauline Boty. Charles Simic’s Dime-Store Alchemy, a po­etic re­sponse to Joseph Cor­nell’s pi­o­neer­ing as­sem­blages, de­scribes the alchemy by which the artist’s shuf­fling “a few in­con­se­quen­tial found ob­jects in­side his boxes un­til they com­posed an image” in­spires his own po­etic prac­tice.

Smith’s novel in­volves sim­i­lar mon­tage, its frag­ments not so much co­her­ing as gath­er­ing, its shape re­spon­sive, its borders fluid. If her pre­vi­ous novel, How to be Both (2014), was fic­tionas-fresco, lay­er­ing the per­spec­tives of a 16-yearold girl named Ge­orge and Ital­ian Re­nais­sance painter Francesco del Cossa, Au­tumn is nov­e­las-(mag­nif­i­cently eclec­tic-)as­sem­blage.

And it is sym­phonic, or­ches­trat­ing sonic and vo­cal tex­tures into glo­ri­ous polyphony. Word play, et­y­mol­ogy, ana­gram and rhyme thrive, green and bud­ding like the plants that wrap char­ac­ters’ bod­ies. Their voices are di­gres­sive, ex­tend­ing ten­drils to ex­press con­scious­ness more rhi­zome and leaf shoot than stream (though a trace of mod­ernist ex­per­i­ment re­mains, and Smith’s work re­calls Vir­ginia Woolf’s).

Daniel, who for most of the novel in­hab­its what Janet Frame called “the ter­ri­tory of lone­li­ness” where the dy­ing spend their time be­fore death, drifts be­tween mem­o­ries and imag­in­ings. “What rhymes with nectar?” he won­ders, sift­ing: “Rec­ol­lect her. Af­fect her. Ne­glect her. Lie de­tec­tor. Film pro­jec­tor. Di­rec­tor. Col­lec­tor.” His thoughts alight on one thing and an­other, es­pe­cially his ex­pe­ri­ences of the war, and are “Grace-note (y). Misquote(y). Anec­dote(y).” In his friend­ship with Elis­a­beth, he is ready to “bagatelle it like it is”. Smith is afraid nei­ther of pun nor po­etry, and nor is Daniel, who gradu- ally “takes leaf of his senses” — a vi­brant, ec­static un­fold­ing to­wards death.

Thrum­ming be­neath the dispir­it­ing sur­face of racism, bor­der con­trol and the polic­ing of iden­tity is the green that fea­tured in Art­ful (2012), whose nar­ra­tor is a botanist, and the short story The be­holder that ap­pears in both Shire (2013) and Public Li­brary (2015). There, a rose bush grows un­der the clav­i­cle of the be­reaved nar­ra­tor, un­til each “rose opens into a lay­er­ing of it­self, a dense-packed grandeur that holds un­til it spills”. Here, as Daniel drifts, he feels he is “noth­ing but a torn leaf scrap on the sur­face of a run­ning brook”. Leaves be­gin “thrustling”, a very good word for it he thinks, “out of his ears, leaves ten­drilling down through the caves of his nos­trils and out and round till he’s swathed in fo­liage, leaf­skin, relief”.

Else­where, a court wit­ness green with anx­i­ety finds her hands cov­ered with lit­tle shoots un­til she be­comes “al­most all young tree”. A teenage Elis­a­beth sug­gests to Daniel that peo­ple dressing as trees has to be “nipped in the bud”. Later, Elis­a­beth sees the fu­til­ity of fences: “Prison for trees. Prison for gorse, for flies, for cab­bage whites, for small blues. Oys­ter­catcher de­ten­tion cen­tre.” Daniel imag­ines stitch­ing him­self into a green suit made of leaves. Elis­a­beth reads him Ovid: “My pur­pose is to tell of bod­ies which have been trans­formed into shapes of a dif­fer­ent kind …”

At times Daniel is snagged by darker mem­o­ries: “Is there never any es­cap­ing the junkshop of the self?” Yet Elis­a­beth’s mother, a clamped and caus­tic woman, finds so­lace and love through a re­al­ity TV show about junk. Elis­a­beth reimag­ines the show’s ob­jects into a “sym­phony

Author Ali Smith

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