Britain on edge as friendship blossoms
“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