Roger Brunyate's Reviews > Autumn

Autumn by Ali Smith
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it was amazing
bookshelves: art, biography-fiction, sui-generis, illustrated-review, gay-lesbian, top-reviews, top-ten-2017



Every Story Tells a Picture

At the heart of Ali Smith's seemingly chaotic but actually tightly-organized new novel is a love relationship, between a thirtyish art lecturer, Elisabeth Demand, and a 101-year-old man, Daniel Gluck. Their love was born over two decades earlier, when Elisabeth's mother roped in her elderly neighbor to look after her daughter. And what a baby-sitter Daniel turns out to be: playful, irreverent, respectful, and always intellectually challenging! One afternoon, he offers Elisabeth the choice of two games, either "Every Picture Tells a Story" or "Every Story Tells a Picture." She chooses the former, and he begins to conjure images out of the air, describing them in words, eliciting her wondering reactions:
    The background is rich dark blue, Daniel said. A blue much darker than the sky. On top of the dark blue, in the middle of the picture, there's a shape made of pale paper that looks like a round full moon. On top of the moon, bigger than the moon, there's a cut-out black and white lady wearing a swimsuit, cut from a newspaper or fashion magazine. And next to her, as if she's leaning against it, there's a giant human hand. And the giant hand is holding inside it a tiny hand, a baby's hand. More truthfully, the baby's hand is also holding the big hand, holding it by its thumb. Below all this, there's a stylized picture of a woman's face, the same face repeated several times, but with a different coloured curl of real hair hanging over its nose each time— […]
Ali Smith herself is of course playing the opposite game, for her stories lead in the end to pictures, real pictures by a female artist of the nineteen-sixties who was briefly famous, then forgotten, then recently rediscovered. But, as she did in her previous novel, How To Be Both, Smith conceals the painter's name until halfway through the book. I shall do the same, giving details and showing some of her work only in my second section, which I shall mark off as a spoiler. It is not that Smith is playing a guessing game—I had never heard of the artist, and I was an art history student myself at the time—but that the author's medium is words. Typing out the excerpt above, I had a small reproduction of the painting itself by my side. They do different things. The painting makes an immediate impact, after which you begin to look for the detail. But Daniel starts with the detail, which is to say with the meaning behind the picture. Describing it to a child, he becomes a kind of magician, conjuring rabbit images which chase one another in her mind. Much later we realize that he is also conjuring the woman who selected these images, casting us back to that brief early-sixties period when the postwar winter was turning to spring.

Smith long ago gave up telling stories in linear fashion, and this book pays scant heed to the conventions of prose narrative. Far better to think of her as a poet, and accept her images, literal or dreamlike, for whatever pattern the eventually leave in your mind. She starts with Daniel on a beach, surreal, evocative, death or merely a dream. Then Elisabeth struggling with petty officialdom in a post office penned by Kafka—only this is 2016. From there we jump characters and decades, back and forth, until the novel finally casts anchor in the first of those magical adult-child encounters with which I started. Their relationship deepens steadily over the rest of the book, as does our view of the almost-forgotten artist, but we are left to fill in the back-stories of the two principals ourselves. For Daniel, there are hints of a Holocaust background and a career as a songwriter; for Elisabeth, various scenes with her rather vapid mother, and hints of a ten-year hiatus in her life that is never explained. Those who expect plot threads to be neatly tied up should probably not even start, though I personally find something very moving in Smith's deliberate incompleteness.

Why the title, Autumn? It is intended to be the first of four thematically-connected novels, that much I know. But I'm not sure I would have thought of this season otherwise. It is true that Daniel's long life is clearly ebbing to is close. It is true that the act of looking back at an earlier age (roughly the year of the author's birth) can bring on an autumnal nostalgia. And towards the end of the novel there are passages that are clearly set at the year's end, one of which I shall quote in a moment for its beauty. But the real change in Smith's England is not a transition, but a fracture; this is surely the first post-Brexit novel:
    All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. […] 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 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.
Any reference you may detect, here and elsewhere, to the famous opening of A Tale of Two Cities is deliberate; it is the book that Elisabeth reads when she visits Daniel. At another time, she brings Brave New World, whose dystopia is reflected in a modern England of security cameras and electrified fences. But Smith does not forget the origin of that title, Miranda's cry of innocent wonder in The Tempest. One other book Elisabeth has with her, clearly a talisman of Daniel's also, is Ovid's Metamorphoses, which relates even the most cataclysmic of changes to the age-old processes of the natural world. And Ali Smith's own writing reflects this too:
    November again. It's more winter than autumn. That's not mist. It's fog.
    The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like—no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass.
    There've been a couple of windy nights. The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring.
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HISTORICAL POSTSCRIPT. The following section says a little more about the artist in the background of the book, shows a few of her paintings, and footnotes a couple of other real people mentioned in the text. Of course, you could always Google this information for yourself as you come to it in your reading.
(view spoiler)

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My Top Ten list this year is selected from a smaller than usual pool. I really only started reading again in May, and even then deliberately kept new books to under 50% of my total. In compiling the list, I also did not exactly follow mu original star ratings, but rather the takeaway value after time has passed. In particular, there are two books, Lincoln in the Bardo and Go, Went, Gone) to which I gave only 4 stars, but which I recognize as important books, with more staying power than many that I enjoyed more at the time, but have since forgotten.

For some reason, three of the ten books (Forest Dark, A Horse Walks into a Bar, and Three Floors Up) are by Jewish authors, set in Israel. To those, I would add a fourth: Judas by Amos Oz, read at the same time and of similar quality, but actually published at the end of 2016.

The ten titles below are in descending order (i.e. with The Essex Serpent being my favorite). The links are to my reviews:

1. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
2. Autumn by Ali Smith
3. Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
4. The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
5. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
6. A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
7. Exit West by Moshin Hamid
8. Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo
9. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
10. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

And half that number again that didn't quite make it, in alphabetical order by authors:

11. Souvenirs dormants by Patrick Modiano
12. All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
13. Improvement by Joan Silber
14. Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
15. Rose & Poe by Jack Todd
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Reading Progress

June 27, 2017 – Started Reading
June 27, 2017 – Shelved
June 28, 2017 – Shelved as: art
June 28, 2017 – Shelved as: biography-fiction
June 28, 2017 – Shelved as: sui-generis
June 28, 2017 – Finished Reading
July 3, 2017 – Shelved as: illustrated-review
August 3, 2017 – Shelved as: gay-lesbian
December 10, 2017 – Shelved as: top-reviews
December 30, 2017 – Shelved as: top-ten-2017

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)

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Jill I can't read your review until I finish, but I'm glad to see the 5 stars!


Mike W Holding off on actually reading your review until I finish but I'm pre-liking it because you're Roger. Ha ha


Roger Brunyate Thank you, both. Please return here when you do finish. I'm not by good at checking the daily updates. R.


message 4: by Angela M (new) - added it

Angela M Roger , this wasn't on my tbr list but it is now after reading your review. Thanks .


Roger Brunyate Angela, read even more reviews. They are all so different in the details of their enthusiasm, and that too says a great deal about this polyvalent novel. R.


Ilse A real pleasure to read your reviews again, Roger! And this is simply a gorgeous analysis of the richnesses a reader can find in this slender novel. Your insightful and astute proposal to think of Smith as a poet, and accept her images, literal or dreamlike, for whatever pattern the eventually leave in your mind, struck me as a key you offer the reader to open up the treasure box. (view spoiler).


Roger Brunyate Given your own review, Ilse, that is a real compliment. R.


Seemita A beautiful review, Roger.


Roger Brunyate Thanks for the comment, Seemita. It made me visit your own review again. I am fully in tune with your praise—but, given that, a little mystified at the three-star rating. Roger.


Violet wells Thanks for the images of Boty and her work, Roger. Fabulous review as always.


Roger Brunyate Thanks, Violet. Boty was quite new to me, although I was an art history student in Britain at the time. R.


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