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Ali Smith – dancing with falling Autumn leaves

autumnNear the beginning of Autumn, one of the two central characters, centenarian Daniel Gluck, sleeping towards death, finds himself naked on some strange shore, apparently in the company of dancing nymphs. A gentleman of some decency and finesse, he sews himself a garment of leaves. And also, a still more brilliant cloak of dizzying, glittering, playful language.

The sewing together of a supremely practical, supremely creative mesh and web of time, space, memory and connection is this simple, eminently readable, multi-layered delight from Smith.

Autumn is set in the aftermath of Brexit. And it combines both a real, and a stingingly satirical view of the direction this decision may be taking us. But its bleak view of an increasingly robotic, impersonal, uncaring country is always off-set by the surprising, warm connections human beings may make against all those manifestations of corporate and bureaucratic tick-boxery

This is a love story of a strange kind. The two central characters are Gluck, and Elisabeth Demand, or, perhaps, as the punning, verbally stylish Gluck suggests, de monde. The time is now, really now, as Autumn 2016 moves towards winter. But it is also, linked by memory, (Gluck’s) the swinging sixties, when he briefly met the subversive, vibrant, feminist artist and actress Pauline Boty. And it is also a look back further, to Daniel’s European past, and to those earlier manifestations of hate and fear of other groups, other races. Elisabeth, right here and now is a woman in her early thirties, an academic, just, working on a zero hours contract, a lecturer in art history. Elisabeth first met Gluck when she was a rather stroppy, rather difficult almost teenager , and he was in his eighties. Like no one she had ever met before. This is a love story – not a sex story

We have to hope, Daniel was saying, that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters

Pauline Boty (as I discovered) was a kind of icon, and symbol. She was largely forgotten because she was both vibrant, intelligent, creative, joyous, multi-gifted, subversive – and an astonishingly beautiful woman. Her beauty and her gender meant she was not accorded the status which other British Pop Artists achieved. Boty was making collages, thereby making subversive, subliminal statements, often about women in a man’s world. She is recently being rediscovered, though some of her known paintings such as Scandal, 1963, a collage involving Christine Keeler, have completely vanished. Smith makes an interesting suggestion as to a possible reason, and a possible fate (you’ll have to read the book)

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments, I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity

Just when the reader thinks they can’t cope with their own – or Smith’s complex disappointment and rage (as expressed here by Elisabeth’s mother) she blows entertaining brilliant bubbles of playful images and linguistic magic

Clour Her Gone, Pauline Boty, 1963

       Colour Her Gone, Pauline Boty, 1963

Like Boty, Smith makes collages. And, like Boty, there is so much dynamism and vibrant life in her work. She is making, often, deep and serious points, but she uses light, shade, satire, vision, and riffs in jazzy fashion.

At times, her intelligence is so savage, and so funny, that she reminds me of Swift. There is a marvellously funny, but horribly close-to-truth scene set in a Post Office, (one near all of us, probably) where there are a diminishing number of counter staff, and a growing army of terminals to deal with various requests. Elisabeth is trying to get her application for a passport renewal ‘expedited’ As I read, I was simultaneously screaming with laughter, fighting down a rising sense of panic – yes, yes, this IS our dreadful world, RIGHT NOW – and wanting to smash every terminal in every public place. Smith collages so many contradictory responses all at the same time, for the reader

This is a very short book, but it is absolutely one to be savoured, to steep yourself in for full, flavoursome surround-sound and vibrance. Recommended. Massively so.

I received this as an digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalleyalismith

Sorry Statesiders, if you want to READ this at the moment you will have to wait till next year, though you can HEAR it on Audible

Autumn Amazon UK
Autumn Amazon USA