Autumn and the Cycle of Time
Dubbed "the first great Brexit novel", Ali Smith’s Autumn is a stunning piece of literature which captures the current feelings of the UK perfectly.
The novel starts with 101 year-old Daniel Gluck in a dream-like state, believing he has died. He sees bodies piled all over the beach he has landed on, and is exposed to the mayhem by being unclothed.
Gluck remains in a comatose state for the rest of the novel, shown only through Elisabeth’s—the other main character—nostalgic revisits back to the beginnings of their relationship.
Elisabeth Demand is first presented to us in an English village post-office, where she is told that her head is "the wrong size" in her passport renew application photos. She reads Huxley’s A Brave New World whilst she waits to be served. The village in which she is placed is described as currently divided, one half not talking to the other half. She passes a house where someone has spray-painted "GO HOME" on the outside walls.
Smith’s novel was largely a response to Britain’s EU referendum in the spring of 2016. As many woke in the morning, baffled by what had just happened and researching this new term "Brexit", it seems as though Smith began writing.
In Autumn, time jumps from year to year, forwards and backwards. Smith combines ideas of art, literature, history, and politics to showcase the diverse environment of the UK. She also does this to show the beauty and fragility of time and place; the main artist discussed, pop-artist Pauline Boty, is largely unknown for her work. Smith comments on how Boty’s work is constantly "lost then rediscovered" in a vicious and ongoing cycle. As a reader, I can’t help but think that she is actually making a reference to the cycle of popular opinion and cultural attitudes; the mistakes of which many of us never seem to learn from year after year.
The unique relationship between the old and the new in Autumn is also fascinating and delicate. Daniel Gluck and Elisabeth Demand have a "love but not love" friendship, Elisabeth admires Daniel’s wisdom and eye for art; he, seemingly, her youthful naivety. However, Daniel wishes to leave the past behind him. In a book Elisabeth discovers on Pauline Boty’s artwork, one she is sure that Daniel would have seen before, Daniel takes a quick glance through the book before closing it and returning it to her. She pressures him to answer questions about the time, even attempting to leave the book behind to persuade him.
The dynamic between the two is interesting and not yet fully explored, especially as, in real-time, Daniel is now 101 years-old and spends most of his day asleep. It is not until the end of the novel when he finally wakes up and begins interacting with Elisabeth in the present day, and it seems that Smith intended to use this as a signifier as to what is to come in the next instalment: Autumn is supposedly the first in a set of seasonally titled works.
Aside from these two characters, we also have Elisabeth’s mother. She is presented in the flashbacks as a typical British mother, and I’m sure many readers will identify with the loud, sometimes offensive nature of Mrs. Demand. However, in the present day, she is going through an incredible transformation; she begins a relationship with another woman, and educates herself more on the politics of her country. Her fiery personality comes to a head when she attacks a detention centre fence and gets arrested, after being enraged by the news that refugees will now receive even less help and more criminalisation when they arrive in the UK.
It seems as though Elisabeth is yet to engage with the likes of politics and activism, although she does comment on the detachment she feels after the Brexit verdict. Her feelings resonate with many young people across the country in real life. I myself identified strongly with her character; she observes, but does not feel like she even has the words to comment on what is going on. She turns to her past (by reigniting a relationship with Daniel) for support and guidance. As people have done with Boty, she rediscovers him.
Reading the book, I felt a mix of emotions. The Brexit vote and the subsequent comments which followed, displaced many people in the UK, and made them feel as though they were living in a country which they did not recognise. The first scene with Elisabeth is possibly the most powerful in my opinion; Elisabeth attempting renew her passport—perhaps our most iconic connection with Europe—and is told she cannot. She attempts to read Brave New World amidst the chaos, whilst around her elderly people are actually only in the post-office in an attempt to escape the cold now that the village library is closed.
However, Autumn only scratches the surface when it comes to representing the country's discontent, the bizarre often unhealthy relationship we have with the past, and the fascination we have with preservation. I am excited to see what the next instalments bring, and to see Elisabeth grow as a character.