‘Autumn’ came out in 2016, heralded as the first post-Brexit novel. I’m afraid I didn’t read it then; at the time, literature was a rare refuge from current events and I wasn’t going to let politics intrude, even for Ali Smith.
Two years down the line, this excuse was starting to feel out of date. For added pressure, Smith’s sequel, ‘Winter,’ has been looking reproachfully at me from my to-be-read shelf for about 12 months now and ‘Spring’ is due to come out in March next year; either I read ‘Autumn’ before the season ends or I fall yet further behind. It was time to find out how the first post-Brexit novel holds up, even as the turmoil of 2018 politics unfolds around us.
First things first, there is a lot here for Ali Smith fans to love. The book starts with a joyfully confusing moment on a beach, which crams reference to at least three literary greats into a mere five sentences:
‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have always will, it’s in their nature. So an old old man washes up on the shore.’
To go from A Tale of Two Cities to the Tempest via Yeats’ The Second Coming is a typically audacious Smith beginning. The chapter then goes on to have a bit of fun with Blake, Milton and (I’m sure) James Joyce’s Ulysses. Along with probably hundreds of other references that passed me by. It’s knowing fun that contains nothing explicit about Brexit but a lot of insight into how people see themselves as powerful or powerless in the world around them.
Then the book moves into the real word, and Elisabeth Demand, a ‘thirty two years old, no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London‘ is trying to send off her passport form at an understaffed post office. Oddly though, despite seeming like the perfect set up for a commentary on the way in which the pettiest details of British passport production have dominated the post-referendum news, this passage somehow skirts the issue. It was odd to realise that my memories have condensed the time frame – these debates did not necessarily hit the front pages in the immediate aftermath of the vote, but sometimes took a while to hit peak public prominence.
And so the novel continues bouncing back and forth. Between Daniel (our old man on the beach) and Elizabeth, between musings on the passing of time and glimpses into a precise historical moment, ‘Autumn’ is frustratingly hard to pin down.
I suppose it makes sense. Following the hectic news events of the last few days, it’s impossible to have any clear idea of what a post-Brexit Britain will actually look like; in this context, it seems churlish to wish for more precision in Smith’s depiction of the immediate aftermath of the referendum. Still, this doesn’t stop the book from feeling somewhat uneven as it juggles realities and characters, frustrations with NHS and public sector staff with nostalgia for ‘less cruel and more philanthropic times.’ Of course, this is Ali Smith and so it could be that this the point. A sometimes stormy and sometimes charming, often raw and disconcertingly changeable book named for a transitional season is really far more appropriate to the task than my lingering hope for consistency and certainty. I have no idea what’s coming in ‘Winter’, and suspect this is for the best – if there’s one thing that ‘Autumn’ does make clear, it’s that the relationship between art and the real word can bring joy even if it can’t be counted on to provide closure.