Autumn is the season for reflection. A cold wind blows and you wonder how many more winters you have in you. Golden leaves burnished by a golden sunset rustle in the limbs above and you remember how they used to thrill you.
“The trees are revealing their structures. There’s the catch of fire in the air. All the souls are out marauding. But there are roses, there are still roses. In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still.
“Look at the colour of it.” (259-60)
Sure the opening lines of Ali Smith’s Autumn declare “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.” (3) And yet young Elisabeth will read to Daniel the centenarian A Tale of Two Cities as he lies sleeping in the elder care facility. So the best of times must be hidden somewhere within.
Autumn caught me up short. It has such a deceptively gentle and playful spirit. It chronicles, in broken time, the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel from the time when she was a lonely 8-year-old in a single parent home wondering about the elderly man next door. Her mother is troubled by the stranger (and many other things) and we do think its odd that the two should take an interest in each other. But there’s nothing unusual about the relationship for them.
“Very pleased to meet you,” the old man says on their first meeting. “Finally.”
“How do you mean, finally? Elisabeth said. We only moved here six weeks ago.”
“The lifelong friends, he said. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.” (52)
“A fine friendship,” is what her mother’s late-in-life lover calls it. But Elisabeth corrects her. “I love him,” she says. (216)
It’s not that kind of love, whatever you’re thinking. It’s born of art and reading. It’s the playfulness with words that young children and old people share as the letters slip on the tongue and in the hearing and certain meanings dissolve into new possibilities. They read together and tell stories together.
“The whole point of Bagatelle [their storytelling game] is that you trifle with the stories that people think are set in stone. And no, not that kind of trifle—“ Daniel says. (117) And their love grows deeper and Elisabeth sees the possibilities of life and thrives on the space that Daniel gives her.
Of course, Britain is going to hell as this happens. It’s 2016 and the Brexit vote has just happened.
“All across the country, there was was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing.” (59)
Yes, it’s A Tale of Two Countries. We have our own American version. A house of an immigrant family is spray painted with the words, “GO HOME,” and just below a retort is written, “WE ARE ALREADY HOME, THANK YOU.” Elisabeth must endure a bureaucratic nightmare at the post office just to get a passport. Her mother throws an antique barometer at a new electrified fence around an ominous government facility and plans daily assaults with archaic weapons.
But calling Autumn the first great post-Brexit novel is doing the reader a disservice. Because as bad as things are there is a vivacious undercurrent, one that is symbolized by the third great character in the book—the 1960s British artist Pauline Boty. Boty is a real historical figure whose star shone brilliantly as the lone female in the British pop art scene and then flared out as she died tragically early and her art was lost.
Daniel’s stories are suffused with Boty’s memory and Elisabeth picks up on the theme. She grows up to study Boty’s work. And then (it is not a spoiler to reveal) at the end of the book Boty herself has a chapter, speaking from the peak of her career. The alchemy Smith performs in bringing the woman to life with the full-throated dreams of that era, empowered by the possibilities for women, art, and relationship, gave me a mild and welcome dose of euphoria.
“To take the moment before something had actually happened, and you didn’t know if it was going to be terrible or if it might be very funny, something extraordinary actually happening and yet everybody around it not taking any notice at all.” (252) This is Boty’s view of the artist’s work.
And this is Autumn. A time when an old man barely breathing on a bed at The Maltings Care Providers plc looks like death itself. Like England itself. But look again. “There’s a wide-open rose, still. Look at the colour of it.”