“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.”
Ali Smith’s Autumn, a state-of -the-nation novel, looks at Britain after the EU referendum. This is a turbulent, ugly world of bitterly divided opinions, library closures, cuts in university spending, and overwhelming student debt. The novel goes back and forth between the past and the present, and all this is seen through the eyes of Elisabeth and her relationship with the elderly Daniel Gluck.
The novel opens with Daniel Gluck, now 101 years old, sleeping and dreaming in a care home. In his dream, Daniel, washes up on a sandy shore, and once again has a young body that cooperates, runs, and gives joy in its pure ability. At the same time, even in this dream state, Daniel is conscious that his body is aged and rotting.
The novel’s next sequence takes us to Elisabeth who is reading, appropriately, Huxley’s Brave New World as she waits in line at the Post Office to apply for a new passport. There’s the sense that time grinds down to this slow, tap-dripping pace as Elisabeth pulls a distressingly high number from the ticket machine, waits and waits…. shifting uneasily on a seat on which one movement makes another customer sitting next to her “jerk[ed] into the air.”
Elisabeth Demand-thirty two years old, no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London, living the dream, her mother says, and she is, if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you’re still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago.
The post office episode has to be the best portrayal of the mind-numbing, surreal experience of dealing with government bureaucracy.
I just have to make it clear to you first up before we check anything, he says, that if I go ahead now and check your Check and Send form today it’ll cost you £9.75. I mean £9.75 today. And if by chance something isn’t correct in it today, it’ll still cost you £9.75 today, and you’ll need to pay me that money anyway even if we can’t send it off because of whatever incorrect thing.
Right, Elisabeth says.
But. Having said that, the man says. If something’s not correct and you pay £9.75 today, which you have to do, and you correct the thing that’s not correct and bring it back here within one month, provided you can show your receipt, then you won’t be charged another £9.75. However. If you bring it back after one month, or without a receipt, you’ll be charged another £9.75 for another Check and Send service.
Got it, Elisabeth says.
Are you sure you still want to go ahead with today’s Check and Send? the man says.
Uh huh, Elisabeth says.
Could you say the word yes, rather than just make that vaguely affirmative sound you’re making, please, the man says.
Of course, Elisabeth’s passport application is rejected, as we knew it would be. A tape measurement concludes that her face is the ‘wrong size.’ In spite of the negative experience at the post office, author Ali Smith does not dehumanise the post office worker, for Elisabeth sees “despair” in his eyes. This flesh and blood man has been turned into someone who spends his days spewing out regulations he can recite by heart.
This wonderful novel goes back and forth in time to specific moments in Elisabeth’s life–moments she shared with Daniel. They met in 1993 when Elisabeth was 8 and Daniel was already elderly. Elisabeth’s mother, a nice woman, who’s obsessed with an antiques television programme, at one point bars the child Elisabeth from spending time with Daniel, but Elisabeth disobeys her mother, and over time, Daniel introduces Elisabeth to the world of Art. This formative, important relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel leads Elisabeth to a discovery of the artist, Pauline Boty. This also leads to threads concerning Christine Keeler and the scandal that rocked the nation. Now many decades on, the episode seems like an aside for the history books.
Time is under examination here, as well as the fleeting nature of life. We are all subject to the time in which we live: war, revolutions, and Brexit votes. Our lives are shaped by the times in which we live, and some things are beyond our control. Autumn argues that time never stands still, everything erodes and fades. We should value what we have while we can. In Elisabeth’s case, she has clung to art.
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.
Author Ali Smith’s Autumn, which is partly experimental, is one of a planned quartet of novels, and I’ll be reading the others.