Take two people born at opposite ends of the same century, build a bond between them, and let the world rotate and rot around them. That is how Ali Smith constructs her novel “Autumn,” which came out a year ago.
The next installation, “Winter,” releases today in the UK, right as the first frost kills off all of autumn’s late-season flowers.
In “Autumn,” Daniel Gluck is 101 and Elisabeth Demand is 32, yet a gap of nearly 70 years does not hinder their tender friendship.
But around them, the world is spinning itself apart. Brexit has divided their small town outside of London into factions. A fence has even been erected to further accentuate the divisiveness. Immigration policy marks the fence with “GO HOME” and “WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU” spray-painted alongside each other.
Despite the obvious intrigue of the book, Ali Smith uses the political context to explore the power of a bond that transcends the issues of a specific age.
The leaves are falling, and Smith, in her first of a four-novel cycle, flexes her writing muscles to produce original and inventive descriptions of autumnal decay reminiscent of John Keat’s “To Autumn,” which Smith nods to several times.
And that is only one of the peripheral literary allusions with which Smith places her novel in a tradition of 19th century social literature that aims to encapsulate the spirit of the time. Charles Dickens haunts the novel, the first line of which is a take on the famous beginning of “A Tale of Two Cities.” It reads: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” Later, as Daniel rests at his care facility, Elisabeth reads him “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Though Smith’s novel is not Dickensian in length, she does create characters who ruminate tirelessly on the past. Much of the book consists of Elisabeth’s tender reflections on her friendship with Daniel, like the movies they watched from a projector in his backyard, the long walks they used to take, and his persistent question, “What you reading?”
Like Pip or Abel Magwitch from Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” Smith’s characters contend with their past as Elisabeth and Daniel contemplate a life apart from one another.
Daniel, however, is asleep for almost the entire book, experiencing the world through surreal dream sequences. Sections of the book written from his point of view require Smith to use her clear, spare prose to illustrate complex concepts (for example, Daniel imagines a completely white scene upon which he can overlay colors like skin).
Displaced in his slumber, Daniel imagines he is in a heaven where he determines the landscape in the first chapter. He continues to experience the eternal while his friend sits beside him and prepares for his death.
And as she sits there, Elisabeth contemplates the history of her and Daniel’s friendship. She makes connections between her current life and the world to which Daniel has exposed her. In particular, he loaned her art books that led her to appreciate art and study it in graduate school. She even wrote her dissertation on the first British female pop artist, Pauline Boty, first introduced to her by Daniel.
One of the final images Smith employs symbolizes perfectly the effect that Daniel’s life has had on Elisabeth.
“The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leaf shape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring.”
In “Autumn,” both the book and the season, leaves fall, plants wither. In the spring, the snow melts and as we often say: All is new. But Smith realizes that past seasons still leave their imprint.
Past relationships form us into the people we are. And a relationship with an elderly person could end up leaving its marks upon habits and lifestyles.
As the air adopts its biting chill and snow begins to fall, we will begin to look forward to the next spring. And as we do so, we should consider not only the freshness of the rejuvenated world, but also the things we carry along from seasons long past.