Autumn by Ali Smith
The first in a four part series – Seasonal – exploring “what time is and how we experience it.” This is Autumn – a time of fruitfulness and decline.
This novel certainly tracks the decline of society as we know it, with a highly contemporary backdrop of Brexit, new borders, new prejudices and fears, but set against a lyrical meditation on ageing, dreams, art, feminism and identity. Daniel Gluck, 101, is dying, and is visited daily by Elisabeth, whom he befriended as a child, on the way providing her with a very esoteric education about life, art and literature. Elisabeth, on her way to distancing herself from her mother and her life, becoming a lecturer in the history of art, has lost contact with Daniel until recently, and is now reflecting on her childhood, just as he drifts in and out of his past and fantasies about that past. On the way we get introduced to the 1960’s pop artist Pauline Boty, a real life, founding but largely forgotten figure in British pop art, who was hugely important to Gluck. Gluck’s past life was evidently colourful and important, but it is only hinted at, and in a way we feel he is still processing it, in his discussions with the child Elisabeth and in his current dreams, as he slips in and out of consciousness. Not a lot happens in this short novel, but it is beautiful to read, and we certainly get to care about the characters, Elisabeth, Daniel and Elisabeth’s mother as they struggle with the lives they have and reflect on the darker side of the days we now live in. Despite the contemporary backdrop, the book has a timeless quality which should ensure that it lasts – and I look forward to reading my way through the rest of the seasons when they appear.