The First Post-Brexit Novel?

Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’
Brexit ballot 2016 / CNS

I find reason for excitement when Ali Smith, with thirteen titles to her credit and numerous awards and honors, brings out a new work. A Scot now residing in London, she doesn’t write “state of Britain” novels. She is too subtle for that, but her work is clearly responsive to social and political issues. “The first post-Brexit novel,” some critics have called her latest work, Autumn. Indeed, the fact of the referendum, the emotions it raised, and the sense of ending—or beginning—that accompanied the vote run at times as a litany, lists of hopes or complaints, in a recitation of divisive uncertainty. What is certain is, as the title asserts, that a cycle is unfolding: winter seems to lie ahead. But the novel has aspects that subvert that fear.

Vegetative myths rightly dominate the tale, particularly in the sections devoted to Daniel Gluck, whose names assert both one who dreams and one who is lucky. At a hundred-and-one years of age, rising and falling out of coma-like sleep, Daniel dreams whole sections of the narrative, reinvigorating himself in the greenery of growth, reversing the natural process that is dying, and offering the necessary exposition to understand the experiences of the chief character, Elisabeth Demand. Her name likewise betokens one of her roles. She, an art historian, will not yield to her tutor’s demand that she pursue another thesis topic—a study of the female British Pop Artist Pauline Boty. (Fact and fiction conjoin here: Ali Smith, through the dreams of Daniel, resurrects aspects of the life of the artist who died, very young, at twenty-eight in 1966.) The personal link between Daniel and Elisabeth is one of neighborly proximity. Daniel, the fascinating old man next door, is Elisabeth’s baby sitter and then companion into her early teens; he also feeds her imagination in their eccentric conversations when her mother, determined to further her own independence, leaves her in Daniel’s care. Daniel’s evocation of remembered canvases as he spars verbally with the precocious child Elisabeth leads to a much-later unexpected discovery of Pauline Boty, who painted the very images that Daniel, years before had summoned verbally.  In the deft plotting of the narrative, Elisabeth searches out Daniel, now in almost uninterrupted sleep in a care-home. There she reads to him, suitably the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, in an effort to revive his consciousness and offer him the gift of her labor: the celebration of the artist, Pauline Boty, whom, as his dreams reveal, he idolized hopelessly so many years before. These sections of the work are particularly satisfying. We discover a delicate unfolding of love—not erotic love, but one of profound respect and shared vision—as Elisabeth attempts to rescue Daniel from the degradation of his condition in a care-home and witness his sudden recovery.

Smith’s prose is seductively simple, beguiling, its effects hard-won

Not content with the remarkable dexterity required to balance dream sequences of sometimes surreal content with the scenes of Elisabeth’s childhood, the novelist also manages a rebirth of Elisabeth’s mother—who discovers a new sexual orientation along with an activist’s determination to fight the xenophobia ushered in by the “Leave” vote. Ominous double-rows of chain-link, razor-wire-topped, electrified fences appear near the cliffside of Elisabeth’s mother’s sea-side town. She assaults the guards and is triumphantly arrested.

Daniel, who has written one memorable pop song, also revisits the Profumo scandal, with Christine Keeler, walking on or into, memorably armor-clad, his dreams. Woman artist forgotten, woman model publicly “exposed,” woman beloved hopelessly beyond expectation, and in Elisabeth’s mother, woman defiantly made anew: not every facet of plot comes to an autumnal end. But her chief character is perhaps the most revealing of all: Elisabeth as faithful to herself, to the experiences that shaped her, and to her commitment to the responsibilities she bears.

The surprises abound in the novel, but the mood is balanced, reflective, mature. The prose styles vary, structure reflecting the hectic turns of public feeling, the abrupt shifts in time and mood. We have, even in the autumn of the setting, the assurance, that despite her early death and the disappearance of her pictures, the artist Pauline Boty survives in her work.  The triumphs of the plot are small ones; Elisabeth does not despair (she even manages to renew her passport), barriers to immigration don’t fall despite outrage at xenophobia, and Daniel, momently recovered, will die. But in inverse proportion to defeat is the great pleasure of the reading. Smith’s prose is seductively simple, beguiling, its effects hard-won. We wait for a companion “first post-Trump Election” fiction, for those of us who read on this side of the Atlantic.

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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