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.