‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith (2016) – 260 pages
‘Autumn’ has been called the first Post-Brexit novel, and there are a few bits about the anti-refugee hysteria that has taken over England, but it is not the Post-Brexit novel.
“Rule Britannia, a bunch of thugs had been sing-shouting in the street at the weekend past Elisabeth’s flat. Britannia rules the waves. First we’ll get the Poles. And then we’ll get the Muslims. Then we’ll get the gyppos, then the gays. You lot are on the run, and we’re coming after you, a right-wing spokesman shouted at a female MP on a panel on Radio 4 earlier that same Saturday. The chairman of the panel didn’t berate, or comment on, or even acknowledge the threat the man had just made. Instead he gave the last word to the Tory MP on the panel, who used what was the final thirty seconds of the programme to talk about the real and disturbing cause for concern – not the blatant threat that was just made on the air by one person to another – of immigration.”
These lines echo the spiteful Trump phenomenon in the United States as well as apply to Brexit. However a few good lines scattered through ‘Autumn’ do not a Post-Brexit novel make. We must wait for a novel that more intensely deals with the Right-Wing racial hatred and viciousness sweeping across both England and the United States now.
In many ways ‘Autumn’ is similar to Smith’s previous novel ‘How to Be Both’. Both concern a young girl/woman and an old, old man. In ‘Autumn’ the girl/woman is Elisabeth Demand, now a 32 year-old university contract lecturer, and the old man, as opposed to a 15th century Renaissance artist, is now 101 year-old Daniel Gluck, a former neighbor who is on his death bed. There is a profound innocence between the old man Daniel and the young Elisabeth.
For me, ‘Autumn’ is just not as sharply written as ‘How To Be Both’. It has some of the same themes as ‘How To Be Both’, but these themes do not cohere so well. The story is more scattered and less clever and engaging.
One particular quality which I do like a lot in the fiction of Ali Smith is how she can make a facet of art history come alive. In ‘How To Be Both’, it was the life and times of Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa. In ‘Autumn’, the artist who Smith spotlights is 1960s English pop artist Pauline Boty. Like so many stories, Boty’s story is exquisitely sad only to emerge triumphant in the end.
And I’ve got some final advice for the British people. Don’t sound too vicious or stupid in your racist rants or you will wind up sounding like Donald Trump.