Looking and Acting: On Ali Smith’s Autumn

By Milo Hicks

Reading a new Ali Smith novel always feels like returning to a familiar place. There is the usual smattering of quotes that mark the opening of each work, laid out like a welcome mat at the door. She always uses a single word — “past,” “beginning,” “I,” “there,” “one,” “1” — to open the first section of every one of her novels, a gentle reminder that every story is the bringing together of disparate parts. And then there is her undeniable voice that agitates and soothes in the same stroke, unbearably light and effortlessly heavy. Autumn, her most recent novel, is no exception, and it’s homier than ever. Underneath the new window coverings and re-arranged furniture are the same authorial concerns: time, art, and storytelling. Yet the familiar places of her novels never come across as worn or tired because they welcome such a diversity of characters. Smith knows that “whoever makes up the story makes up the world,” and advises us to “always try to welcome people into the home of your story.” This advice, which is one of Autumn’s foremost concerns, is lived out in every home she builds.

As the first installment in a four-part novel cycle named for each season, Autumn is defiantly contemporary. Published in October in the UK and early February in North America, its primary narrative thread is set in post-Brexit Britain, autumn 2016. The story weaves together several threads: Elisabeth Demand, a junior art history lecturer in London, has returned to her mother’s house in the wake of the vote to visit Daniel Gluck, an elderly neighbor who used to act as a makeshift babysitter for her often absent single mother. Daniel, now 101 years old, has lapsed into a coma in a nearby care facility and Elisabeth visits him under the pretence of being his granddaughter. The action hovers around Elisabeth and Daniel, past and present, the narrative horizon never extending far beyond either of them. The novel’s triadic structure maps onto the three months in autumn, each section opening with a scene from Daniel’s comatose dreamscape and closing with a meditation on the changing physical landscape, with vignettes from Elisabeth and Daniel’s lives in between.

Smith probed the potential of cyclicity as a narrative technique in her early short story collections. In “The Universal Story” from The Whole Story and Other Stories, she relays a tale like a baton, passing it off from a bookshop owner to a housefly to a 1974 Penguin edition of The Great Gatsby to a man who buys every copy of The Great Gatsby he can find for his sister’s art project. The story then closes with a reversal through the narrative frames, a tying up of each one that feels not unlike being yanked backwards through a rapidly closing tunnel. More recently, in How to be Both, Smith authors two intertwined stories that can be read in either order, with a beginning built into the ending of each one. This structural playfulness encourages a cyclic reading strategy, prompting the reader to start right back at the beginning after finishing the novel to see what it might have been like to read it the other way.

But there is an important lesson in How to be Both, which is that we can never experience the book other than how we first encountered it, we can never truly feel what it’s like to have read it differently. We can never fully escape our own perspective to see with the eyes of another. As with many of Smith’s novels, she’s interested in how art affords us new ways of looking. In How to be Both, a fresco painted by a little known Renaissance artist becomes the pivot point of the novel’s two moving parts. She re-imagines the life of the painter as that of a female pretending to be male, suggesting an alternative to the story told by the art history books.

In Autumn, art is the affective axis around which the characters move. The rediscovered paintings of Pauline Boty, one of the only British female pop artists, reach across the lives of Elisabeth and Daniel. Though their relationships with Boty differ, she offers both of them new ways of looking, showing them “how eyes that aren’t yours let you see where you are, who you are.” Smith’s descriptions of Boty’s paintings not only direct you to them, but guide your eyes over the details of each piece, doing a kind of ekphrastic labor characteristic of her novels. Given her abiding interest in the potency of the visual image, it’s no wonder she’s so concerned with looking as it relates to storytelling. Looking with or according to a painting (to borrow Merleau-Ponty’s expression), affords new ways of seeing that require the individual and the art to enter into a conversation. Literature offers the same, demanding that we take a long hard look at ordinary experience so as to reimbue it with aesthetic consciousness, which allows us to talk about it differently.

In Autumn, Smith uses the seasonal cyclic structure of the novel to suggest a new means of communication that holds things together without collapsing them, much like Boty’s collage-inspired art style. What initially seem like two unbridgeable realms — Daniel’s comatose dream-space and Elisabeth’s present-day world — are placed into conversation through the form of the novel. Elisabeth reads to Daniel while he’s asleep, telling the nurse, “Please don’t talk about Mr. Gluck as if he can’t hear you […] He can hear you as well as I can. Even if it looks like he’s asleep.” She holds out hope that there is, at least, one-way communication happening. This hope is affirmed in the third section, when it’s revealed that Elisabeth is reading A Tale of Two Cities to him, throwing the Dickensian ring of the opening lines of the novel, which occur in Daniel’s sleepscape, into sharper focus: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times…Again.” Similarly, in the second section, Daniel dreams about being “shut inside something remarkably like the trunk of a Scots pine. At least, it smells like a pine.” Later in the same section, Elisabeth notices that the care workers mop the floors with a cleaner that smells of pine.

 

Not only do these moments show that Daniel is still very much in conversation with the world, in contrast to what the care nurse thinks, but they also illustrate the way dreams offer a mirror to reality. In many ways, dreams are the most primitive kind of story. They are our brains working through the huge amounts of information we encounter every day in an attempt to make sense of the world. Daniel’s first dream begins with him washing up on a beach, which is littered with dead bodies, then: “Further up the beach there are more people. These people are human, like the ones on the shore, but these are alive. They’re under parasols. They are holidaying up the shore from the dead.” This nightmarish scene calls to mind the Syrian refugee crisis and the conversations about immigration that followed in its wake. I would never call Ali Smith a political writer, but when she does take on difficult questions, such as those about Brexit and the divide over immigration issues, she always firmly grounds them in the human. She allows her characters to think them through with one another, or, in the case of dreams, with themselves. In Autumn, dreams provide the perfect workshop for thought.

Elisabeth’s dreams are also given to the reader, opening up the possibility for two-way communication between her and Daniel. In her first dream, she is in a grubby abandoned tenement building and imagines everything in it painted white, so that “even the holes in the floor, through the broken boards, are painted white inside.” Imaginative work is conflated with bodily labor in her dream logic, whereby she proceeds to go outside and manually paint every leaf on the hedge white as well. Daniel appears, laughing, “as she paints one tiny green leaf white after another.” His presence in her dream, as well as the nod to Daniel sewing leaves together in his own earlier one, brings them together in a way that cannot be realized in the waking world.

Elisabeth returns to the whited-out place in another dream, as she dozes in a chair next the Daniel’s hospital bed. Someone knocks on the door of her white flat and she, expecting it to be Daniel, opens it, only to find a girl who has “a face as blank as a piece of paper, blank as a blank screen.” The girl promptly sits down in the doorway, begins reading, then “looks up from her book as if she’s just realized Elisabeth is there too.” Elizabeth cannot figure out who this girl is, recalling the moment in Daniel’s dream when he panics over forgetting the name of his little sister, who died when they were both young. Elisabeth’s dream also echoes Daniel’s dream-memory of a conversation he once had with his sister, who “looks up from the desk and feigns surprise that he’s still there,” much like the girl in the doorway. Elisabeth wakes up next to Daniel, “remembers the dream for a fraction of a second, then she remembers where she is and she forgets the dream,” thinking “this is what sleeping with Daniel is like.” Elisabeth and Daniel are able to commune through their dreams, though that link is severed as she wakes up. Smith seems to be suggesting the difficulty of holding two competing images in view and the tendency for one to eclipse the other.

These moments of dream-based communion are juxtaposed with the daily miscommunications that Elisabeth experiences, where bureaucracy closes off opportunities for genuine human connection. Early in the novel, she tries to get her passport renewed at the post office, only to be told by the obstinate clerk that her “face is the wrong size” in her photo. She jokes with him, an attempt to bring the human back into an otherwise soul-sucking interaction. The conversation ends on a moment of failed connection: “She sees terrible despondency in his eyes. He sees her see it. He hardens even more.” Later, not far from her mother’s house, she finds two barbed and electrified chain-link fences erected in parallel, cordoning off what looks to be merely an empty stretch of land. As she’s walking beside it, a man in a black SUV truck drives up, tells her she’s trespassing and threatens to call security. Bureaucracy prevails yet again in a hospital, where a receptionist rejects her expired passport on the basis of invalid ID. All these scenes call attention to how the increasingly systematized world puts up barriers between people.

Yet, Smith shows again and again how these obstacles can be overcome with a willingness to see and talk differently. Words and ways of seeing have to be cultivated over time, with patience and care. In an interaction between Daniel and Elisabeth from her childhood, Daniel insists on this:

Words don’t get grown, Elisabeth said.
They do, Daniel said.
Words aren’t plants, Elisabeth said.
Words are themselves organisms, Daniel said.
Oregano-isms, Elisabeth said.

Herbal and verbal, Daniel said. Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting to come up.

If language is grown, then so are stories. Smith asks us to tend what we sow, to recognize that stories have lives and bodies, that they can decay. They come to structure our lives. But we must be careful not to simplify or reduce. Like trees we fell for telephone poles, stories prop up the world and connect us.

Reading Smith’s take on a post-Brexit Britain given the election of Donald Trump in the United States was cathartic and remedial. The sheer amount of hatred that has been circulating since the election started has only continued, and, frankly, it’s exhausting. It’s one thing to want to treat everyone with dignity and respect, even those shouting obscenities, but it’s quite another to integrate such a compassionate stance into your everyday life. Because Smith stands so strongly behind inclusion and human kindness, she refuses to abandon those who see differently. Autumn shows us how to accommodate difference, to see across divides, where seeing is a full-bodied action, a moral commitment.

As much as the contemporary moment feels like “the end of dialogue,” Smith envisions a world where small conversations can be louder than the grand narratives offered up by the news media. Such a world is comprised of small spaces that we carve out for one another. These spaces must be fluid and responsive, like the dreams shared by Elisabeth and Daniel, so that they can open up dialogue across place and time. As Daniel’s sister tells him in a letter:

It’s a question of how we regard our situations, how we look and see where we are, and how we choose, if we can, when we are seeing undeceivedly, not to despair and, at the same time, how best to act. Hope is exactly that […] a matter of how we deal with the negative acts towards human beings by other human beings in the world, remembering that they and we are all human, that nothing human is alien to us, the foul and the fair […] we have to know we’re equally capable of both, and to be ready to be above and beyond the foul even when we’re up to our eyes in it.

Leave it to Smith to re-orient us, to ask us to look harder than ever, even when — no, especially when — it has become so difficult. And not only to hold our gaze, but to act in the knowledge that what we have in common is sound enough to bridge our differences.

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