- - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

AUTUMN: A NOVEL

By Ali Smith

Pantheon Books, $24.95, 272 pages

Autumn always arrives trailing clouds of mist and mellow fruitfulness. And melancholy, too. The harvests presage winter. Death is not far away. It is very close to Daniel Gluck in Ali Smith’s “Autumn” — whose first pages describe him washing up on a sea shore. “Is this it? Really? This? Is death?” he thinks as he spits sand from his mouth.

In fact, Daniel is not dead, but he’s close to it. He’s 101 and in a care home and sleeping for long periods. “The increased sleep period happens when people are close to death,” the nurse assistant warns Elisabeth Demand when she comes to visit. She met Daniel when she had to do an elementary school assignment on a neighbor, and they became friends. She is full of memories about walks and talks and projects with him; knows that if he wakes up, “the first thing he’d do is he’s tell her some fact from whichever fruitful place in his brain he had been down in.” Possibly that sea shore he dreamed up. He’d also ask her, “What are you reading?” Because he always does that. And on that chill day in autumn 2016 when Elisabeth sits beside his bed, she says, “Brave New World.”

And how ironic is that with Britain groping its way around Brexit, and Elisabeth herself just emerging — not unscathed — from a maddening battle with bureaucracy? As a 32-year old lecturer in art history with a contract that may well not be renewed she has little hope of ever owning a house or doing more than just getting by, even though her rather depressing mother insists Elisabeth “has it all.”

Ali Smith’s dives in and out among Elisabeth’s and Daniel’s memories, pausing to take cold dips in the flow of life in post-Brexit Britain. “All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt was the right thing.” These switchback sentences typify the edgy contrasts of this work in which death and other disasters large and small are more than possible, yet which nevertheless hums with life.

Elisabeth discovers the work of Pauline Boty, an innovative pop artist of the 1960s who died aged 28 and was long forgotten. Daniel knew her work, however, and Elisabeth determines to write about her inventive paintings and collages. They are representations of representation and what does that signify? she asks herself. Her mother goes on a reality TV program about buying old things cheaply. In the process she meets a minor celebrity she admires, and her life and mood get better.

Still, winter is coming. “Autumn” is the first of Ali Smith’s proposed quartet “Seasonal.” Anything seasonal suggests cycles and change. Any novel sequence suggests an author taking the long view, of character certainly but also of history. Even bang-up-to-minute accounts of Britain right now leave space for glimpses in “Autumn” of earlier worlds: of Daniel’s European roots and a little sister he had; of the Profumo scandal of the 1950s captured in one of Pauline Boty’s paintings; of the evocative useless mass of antiques and junk — inkwells, a butter churn, decanters, sheet music, odd cabinets — that Elisabeth’s mother rifles through on the TV show, all of them artifacts of time past.

British literature has many sequence novels. Trollope’s Palliser novels are an early example, and the triumphs and disasters for three of four generations of a family also sustained Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga,” Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “The Scots Quair,” and several other sequences. But in Anthony Powell’s “The Dance to the Music of Time,” time itself is a subject, with characters appearing then fading, remaining themselves but subject to the mysteries of time, which takes things away — but then, perhaps, brings them back. Faster-paced, more prickly, grittier, the first novel of Ali Smith’s sequence is similarly focused on time and recurrence. “It was the worst of times,” it begins, “it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always, have always will, it’s in their nature.”

These terse sentences suggest the energy of the writing. Elsewhere she is lyrical — about the cow parsley in England’s lanes for example — and tender as in her portrayals of Elisabeth as a child with Daniel, and seriously comic in her descriptions of Elisabeth’s trials in getting a passport. She is indeed a writer in her prime. “Autumn” is clever and invigorating. The promise of three more books to come is something to be savored.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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