From The Record May 26th
Scottish author Ali Smith’s new book Autumn is the first in a proposed four-part series entitled Seasonals. Although set largely in the post-Brexit era, it is also focused to a great extent on the period of Andy Warhol and pop art, with side trips to 1995, 1943, and many other years in between.
The book opens inside the vivid fever dream of Daniel Gluck, aged 101, languishing in a nursing home. In his dream Daniel is on a beach, and now has a young body. Is he dead? “Then he looks down again with his new eyes at where his old body was a moment ago and he knows he is dead, he must be dead, he is surely dead, because his body looks different from the last time he looked down at it, it looks better, it looks rather good as bodies go. It looks very familiar, very like his own body but back when it was young.” As it turns out, Daniel is not dead. In fact, he has a young woman, Elisabeth, who comes to see him every day, although he is essentially comatose. He and the young woman have been friends since she was eight, and living with her mother next door to him. She initially encounters him as part of a school assignment to interview a next door neighbor, but it quickly becomes clear that they will be, in fact already are, lifelong friends, because, as he notes, “We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.” It is the beginning of a beautiful and mutually engaging relationship. Despite her mother’s initial fears that there is something “unnatural, unhealthy” about a friendship between an old man and the young girl, it is, in the end, a true friendship, and one that ultimately inspires Elisabeth to make art her life’s work. She is indeed an old soul in a young body, and Daniel a young soul in an old body, so their karma is darn near perfect.
Early on, the two devote their time to verbal sparring. When, at age 11, Elisabeth informs Daniel that she is planning to go to college, Daniel responds, “You want to go to collage.” She replies, “You’re using the wrong word, Mr. Gluck. The word you’re using is for when you cut out pictures of things or coloured shapes and stick them on paper.” Daniel responds, “I disagree. Collage is an institute of education where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative, and because of these skills everything you know gets made into something new and strange.” This conversation segues nicely into Daniel’s description of an actual collage, made by someone he refers to as the Wimbledon Bardot, and who turns out to be his long lost love, Pauline Boty.
Which brings us to…Ahh, the Swinging 60s in Britain! I remember them well—short, short skirts; straight, straight hair; skinny, skinny girl-women, and the Christine Keeler scandal. I know you’re all envisioning the mini-skirted crowd on London’s Carnaby Street, Jean Shrimpton’s ’do, and Twiggy. But how many of you are picturing pop artist Pauline Boty? Until I read this book I too had never heard of this person, who was a pioneer among female pop artists.
Shift to the present day, 2015. Elisabeth (Demand) is thirty-two years old, and works as a junior lecturer in art history at a university in London. She has left London to spend time with both Daniel Gluck in the nursing home, and her mother, who lives nearby in a small village. While there, Elisabeth has several wryly amusing but frustrating encounters with bureaucracy when she attempts to get her passport renewed, and again when she tries to register at the medical clinic where her mother’s doctor works, only to be told that her mother is not registered at that clinic, and, since Elisabeth doesn’t have a passport, she can’t see her mother’s doctor, or indeed any doctor. End of discussion.
The author’s musings on Brexit include the following snippet from a much longer chapter in Autumn:
“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.
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 roof, the traffic.
All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”
Sounds a lot like the U.S. the day after Donald Trump was elected president!
Read this 258 page book to savour the graceful prose and imaginative images, and walk down the memory lane of the 60s. Do not read it if you are expecting a plot of any kind, because you will be left wondering, “Where’s the beef?” I must admit that I fell into this camp until my book club met to discuss the book, and I realized that I had skimmed over some of the most beautiful parts in my quest to get to the action. As one of my astute “clubbies” observed, the whole book is essentially a collage, but one of scenes from various periods of both Daniel and Elisabeth’s lives rather than cut-out pictures on paper. That the characters are not as finely drawn as they might have been might detracts a bit, but not enough to get in the way of a determined reader.
If you seek a copy in the Lennoxville Library, you seek in vain. It is on order. But for the time being you can content yourself with other Ali Smith titles, available through inter-library loan!