Ali Smith’s Autumn Is a Post-Brexit Masterpiece

In a dazzling, abstract new novel, the Scottish author experiments with time, history, and art to respond to a tumultuous moment.

Toby Melville / Reuters

What kind of art will come out of this moment? If Ali Smith’s Autumn is a harbinger of things to come, the work that emerges over the next decade will be extraordinarily rich. The novel, the first book in a quartet inspired by the seasons, considers post-Brexit Britain at the tail end of last summer, experienced through the perspective of a 32-year-old art history lecturer named Elisabeth. But its ambition and craft allude to—and cite—great works of literature, from  Brave New World to The Tempest. Through Smith’s dazzling, whimsical feats of imagination, a news cycle described by Elisabeth as “Thomas Hardy on speed” becomes the backdrop for a modernist interrogation of history.

Autumn, like Smith’s last book, How to Be Both, is a gorgeously constructed puzzle that challenges the reader to solve it, with a narrative that darts back and forth in time and space. Scenes range from absurdly realist (Elisabeth renewing her passport in the post office) to surreal (a man in a coma-like state imagines himself trapped inside the body of a tree). Throughout, Smith’s seasonal melancholy wrestles with her natural writerly exuberance—“Is there never any escaping the junkshop of the self?” a character wonders. As the novel proceeds, she layers together fragments of books and paintings and song lyrics in an act of literary decoupage, as if to mimic the fragile patchwork of national identity.

The primary relationship in the book is between Elisabeth and Daniel Gluck, a much older neighbor with whom she formed an immediate friendship as a child. In one of the narrative’s many leaps backward, Elisabeth is shown at eight years old, fascinated with the man next door, whom she characterizes as “elegant” and whom her mother dismisses as an “old queen” who collects “arty art.” But neither snub is true: Daniel is a joyful soul, a sprite-like aesthete who recognizes a kindred spirit in the curious, wounded Elisabeth. “The lifelong friends,” he tells her. “Sometimes we wait a lifetime for them.”

In the “present” of Autumn, Daniel is more than a century old and living in a residential care home in a comatose state, and his dreams make up the book’s more mythological and existential wanderings. “How many worlds can you hold in a hand / In a handful of sand?” he ponders in one moment, before watching his body get younger before his eyes, and conjuring a coat for himself made out of leaves. At the same time, Elisabeth visits him to read books by Huxley and Dickens, and recount real-world news that seems stranger than fiction. “Someone killed an MP,” she tells him. “A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn’t be enough. But it’s old news now. Once it would have been a year’s worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.”

As Elisabeth mulls the aftermath of the vote, which she observes has left her mother’s English village in “a sullen state,” with graffiti on one cottage that reads “GO HOME,” flashes of Daniel’s life shed light on the cyclical nature of history. In September 1943 in Nice, a young woman later revealed to be his sister is rounded up and placed in the back of a truck from which she makes a bold escape attempt (the book is evasive regarding details, but that same month was when the Nazis rounded up Jews in the south of France and transported them to concentration camps). Later, Elisabeth learns that Daniel and his German father were both interned by the English during the war. In one of Daniel’s dreams, he sees a beach covered with dead, washed-up bodies, while holidaymakers sit under beach umbrellas just along the shore.

The jumps back in time serve both to put modern history in context and to construct the remarkable friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel, who becomes her babysitter of sorts while her mother leaves for possibly unsavory pursuits. Daniel introduces her to the work of Pauline Boty, another central figure in the book, and a real Pop Artist who died in 1966, at the age of 28. Boty’s works, dismissed by many during her lifetime because of their creator’s Bardot-esque glamor, become the life force of the novel, and as her significance in Daniel’s life becomes clearer, she also has a profound effect on Elisabeth’s. Smith also considers Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old exotic dancer who became the central figure of both a 1960s scandal that brought down the Conservative government, and one of Boty’s paintings, although Keeler’s presence is the most atonal note in Autumn, and the hardest inclusion to make sense of.

Perhaps it’s to note that power itself is nonsensical, if a teenager can ruin so many political careers and become a shorthand for scandal. Certainly, Smith has no truck with authority figures, who range in Autumn from Monty Python-esque mini-bureaucrats with unchecked power over the post office to “the usual tiny percent of the people [making] their money out of the usual huge percent of the people.” And Elisabeth’s future is largely devoid of hope: She lives in the same tiny flat she lived in as a student, has no money and no job security, and accepts that she will never be able to buy a house. She laments the fate of her students, “graduating with all that debt and a future in the past.”

But despite the grim state of England, despite the looming shadow of history repeating itself, despite the tragedy of Daniel’s past and Elisabeth’s future, the delight of their kinship permeates the book. The work Autumn seems most indebted to is T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, poems that are also structured loosely around the seasons, and in which nature has a symbolic power. Eliot, like Smith, considers time as a flexible entity, with memory a guiding force that allows people to find divine meaning in the universe. And Four Quartets, like Autumn, was written amid great national turmoil, during World War Two. But Smith has a kind of irrepressible sense of joy that peeks out through the darkness, an awareness that some people, like Boty, are artists capable of “blasting the tragic stuff that happens to all of us into space.”

Autumn finds its lightness in unlikely places—in the paraphernalia of bygone Britishness that Elisabeth’s mother picks through in antique shops, “a sci-fi vision where past and future crash together,” and where, she believes, among the outdated and broken things “there is something of much greater worth than anyone realizes.” Smith, in reckoning with the catastrophe and wreckage of a fraught historical moment, picks through it just as precisely to reveal the beauty and the humanity buried deep below the surface.