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November 2, 2017

Rereading Autumn in autumn.

I returned to Ali Smith’s Autumn because when I read it in April I was as baffled by it as I was entranced. And I returned to it also because it was actually autumn, October: “October’s a blink of an eye. The apples weighing down the tree a minute ago are gone and the tree’s leaves are yellow and thinning. A frost has snapped millions of trees all over the country into brightness. The ones that aren’t evergreen are a combination of beautiful and tawdry, red orange gold the leaves, then brown, then down./ The days are unexpected mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of condensation on the web strings hung between things./ On the warm days it feels wrong, so many leaves falling./ But the nights are cool to cold.” And now it is November, which is the very point.

I finished rereading Autumn and was no less baffled than I was the first time, which normally would frustrate me, but there are so many things in this novel that function as footholds, even when reading makes me totally lost. The characters of Elisabeth and Daniel, the satire of post office bureaucracy, the beautiful writing, the contemporary nature of the setting, its immediacy. (“It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with.”) I got such comfort from that when I read this in the spring, the world being too much with us—and yet somehow it was helpful, a comfort, to find it in a book. Upon rereading I underlined the part (though I underlined many parts) when Elisabeth is reading A Tale of Two Cities and sees her own reality reflected in literature: …it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… And Smith writes, “The words had acted like a charm. They released it all in seconds. They’d made everything happening stand just far enough away.” [Emphasis mine.]

The main character in the novel (apart from the man who is a tree, obviously…) is a lecturer in art history, and art features prominently in the story, particularly the art of Pauline Boty, who was a founder of the British pop-art movement and its only female painter. Both worked in collage and I got the sense that Smith’s novel is kind of a literary homage to her style, figures and ideas from current events cut out of newspapers and magazine and glued onto a surrealist background. The kind of art I’d take my kids to see exhibited, even though we don’t fully understand the project, because so much in the images are recognizable, remarkable, and interesting in their new contexts.

This time when I read I took note of all the instances of “leaf,” and “leaves,” and trees and scrolls. On the remarkable ways that book speak to the world around us (like when Elisabeth is reading Brave New World in the post office and comes across an allusion to Shakespeare, looking up at the very moment to see an advertisement for a Shakespeare commemorative coin on display), what the novel says about neighbours and neighbourliness in the age of Brexit, about what is story and what is fiction and what is real, about drawing lines and blurring lines, divisions and connections. And speaking of lines, my very favourite one in the entire book continues to be, “Whoever makes up the story makes up the world,” which is an idea that continues to fascinate me. When Elisabeth is asked a question, “Why should we imagine that gender matters here?”

Also, “Time travel is real… We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.”

And so, here we are.

One thought on “Rereading Autumn in autumn.”

  1. Shawna says:

    You’ve convinced me to pick this one up.

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