Reading: “Autumn” by Ali Smith

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“All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications.

” As she passes the house with GO and HOME still written across it she sees that underneath this someone has added, in varying bright colours, WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU and painted a tree next to it and a row of bright red flowers underneath it. There are flowers, lots of real ones, in cellophane and paper, on the pavement outside the house, so it looks a bit like an accident has recently happened here.”

Smith and I had a rough start with her Public Library and other stories, and it didn’t get much better from than on. She has a unique voice, which makes her special in the best and worst possible way; while I liked some of her short stories, most of them contained a lot of literary references (I know, what a surprise considering the title and concept of the book) and casual name-dropping that made it hard for me to follow the story itself, so to say. Of course Smith is a master of her craft also in regard to this name dropping, since she is not only a writer, but she also studied them; so she names all these artists and authors for a reason and it’s not her fault that my knowledge regarding certain literary circles/periods/trends is sketchy at best. Still, I could not get drawn into the stories because a lot of it felt just random.
So much for the short stories – since seeing Autumn all over Instagram, everyone being enthusiastic about it and all, I decided I need to give Ali Smith and me a second chance: Autumn it was.

Not surprisingly it didn’t work out. I liked the novel much better than the stories, because in the end I could see some story-line and I was interested in the Brexit theme, BUT once again I had the feeling we are all over the place in so many different ways.
There are several familiar motifs that work well with each other (of course), but for me they also got lost along the way repeatedly, turning up again, only to disappear once more – a literary to and fro deluxe. For example: I often hoped I would meet a wise and lovely old (wo)man who would take me under (her)his wings and give me a sort of guidance along the rough waters of adolescence and young adulthood – I have seen movies about it (probably, I’m not sure, I don’t like movies), I’ve read countless inspiring and wonderful books revolving around this topic BUT did it ever happen? No, of course not, probably because they are already booked playing “rent-a-gramp” and reading to orphans at the public library.

Now I know that the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth is a bit more complex, but it’s still working with the same familiar pattern, which is why I mention it in this context; it’s a wonderful topic and a great theme to work with, but it’s not like one has never seen this before. Same goes for the difficult mother-daughter relationship; nothing new but very well construed, and Elisabeth’s mother is as intriguing in some aspects as she is irritating and sometimes uninspired in others. Elisabeth’s various adventures on her way to a new passport are priceless, and a lot of us will recognize the mysterious ways in which the systems work in their own countries. And of course there’s Daniel, sleeping and dreaming (and more). I could hardly focus on a lot of ‘his’ parts simply because it was, again, all over the place, dream sequences and the like. Again we have a lot of name-dropping and Smith works with several references to the world of art and literature but this works much better in a novel than in the stories, at least in my opinion.

One of the main reason I wanted to read Autumn was of course the Brexit-theme. As someone living in Europe who has visited the UK several times, sometimes even on a sort of regular basis, the fact that they did vote LEAVE only to try to find out what that actually means afterwards, was “surprising” and I was curious to find out how a renowned writer worked with this important event in Britain’s recent history. And these were also the parts I liked most, the parts I read without putting the book down, the parts I still have in mind. Sometimes you see it directly – Elisabeth and her mother describing (and fighting) the fence, the quotes from above, the reference to the murder of Jo Cox – sometimes it’s more subtle, but it’s still there. And anyone living in Europe with eyes to see and an open mind knows we are fighting on all fronts against fear, racism, sexism, nationalism, idiocy, hatred, and politicians who use peoples’ anxieties and ignorance to their own PERSONAL advantage; Brexit is just one very drastic sign that we still have a lot of work ahead of us (to describe it in a positive way; otherwise one might just say “that we will never learn and are not worth the land, air, and nature we’re systematically destroying”).

But I digress, let’s stick to literature, shall we?

Of course Smith is a great writer, no matter if I like her work or not; in some instances literature (art) is not simply a matter of taste, but also of timing. Maybe this is not the right time for Ali Smith and me; maybe this time will never come, who knows. Go ahead, read her, give it a try – no matter if you like it or not, she’s definitely worth your time.