My reading slump persists, and ‘Autumn’ has had no impact whatsoever on my jaded appetite for contemporary literature. While it was a gentle, undemanding read, the lack of a strong narrative thread meant this didn’t grip in the way I need right now.
In a highly fragmented manner this novel tells the story of the friendship between Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-something art historian, and her elderly European neighbour, Daniel Gluck. Parts of the non-linear narrative include Daniel’s dreams of being young again. ‘Autumn’ has been described as the UK’s first post-Brexit novel, which may be correct, but it also contains many references to the 1960’s, including pop-art and the Profumo scandal.
To be blunt, I didn’t engage with the narrative. I didn’t care about the characters who never really came to life for me, and who don’t really do much anyway. There is no plot to speak of, not that that usually troubles me. Attempts at humour are clumsy – the Post Office scenes, when Elisabeth goes to renew her passport, felt like amateurish stand-up. Which leaves us with the social and political commentary (where Smith tries not to come down on one side of the Brexit argument or another, is clearly a metropolitan liberal, of course she is) and the prose. Smith’s prose is easy to read, but I found it mainly uninspiring and flat. Take these two descriptions of autumn (and having named the novel after the season, you would hope that these paragraphs are where Smith would deploy her big guns), annotated with my notes:
“October’s a blink of the eye (1). 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 across the country into brightness. The ones that aren’t evergreen are a combination of beautiful and tawdry, red orange gold the leaves, then brown (2), and down.
The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite(3) 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 the condensation on the webstrings(4) hung between things (5).”
- No, it is not a blink of the eye. The phrase is “gone in the blink of an eye, meaning passes quickly, Of course Smith has abbreviated the phrase deliberately – we don’t always think in full phrases, but October doesn’t pass quickly. Most people wish it would, but as the first frosts kick in it seems an age since summer, the first colds of the year start to spread, and it is months until Christmas. October crawls past.
- There’s little imagery here – lacy creep I suppose – and the efforts to describe autumn colours “red orange gold the leaves, then brown” wouldn’t win any awards in a primary school – although the narrator helpfully points out that it is only the trees which are not evergreen to which this description applies. She attempts to get some movement into the description – “and down” – which also ends the internal rhyme. Stilted word order again is an attempt at poetical phrasing – “the plants calm in the folding themselves away”.
- The term underbite describes “the position of the teeth in which the lower teeth go over the upper teeth”, so try as I might I can’t see the term being used to describe the late cold of the day in the way the speaker does here – she is groping for a way of describing the way the days get colder quickly as night falls, despite the late bright sunshine October days often enjoy.
- And (5) By using compound words – underbite, webstrings – Smith is taking liberties with the language in order to be ‘poetic’. This description ends tamely, with the webstring hung between “things”. Well what a picture that conjures up?!
The test here is really a simple one – does this paragraph evoke autumn for you? Can you taste, it, sense it, feel it? Does it make you want to close your curtains, turn on a lamp and put another log on the metaphorical fire? What if you read it in May or June – would it work as well then?
Now it’s November
“November again. It’s more winter than autumn. That’s not mist. It’s fog. The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like – no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass.(1) There’ve been a couple of windy nights. The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. (2) One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring. The furniture in the garden is rusting. They’ve forgotten to put it away for the winter. The trees are revealing their structures. There’s the catch of fire in the air. All the souls are out marauding. But there are roses, there are still roses. In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still. Look at the colour of it.”(3)
- This couldn’t be more clumsy if it tried –; sycamore seeds hitting glass are like sycamore seeds hitting glass? Well thanks for that vivid imagery there! Unless you have lived or worked next to a sycamore tree this image will have no resonance whatsoever.
- The reference to wanwood and leafmeal are from Manley Hopkins’s poem about mortality, ‘Spring and Fall’
“Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why”
- This is better. Smith has noticed the incredible resilience of the late blooming rose, still there despite all that autumn can throw at it.
I’ve never felt the need to use a scoring system for my reviews, but if I did I would give ‘Autumn’ a ‘meh’ out of ‘whatever’.