It takes time to understand what the novel Autumn by Scottish writer Ali Smith is about. And when you do, you realize you still may not know, not fully, not completely. You peel back the proverbial onion, and keep peeling. Or you discover what you’re reading is a kachina doll, with a story inside a story inside still another story.
Elisabeth is in her early 30s. She studied art history and criticism. She grew up in a fatherless home, reared by a mother who cared for her but didn’t seem too interested. When she was a child, she becomes friends with Daniel Gluck, the elderly man who lives next door. Daniel becomes the catalyst that opens her intellectual mind, and he gets her to see things she never would have seen otherwise.
But who is Daniel? We first meet him when Elisabeth is visiting him in an assisted living home. He’s more than a century old, and he sleeps most of the time. We see his dreams, and we see small and rather incomplete snatches of his past, like the sister arrested by the Nazis in France, who steps out of the police van into a crowd of women and disappears.
But as the story develops, we begin to wonder who Elisabeth is. She’s an 8-year-old child. She’s a young woman in college. She is one of the first art critics to become interested in British pop artist and actress Pauline Boty, who died at 28 and had an uncredited role in the 1966 movie Alfie that starred Michael Caine. It is through her research on Boty that Elisabeth becomes interested in Christine Keeler, the showgirl who helped to blow up British politics and the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1963 (Keller died Dec. 5; she was simultaneously having affairs with a British cabinet minister and a Soviet diplomat).
The story moves back and forth through the past and present. Slowly we come to see that Smith is writing about women, and the world they inhabit that is shaped by men. Elisabeth herself is able to break partially free because of the man Daniel, and even then she (and we) are not sure what she’s breaking free from, or if she’s truly broken free.
Smith is one of Scotland’s leading writers. The author of five short story collections and nine novels, she’s received numerous prizes and recognitions. Autumn was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She’s also the author of several plays. She received a joint degree in English language and literature from the University of Aberdeen, studied at Cambridge, and worked at the University of Strathclyde as a lecturer in Scottish, English, and American literature. She lives in Cambridge. Her most recent novel, Winter, has just been published in the United States.
Autumn is a quietly powerful novel, one that moves in unexpected directions. It’s unsettling. It’s unconventional. And it is rather remarkable.