Book Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”
Autumn by Ali Smith

It’s been nearly six months since I last wrote a blog post. 2017 has not been fun. Keeping up with scandals and nominations, violence and presidential tweets, breaking news and old skeletons, incriminations and analyses, insults, retractions and lies has felt like a full time job.

And it’s exhausting.

Though it hasn’t been that I have not been busy–I have read more already this year than in a long time. It’s just that sitting down and putting down my thoughts on this blog seemed so pointless, so self-centered. And god knows the times call for less self-involvement and a lot more outward action.

But here I am again. Because I know that that too is important.

In Issue 221 of The Paris Review (Summer 2017), I read a interview with the Scottish writer, Ali Smith. The conversation was intelligent, thoughtful and enticing.

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Ali Smith (Photo: Antonio Olmos)

So, I went out immediately and bought two books: Artful (2013) and Autumn (2016). (I had read her novel Accidental several years back, was floored by its creativity and beauty, but for some reason never followed up on more.)

Artful, on the surface, is made up of the four lectures on literary criticism that Smith was ask to deliver at Oxford. It is also, at the same time, a ghost story, a love story, and a novel–a combination that only Ali Smith would attempt and could pull-off. It is an extraordinary feat–the criticism is sparkling (I have underlined passages and dog-eared pages) and the narrative is engrossing and engaging.

The novel Autumn, however, is the more current, and is what I so much needed to read, in these “interesting days.” And again, it is magical.

Daniel Gluck is an old man and he is dying. He is 101 years old. Housed in the

Autumn book cover

Book Cover for Autumn

Maltings Care Providers institution, he is visited often by Elisabeth Demand, the young woman who has been his friend since she was thirteen, some twenty years ago. She is now an adjunct instructor of Art History–a subject he inspired in her as he taught her, as a young girl, how to see beyond surfaces and think and question all that she witnesses.

Scandal-63-1963-by-Pauline-Boty-copy

Scandal-63 by Pauline Boty

The remembered scenes of their past, innocent relationship are wonderful and inspiring and hopeful. Daniel is a wonderful and creative teacher and a fine companion for the young Elisabeth. He introduces her to Chaplin, to Keats, and to Plath.

More importantly, he introduces her to the British POP ART artist, Pauline Boty. It is she, a forgotten artist of the 1960s whose work captured the zeitgeist of the day–from Bob Dylan to Christine Keeler–whom Elisabeth writes her doctoral thesis on.

(And the scandal of Christine Keeler and the machinations of the two governments involved with her, sorely reflect the tenor of our own times. It is capturing this scandal that Boty is perhaps best remembered for.)

But now Daniel is dying and it is the summer of 2016, after the Brexit vote, and the UK is in turmoil. Elisabeth’s mother puts in best when she says:

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.
Autumn (
page 56-57)

Ali Smith  is writing in 2016 England but it very much could be here, now.

And that is what makes it so hopeful. For Daniel’s lessons and Elisabeth’s understanding of them underscore the importance and ultimate permanence of ART in turbulent times. For we learn that governments explode and implode, that pendulums swing one way and then the other, that movements and hatreds and despots come and go. But ART remains.

Daniel and Elisabeth’s relationship–a relationship with a 68 year age difference–is one that is based on love and trust and hope and acceptance.

And that, at least, is a bright light in these dark times.

Heaney and Plath: Two Poems about blackberry picking

Blackberries in a white bowl.

Blackberries in a white bowl.

We read two poems about Blackberries the other day. One by Seamus Heaney, one by Sylvia Plath. While both are dark, the latter is much darker. I did not tell them the facts of Plath’s life or how near in time the poem was written before her suicide. I will let them find that out on their own. (We try to downplay the biographical.)

Here is Heaney’s poem:

Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

And here is Heaney reading it:

What we have are the thrills and joys of nature’s bounty, of love, of lust, followed by its ultimate disappointment, and capped by the human facility to continue even with the knowledge that disappointment is almost always assured.

But that last line is hopeful despite the odds: “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

Hopeful is what Sylvia Plath’s poem is not! It too holds the gathering of blueberries in awe, is humbled by their abundance and their promise, but in the end there is nothing. Though that should not be a surprise. The first line itself drums in that nothingness, repeating the words “nothing,” “nothing,” “nobody.”

Blackberrying by Sylvia Plathimage

Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.

Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks—
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

The speaker, who is traveling downward on a path lined with blackberry bushes, believes that there is something at the end–the sea. Earlier, when she sees a swarm of flies satiated with blackberry juice she states that the flies “believe in heaven.” (Is her statement that “they believe in heaven” an implication that she does not?)

Perhaps the flies believe they have found it.

For the speaker, however, no reward awaits. The sea–to which she had looked forward to throughout her journey–is a pale wasteland. Again there is the repetition of the word “nothing”: “…that looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space” and from within this void she hears the “Beating and beating of an intractable metal.”

That ‘beating and beating” reminds me of the sea in “Dover Beach” where:

you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

It’s that eternal note of sadness that Plath’s speaker also hears, an empty, pale silence. After her walk, after her hoping to be loved, after her wanting a heaven, she comes to this cliff. And this is what she hears.

Perhaps we’ll do “Dover Beach” next.