Autumn: when politics permeate prose

“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” begins Ali Smith’s prophetic newest novel Autumn. A grave echo of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Smith’s musing holds no humor.

A novel set in a post-Brexit world, and read during the fateful 2016 presidential election, Autumn is the first in a quartet of seasonal novels. The first season is Autumn: a time of change, upheaval, death, endings, and darkness. Because this is what’s happening in the world.

And let’s not forget Autumn’s synonym: Fall.
Fall. The word Americans use for this time of transition.
If Brexit means change and endings, an elected bigot means a fall.
The fall of man, of mankind.
(Society really needs a new word for this; Trump’s vision for America won’t be the ‘fall of man’, it will be the fall of woman, of womankind, of the marginalised, of the minorities, of the queer. In fact, it will be the fall of everyone other than the white man.)

Autumn tells the story of Elisabeth Demand and Daniel Gluck. Having met when she was eight, and he was her eccentric elderly neighbor, Elisabeth is now “thirty two years old, no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London, living the dream… if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you’re still in the same rented flat you had as a student over a decade ago”, whereas Daniel is 101 and in “the increased sleep period” at The Maltings Care Providers plc. 

The ancient Daniel has already lived through “the worst of times” – the two world wars, depressions, The Holocaust, nuclear tensions, the AIDS epidemic, 9/11 – and Elisabeth is a millennial who, like us, will have to deal with the future that the baby-boomers voted for.

Flicking between past and present, Ali Smith’s winding and eloquent prose forces the reader to consider the social forces that whip through the world. Smith perfectly captures the Brexit tension and divide:

“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. 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. All across the country, people called each other cunts. All across the country, people felt unsafe. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people felt legitimised. All across the country, people felt bereaved and sick.”

Ironically, this passage now applies to the US too.

In June I remember watching the pixels rise and change on my screen – confirming that the country I was about to move to had chosen isolation and intolerance. And then again last week, I woke to Americans choosing the same. I was numb. I was shocked. Most of all – I was angry. Angry that I didn’t get a say. I’m not British, I’m not American, so I don’t have a voice. It’s not just about Britain and America anymore – these votes will affect the whole world.

But, among the hopelessness that comes with political turmoil Ali Smith reminds us of the power of words and reading. Autumn is a book about books – Elisabeth and Daniel are readers. Among others, it mentions Brave New World, The Tempest, A Tale of Two Cities; books of political storms, revolutions, power. Maybe Autumn, and the books that follow – rising from this season of uncertainty – will give readers the tools for a revolution. Right now the power rests with the politicians, it’s about time this shifts to the people.

Like this one, novels are products of their time, but it is books and words and pages we turn to in times like these. We turn to fictional worlds (and words!) not only for comfort and relief, but also for instruction and inspiration, for knowledge and power.

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