Autumn, the first published of Ali Smith’s Seasons series, was being written when the EU referendum was mooted. In December 2015 it was just an idea, by January 2016 it was a done deal.
Smith is a deeply political writer, and her book begins with the words,
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Again
This echoes Dicken’s words at the opening of his great book about the French Revolution, The Tale of Two Cities
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…
The times are out of joint, warring political ideas are locked in a struggle to the death.
But in the first pages of this strange book, which shifts back and forth in time, we encounter a man who seems to be a refugee from some great catastrophe; a shipwreck or a nuclear war, but then he becomes a tree.
When the other main character, Elisabeth Demand, is introduced, she is at the Post office, trying to lodge a passport application form. Here we have Elisabeth and Daniel and their long friendship which touches on many aspects of art and life.
Their friendship began when Daniel was already an old man and Elisabeth was a child, and her mother used him as a kind of free babysitter, although not without some misgivings. Here is Elisabeth describing to her mother a painting Daniel has shown her
Like if I was to take a picture of you and then paint a picture of the photo, not you. And the roses look a bit like flowery wallpaper rather than roses. But the roses have also come out of the wallpaper and have curled up around her collarbone, like they’re embracing her.
Embracing, her mother said. I see.
There are many themes in this story. Racism in the present.
All across the country, people draw swastika graffiti.
Racism in the past, in the persecution of Daniel’s Jewish family and the loss of his sister Hannah.
Autumn is a poignant and deeply engaging book that entwines the history of our times with themes of love and friendship and ART. Because when I got to the end of this book I realised I had also been learning the story of an artist’s life, and then I had to go and discover that particular artist who was unknown to me, which was an added pleasure.
The next book in the Seasons series is Winter and is again about our past and present history, as seen through the lives of two sisters, Sophia a successful business woman and her sister Iris, a life-long activist, a Anti-Nuclear protester. The story begins with Sophia, being visited by the disembodied head of a child. Then her sister Iris, long estranged, comes, not at her invitation, to spend Christmas with her. With Sophia’s son, Art, and his companion Lux, whom he is paying to pretend to be his estranged girl-friend Charlotte, we have the full caste.
And here we have many complications. Art works for the security company that was policing Greenham Common, where his Aunt often chained herself in protest, and there are competing versions of his early life; did he really spend time in his childhood with his wild aunt until his mother came and took him away, and who is Lux, the homeless woman from another country who says she has come to England to study Shakespeare?
Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun, his mother says, Golden girls and lads all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust. Chimney sweeper, an old name for the head of a dandelion, a dandelion when it’s gone to seed. So beautiful, Cymbeline.
Cymbeline, Lux says.
A play about a kingdom subsumed by chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning, his mother says.
These books are erudite and politically engaged; at times funny, at others deeply pessimistic. Ali Smith is a brilliant writer.
I am about to begin reading Spring.