Thursday, December 21, 2017

Autumn by Ali Smith

I was very excited when  Autumn by Ali Smith was shortlisted for Booker prize this year. I was rooting for the book, even before i had read it. After all, it’s a good enough reason to root for a book when the author is your favourite. But I did not loose much time in starting to read the book, as soon as i could get my hands on it. But by this time the prize had been announced and it went to George Saunders’ ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’. It was quite a disappointment that Autumn did not win, but it did not in any way diminish my keenness to devour the book.

Ali Smith starts her narrative from the sea shore. A man from another era comes washed ashore by the sea. This ethereal beginning and the potential interpretations this dreamy idea holds, kind of establishes Ali Smith’s Signature style of fiction. It was also a consolatory start to the book for me, assuring me that the author had not gone about redefining herself in the gap since i had last read her book. The first chapter was good enough to convince me that this is a work of the same author i had rooted for, my bets were not misplaced.

The book is centred up on the character of the girl Elisabeth, whom we get to know in snapshots from different stages of her life. She has supporting casts in the form of a elderly man who was her neighbour when she was young and has resurfaced in the present, washed ashore by the sea; and her mother, who provides Elisabeth the anchor.

Elisabeth develops a deep affection for the old man Daniel Gluck., and Daniel Gluck in turn shapes Elisabeth's way of looking at the world, her aestetics, are art outlook, etc. The seeding, grroming and flowering of this relation forms the spine of this novel. These are probably Ali Smith's way of alluding to god old times when Neighbours played a great role in shaping one's life and outlook, before we locked ourselves inside walls and fences.

These solid characters apart, we get to see a good deal of the life and art of pop artist Pauline Boty and the sad life of media sensation of the time, Christine Keeler. One reason why I look forward to Ali Smith’s works is that I love the way she weaves into the narrative her writing on art. Ali Smith’s writings provide us with an ideal platform for delving into the works of the artist.
Pauline Boty holding a work in which Christine Keeler is featured 

In this novel she has identified with Pauline Boty’s life and works. We are walked through, held fingers and run thru the different aspects of Boty’s collage works. It's and immersive experience to read Ali's description of the art work and look up them on the internet.

BUM, 1966, oil on canvas

It’s a very arsy painting. A cartoon-like traditional theatrical proscenium arch, complete with scrolls, pillars and an imperial coat of arms surrounded by unfurled flags, frames a stage whose space is literally filled with a giant fleshy, naked female bottom. Underneath, bright red, bouncing against blue, green and white stripes, three massive letters spell out the word BUM, and at the very top of the painting two tiny love hearts in the same bright red peek over the roof of the  stage flaunting their buttocky curves.

It’s a laugh-out-loud surprise. It literally bares its rear end at convention. Performance, my arse.
The above extract from Ali Smith's obituary to Pauline Boty published in the Guardian  is very instructive of Ali's treatment of a painting , taking us through its nuances and possiblities.
Ali Smith not only talks of Boty's art but also gives us a good feel of her 'sad' life. She builds up the life of Boty telling us what a potential young thing she was, dabbling in theatre, Television, her brief soiree with Bob Dylan, her beauty, her sad pregnancy and her exemplary courage in going through with it.
We are treated to a picture in which Pauline Boty is holding an art work featuring Christine Keeler, and the narrative goes on to unravel the sad story of the life of Christine Keeler and how she almost brought down a government. 
Autumn is the time that brings to mind the rustle of dried leaves, that are trampled upon, that were once bright and shining green full of life. Talking of dried leaves, the novel in its opening scenes, has Daniel Gluck dressing up in dried leaves and invoking the image of a photograph by Boubat. Now look at the photograph and see how Ali Smith is meditating on it: (  very typical of the Ali Smith i love from 'How to be both')

' remeber that postcard he bought... in Paris... of the little girl.. She looked like she was dressed in dead leaves, black and white photo..., the child from behind, dressed in the leaves, standing in the park looking at scattered leaves and trees ahead of her. But it was a tragic as well as a fetching picture. Something about the child plus the dead leaves, terrible anomaly, a bit like she was wearing rags. Then again the rags weren't rags. They were leaves, so it was a pictuire about magic and transformation too... a child just playing with leaves,... a rounded up and offed child,.. or maybe also a nuclear after-child,... as if skin is nothing but a picture of your fetch... and that child dressed in leaves became all these things: sad, terrible, beautiful, funny, terrifying, dark, light, charming, fairystory, folkstory, truth.

The the dried leaves also in a way seem to allude to the lives of these two artists in their promise and their 'sad' ends and finds resonance with the the title and mood of the Novel.
The Autumn has its say in issues like, Brexit, refugee crisis, Government machinations and apathy, fences and their meaninglessness, etc. 
Ali Smith builds interesting situations to bring out what she has to stay in a very dramatic way. The incident of Photograph for passport, the retelling of an incident of a woman breaking off the capture by Nazis, the symbolism in breaking fences with Antique objects, etc provide ample food for thought on contemporary issues.

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