Ali Smith’s “Autumn,’’ is the first novel in a forthcoming seasonal quartet. With customary intrepidness, the celebrated Scottish author of several previous books of fiction raises questions about aging, the elasticity of friendship, aesthetic politics, and the meaning of fame. “Autumn’’ is a novel of ideas examining the nature of time — how people spend time and how time shapes them. The narrative frequently switches point of view, while the chronological momentum is interrupted and enhanced by dreams, stream-of-consciousness ruminations, and historical commentary.
Elisabeth Demand, a 32-year-old art historian, returns to her English village to stay with Wendy, the single mother who raised her, and to see Daniel Gluck, a friend 72 years her senior, at the nearby Maltings Care Home. Posing as his granddaughter, she visits Daniel regularly, reading “Tale of Two Cities’’ as the old man, now 101, sleeps.
Mother and daughter had become Daniel’s neighbors when the precocious Elizabeth was eight The girl was immediately captivated: “He had a voice off old films where things happen to well-dressed warplane pilots in black and white.”
At first, Wendy warns her daughter against the “old queen” next door. But just as the neighbor is a magnet for Elisabeth’s imagination, her artless vivacity captures Daniel’s heart. Eventually, he wins over Wendy, who starts to rely on him to mind her daughter when she’s away from the house. Daniel and Elisabeth become close friends as he tutors her in literature, screens films in the back garden, takes her to see “The Tempest,” and opens up the larger world.
Smith slowly draws the arc of Elisabeth’s life — her adventurous youth, her college struggle to write about a woman artist; a painfully failed romance; an insecure academic job, and her current search for an escape hatch. Elisabeth is distressed by the recent Brexit vote and is struggling to renew her passport.
Meanwhile, Wendy grows increasingly distracted by a reunion with her old friend Zoe. Elisabeth is startled that casual Wendy has dressed up and applied make-up for the visit. As the women renew their friendship, which deepens in intimacy, it appears that Wendy, not Daniel, may be the story’s “queer one.”
Daily victories and frustrations weigh as heavily as life’s milestones; Smith portrays Elisabeth’s tender bedside vigil and her frustrations with soul-draining bureaucracy — securing medical appointments; coping with home care rules; attaining necessary documents. Nothing is easy. As the officious clerk rejects Elisabeth’s passport photo explains, “Your eyes don’t sit with the permissible regularity inside the shaded area, she says. This doesn’t line up. This should be in the middle and, as you can see, it’s at the side of your nose. I’m afraid these photographs don’t meet the necessary stipulation.”
The best scenes are those between Elisabeth and Daniel. Take this one from her youth:
“Elizabeth was crying now like a much younger child cries. Crying came out of her like weather.
“Daniel put his hand flat against her back.
“What I do when it distresses me that there’s something I can’t remember is. Are you listening?
“Yes, Elisabeth said, through the crying.
“I imagine that whatever it is I’ve forgotten is folded close to me, like a sleeping bird.
“What kind of bird? Elisabeth said.
“A wild bird, Daniel said. Any kind . . . Then, what I do is, I just hold it there, without holding it too tight, and I let it sleep. And that’s that.”
Like any successful novel of ideas, “Autumn’’ doesn’t end; it reverberates in one’s bones, recalling Eugenio Montale’s argument in “The Second Life of Art,” that the power of a book, painting, dance, or any art form is not a culminating catharsis but a recurring echo. Thus Smith’s autumnal leaves cling to trees as the questions and quandaries linger. How long will Daniel live? Can Elisabeth find professional success? Will Zoe bring Wendy happiness? And what about that passport?
“Autumn’’ shimmers with wit, melancholy, grief, joy, wisdom, small acts of love and, always, wonder at the seasons. “A minute ago it was June. Now the weather is September. The crops are high, about to be cut, bright, golden.’’ The novel ends with glimpse of beauty remaining amid creeping decay as the weather begins to turn in November. “In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still. Look at the colour of it.”
By Ali Smith
Pantheon, 264 pp., $24.95Valerie Miner is the author of 14 books including the novel, “Traveling with Spirits.’’ She teaches at Stanford University and her website is www.valerieminer.com