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Ali Smith's Autumn attempts something rich – but sometimes ends up overripe

Is Autumn spoiled by Smith's love of the quick return and reliance on satirical fruit not so much low-hanging as fallen and rotting? It depends on the reader.

The phrase “in other words” occurs just once in Ali Smith’s new novel, when a post office clerk tells the heroine, Elisabeth Demand, that mocking the criteria for passport photographs will not help her application: “In other words. Will get you. Nowhere.” But the phrase could easily recur, serving this bridge or segue role, on every page, in every paragraph. Elisabeth, a 32-year-old art history lecturer, adores rhymes and synonyms and fun-house puns as much as her ancient pal Daniel Gluck – and the narrator adores them even more. It’s a tiny leap from marriage to mortgage, sick to sic, annus to anus. A description of words as organisms gives way to oregano-isms and, in turn, to “Herbal and verbal”. That there are always more words – if not proximate, then reachable through some kind of associative logic or allusive magic – is the novel’s guiding creative principle, and the engine of its message that everything flows, categories collapse, and the world obeys a cycle of coming and going, ruin and rebirth.

Faced with this regime of puckish didacticism, the reader could be left feeling enlightened as well as tickled, or badgered and patronised. It depends how you respond to the claim to revelation in a paradoxical expression such as “old news”, in the notion that time travel doesn’t belong to science fiction because, as Gluck instructs Elisabeth, “We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.”

As a novel of ideas, Autumn – the first in Smith’s planned seasonal quartet – reads at times like a ludic sermon to the converted. Certainly its political dimension is not in the business of changing minds. The novel ping-pongs around the 25-year history of Elisabeth’s friendship with Gluck: they meet as next-door neighbours, when Elisabeth is eight years old, and he soon becomes a father stand-in and mentor, the burden of his guidance concerning the comforts of nature and pleasures of the imagination. But the novel’s main setting is the extremely recent past: Elisabeth needs a new passport, Gluck is 101 and more or less comatose, and Britain has just voted to leave the European Union. Though it’s understandable that the concept of a referendum might not appeal to the author of How to Be Both, Smith seems never to have suffered the terrible conflictedness of her fellow Ovid-lover Boris Johnson. It is impossible to picture a rival draft of Autumn written along opposite lines. The rhetoric is far too strident. Elisabeth, on hearing the anti-immigration invective on a discussion programme, wonders if “she’d be able to listen to Radio 4 in any innocence ever again. Her ears had undergone a sea-change. Or the world had.”

But intolerance is not reserved for the intolerant. Smith pits the art-loving, song-singing, word-toying, world-hugging antics of Elisabeth and Gluck not only against the Ukip mindset, but against anyone who doesn’t match their standards. Watching the reality-TV show The Golden Gavel, on which her mother is a guest, Elisabeth takes pleasure in a shot of the surrounding landscape, and recognises that “cow parsley has a language of its own, one that nobody on the programme or making the programme knows or notices is being spoken”. Later she takes issue with the phrase “unlawfully trespassing”: language can do anything, go anywhere, but tautology remains a sin. And when she discovers the work of Pauline Boty, the painter, collagist and occasional actress who died of cancer aged 28, it’s an enthusiasm she shares with Gluck but few others: “no one in the art world”, and not her male art history tutor, who says that “there had never been such a thing as a female British Pop Artist, not one of any worth”.

Autumn makes reference to Ovid, Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens and Aldous ­Huxley, but the writer whose work it most recalls is Jonathan Coe. Both Smith and Coe abandoned university careers, both borrow wildly from art and literature of all kinds: they are the only novelists I can think of happy to take epigraphs from articles that appeared in the Guardian. Coe was born almost exactly a year before Smith. He used that headstart last November when he published Number 11 – a novel like Autumn in a number of respects. Both tell the story of a girl from a single-parent family, acquainted with natural beauty as a child, who moves to London to teach. And both erect postwar British politics and culture in contrast to our modern ailments: academic jargon, reality TV, Tory mendacity, cuts in public spending and the Iraq War.

Like Coe – whose number 11 is a bus route, a well-known address and the deepest storey in a basement dig-down, as well as the novel’s position in his oeuvre – Smith uses the title to unify her numerous concerns. And as in Coe’s case, Smith’s desire to amuse and impress is coupled with a desire for instruction that is undermined by impatience, immaturity, a love of the quick return and a reliance on satirical fruit not so much low-hanging as fallen and rotting.

But the Coe comparison also serves to emphasise the richness of what Smith has attempted. Both Number 11 and Autumn are elegies, but only Smith presents mourning as a perennial human state and not just a reaction to the decline of the old liberal-left consensus. And her formal and verbal itchiness reflects a desire to get right inside states such as excitement or curiosity, to show how thought and feeling overlap or coalesce – an effort akin to Gluck’s talk of “picturing the view from the inside of the eye, but precisely when the migraine is happening to it!”. Then there are those moments in which Smith manages to resist her own energy and fluency, as on the book’s penultimate page, when she spurns metaphor in favour of a confrontation with quiddity: “The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like – no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass.”

Ali Smith appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 27 November. For more details visit: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage

Photo: LYNSEY ADDARIO
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What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left