MAN BOOKER PRIZE FINALIST
Long-listed for the Gordon Burn Prize
One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year
A Washington Post Notable Book
One of the Best Books of the Year: NPR, Dwight Garner/The New York Times, Martha Kearney/The Guardian, Slate, Chicago Tribune, Southern Living, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, The Morning News, Kirkus Reviews
Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Two old friends—Daniel, a centenarian, and Elisabeth, born in 1984—look to both the future and the past as the United Kingdom stands divided by a historic, once-in-a-generation summer. Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand-in-hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever.
A luminous meditation on the meaning of richness and harvest and worth, Autumn is the first installment of Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet, and it casts an eye over our own time: Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearean jeu d’esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s pop art. Wide-ranging in time-scale and light-footed through histories, Autumn is an unforgettable story about aging and time and love—and stories themselves.
About the Author
Ali Smith is the author of many works of fiction, including the novel Hotel World, which was short-listed for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize and won the Encore Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, and The Accidental, which won the Whitbread Award and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her most recent novel, How to be both, was a Man Booker Prize finalist and winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize, the Costa Novel Award, and the Saltire Society Scottish Fiction Book of the Year Award. Born in Inverness, Scotland, Smith lives in Cambridge, England.
Read an Excerpt
It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature. So an old old man washes up on a shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago. The sea’s been rough. It has taken the shirt off his back; naked as the day I was born are the words in the head he moves on its neck, but it hurts to. So try not to move the head. What’s this in his mouth, grit? it’s sand, it’s under his tongue, he can feel it, he can hear it grinding when his teeth move against each other, singing its sand-song: I’m ground so small, but in the end I’m all, I’m softer if I’m underneath you when you fall, in sun I glitter, wind heaps me over litter, put a message in a bottle, throw the bottle in the sea, the bottle’s made of me, I’m the hardest grain to harvest
the words for the song trickle away. He is tired. The sand in his mouth and his eyes is the last of the grains in the neck of the sandglass.
Daniel Gluck, your luck’s run out at last.
He prises open one stuck eye. But –
Daniel sits up on the sand and the stones
– is this it? really? this? is death?
He shades his eyes. Very bright.
Sunlit. Terribly cold, though.
He is on a sandy stony strand, the wind distinctly harsh, the sun out, yes, but no heat off it. Naked, too. No wonder he’s cold. He looks down and sees that his body’s still the old body, the ruined knees.
He’d imagined death would distil a person, strip the rotting rot away till everything was light as a cloud.
Seems the self you get left with on the shore, in the end, is the self that you were when you went.
If I’d known, Daniel thinks, I’d have made sure to go at twenty, twenty five.
Only the good.
Or perhaps (he thinks, one hand shielding his face so if anyone can see him no one will be offended by him picking out what’s in the lining of his nose, or giving it a look to see what it is – it’s sand, beautiful the detail, the different array of colours of even the pulverized world, then he rubs it away off his fingertips) this is my self distilled. If so then death’s a sorry disappointment.
Thank you for having me, death. Please excuse me, must get back to it, life.
He stands up. It doesn’t hurt, not so much, to.
Home. Which way?
He turns a half circle. Sea, shoreline, sand, stones. Tall grass, dunes. Flatland behind the dunes. Trees past the flatland, a line of woods, all the way back round to the sea again.
The sea is strange and calm.
Then it strikes him how unusually good his eyes are today.
I mean, I can see not just those woods, I can see not just that tree, I can see not just that leaf on that tree. I can see the stem connecting that leaf to that tree.
He can focus on the loaded seedhead at the end of any piece of grass on those dunes over there pretty much as if he were using a camera zoom. And did he just look down at his own hand and see not just his hand, in focus, and not just a scuff of sand on the side of his hand, but several separate grains of sand so clearly delineated that he can see their edges, and (hand goes to his forehead) no glasses ?
He rubs sand off his legs and arms and chest then off his hands. He watches the flight of the grains of it as it dusts away from him in the air. He reaches down, fills his hand with sand. Look at that. So many.
How many worlds can you hold in a hand.
In a handful of sand.
He opens his fingers. The sand drifts down.
Now that he’s up on his feet he is hungry. Can you be hungry and dead? Course you can, all those hungry ghosts eating people’s hearts and minds. He turns the full circle back to the sea. He hasn’t been on a boat for more than fifty years, and that wasn’t really a boat, it was a terrible novelty bar, party place on the river. He sits down on the sand and stones again but the bones are hurting in his, he doesn’t want to use impolite language, there’s a girl there further up the shore, are hurting like, he doesn’t want to use impolite –
Yes, with a ring of girls round her, all doing a wavy ancient Greek looking dance. The girls are quite close. They’re coming closer.
This won’t do. The nakedness.
Then he looks down again with his new eyes at where his old body was a moment ago and he knows he is dead, he must be dead, he is surely dead, because his body looks different from the last time he looked down at it, it looks better, it looks rather good as bodies go. It looks very familiar, very like his own body but back when it was young.
A girl is nearby. Girls. Sweet deep panic and shame flood through him.
He makes a dash for the long grass dunes (he can run, really run!), he puts his head round the side of a grass tuft to check nobody can see him, nobody coming, and up and off (again! not even breathless) across the flatland towards those woods.
There will be cover in the woods.
There will maybe be something too with which to cover himself up. But pure joy! He’d forgotten what it feels like, to feel. To feel even just the thought of one’s own bared self near someone else’s beauty.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Autumn by Ali Smith. An unconventional love story, Autumn plays across time and history. This is the first of a quartet of novels, Seasonal, four separate but interconnected books that explore what time is, how we experience it, and how we narrate it.
1. How is the story rooted in autumn? Why do you think Ali Smith decided to write a quartet of books about the seasons, the changing of the seasons, and the passing of time? Why did she start with autumn?
2. How is the book obsessed with time? “Time travel is real. We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.” (p. 175)
3. Ali Smith stated in an interview with her British publishers, “The way we live, in time, is made to appear linear by the chronologies that get applied to our lives by ourselves and others, starting at birth, ending at death, with a middle where we’re meant to comply with some or other of life’s usual expectations, in other words the year to year day to day minute to minute moment to moment fact of time passing. But we’re time-containers, we hold all our diachrony, our pasts and our futures (and also the pasts and futures of all the people who made us and who in turn we’ll help to make) in every one of our consecutive moments / minutes / days / years, and I wonder if our real energy, our real history, is cyclic in continuance and at core, rather than consecutive.” Do you agree with the author that our history and thus our stories, individual and collective, are cyclical rather than chronological? Discuss this description of time.
4. The novel proceeds with flashbacks interspersed with the present rather than in a consecutive, chronological narrative. Why? And how does this connect with the author’s view on how we perceive time?
5. Describe the friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel and how it evolves through time and the novel. How is their relationship at the heart of the novel? Why does he always ask her, “What are you reading?”
6. How does their friendship revolve around stories, art, and literature?
7. What is the novel saying about creativity and creating and about witnessing and experiencing art and literature? And what is the novel saying about nature and our interactions with it?
8. Describe the relationship of Elisabeth and her mother. How does the relationship blossom by the end of the novel? Why does it change?
9. In Autumn, what is the importance of art and the human connections that come out of art and creativity? Give some examples.
10. How is Autumn collage-like and thus similar to the art of Pauline Boty?
11. Why do you think the author has chosen this real-life artist as a character and inspiration in this novel? What do Boty and her vision and art represent for Daniel and Elisabeth and how does she connect to the themes of Autumn?
12. Continuing with the collage theme, discuss Daniel’s wordplay and intermixing of college and collage. What do you think of the idea of college being a collage of different classes and experiences?
13. Why does the book open with a reference to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and then there’s a longer reference to a divided country filled with polarities: “All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked”? (p. 60) What are the two cities or polarities in the novel?
14. Smith alludes to and mentions many other authors and literary works as well: William Shakespeare, John Keats, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell. Discuss them and why they are relevant to this novel.
15. Many reviewers have called this novel the first post-Brexit novel. What does this mean? How has England changed after the Brexit vote? How does this tie into the United States’ 2016 election, or does it?
16. Find instances of tree imagery throughout the novel and discuss the various descriptions. How do the imagery and arboreal allusions connect with autumn and the changing seasons theme?
17. What is the novel saying about storytelling? “There’s always, there’ll always be, more story. That’s what story is.” (p. 193)
18. Daniel tells Elisabeth, “So, always try to welcome people into the home of your story.” (p. 119). Does this show that our stories don’t belong to us alone? Do you think this is a call by the author for inclusion and diversity rather than building fences and keeping people out?
19. Why doesn’t Daniel tell Elisabeth about his experience during World War II? “I know nothing, nothing really, about anyone.” (p. 171) Can we ever know everything about another person?
20. How does Autumn fuse the present with the past?
21. What is the importance of politics and the effects of politics on the layperson in this novel? What does the fence and defying the fence represent?
22. Both Daniel and Elisabeth’s mother talk about lying and being lied to. Daniel: “The power of the lie . . . Always seductive to the powerless.” (p. 114). Elisabeth’s mother: “I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more.” (p. 57) What are both of them talking about? And what is the connection of lies and truth in the novel?
23. On what note, despair or hope, does the novel end and why?