Autumn by Ali Smith
Reading Ali Smith's early short stories made me a great admirer, and I was bowled over by her novel Hotel World (published as a debut, though in fact her second, as I discovered when browsing in a second-hand bookshop and coming across an earlier novel Like - an example, I presume, of the publishing industry's obsession with debuts and lack of faith in literary authors whose first novels - usually inevitably - have failed to be bestsellers in the commercial terms to which the industry now seems to be in thrall). I bought Like - a lovely silvery hardback from Virago, but I have never actually read it, since before I could do so our group discussed the novel that followed Hotel World, The Accidental, and, along with other members, I was rather disappointed. I had read none of her novels since, until Doug mentioned that he had found stunning her recent Women's Prize-winning and Booker shortlisted Autumn, and I therefore suggested it for the group.
I read it twice beforehand. Ali Smith's prose is wonderfully lyrical yet tough and informed by an extremely sharp intelligence. It has however a breathless headlong quality that tends to force me, at any rate, to read her novels so fast and greedily that I feel I'm often missing their undeniable depths and connections. (That's less likely to happen with a short story, I feel, as you come to a short story with a certain expectation of concentration, which slows down the reading process - plus the fact that a short story is more easily read a second time). Autumn is particularly headlong, I found, which everyone else in the group assumed was a function of its reported particular mode of production: apparently Smith was so late delivering her previous novel, How to Be Both, that in order to make the previously announced publishing date the publisher had to rush it out in double-quick time; when Smith realised how quickly it could be done, she suggested a quartet of books to be published seasonally, named after the seasons and responding to our current political and social times. Autumn, published in the autumn following the June 2016 Brexit referendum, is the first of the four. Certainly when I got to the end of my first reading, I thought I must have missed a great deal and so read the book again, and my two reactions to the book were markedly different.
As the book was my suggestion, it was up to me to introduce it at the meeting, but I didn't really want to talk immediately about my change of perception, since everyone else present had read it only once. Even as I was explaining this, I could see on the faces of everyone else present negative reaction to the book (Doug, the book's admirer, hadn't been able to make the meeting), and since their shared attitude was clear, I did then talk about my two reactions.
The book opens with a slew of literary references concerned with anarchy:
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 washed up on a shore.
Those steeped in literature will recognise in this very short passage an echo of the opening of Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times), a reference to W B Yeats' poem 'Second Coming' written in the aftermath of the First World War and the Easter Rising (Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold), and another recalling the shipwreck and anarchy of Shakespeare's Tempest. After this we segue into a dream sequence in which the 'old old man', Daniel Gluck, notices alongside him the (clearly contemporary) dead bodies of refugees while tourists suntan themselves nearby, ponders the fact that he is dead, drowned, remembers odd disconnected moments from his past - a postcard he bought once, conkers he once took as child to his baby sister - and, while the Greek nymphs of Ovid's Metamorphoses dance in the near distance, turns, like the nymph Daphne, into a tree.
The next chapter switches tack and style abruptly: we are in a post office in summer 2016 and, in a far more naturalistic and wryly comic episode, thirty-year-old Elisabeth Demand, a junior lecturer in art history, is encountering the ludicrously obstructive bureaucracy of present-day England in applying for a new passport, and, while she is kept interminably waiting, reading Aldous Huxley's futuristic warning Brave New World. It is only in the next chapters that the two strands come together: Elisabeth leaves the post office for the Maltings Care Home, where hundred-year-old Daniel Gluck, once a writer of song lyrics, is in the 'increased sleep' period that precedes death, and it becomes clear that the events of the first chapter are the substance of his dream as he lies in his semi-coma.
Slowly we will learn that Daniel was the neighbour of Elisabeth and her single mother when she was a child, that he and Elisabeth developed a special relationship in which he nurtured her intellect and clearly set her on her art history career, and that now she is visiting him and reading to him while he sleeps. Meanwhile, however, we are treated to Elisabeth's own surreal dreams about Daniel as she nods off over her book beside his bed, conversations she imagines having with him should he wake, flashbacks to their actual conversations, full of word play, when she was a child, more of Daniel's own memories, seeming divergences concerning well-known real-life figures who are not however immediately identified - a tramp who only on my second reading did I recognise as Charlie Chaplin, the woman at the centre of the Profumo sex and spy scandal, Christine Keeler, and the forgotten female sixties pop artist, Pauline Boty (who is only now, in the 21st century, receiving recognition) - and what seemed on first reading an odd scene set in Nice in 1943 in which a Jewish woman is rounded up with others by the Nazis and resists. Running along through it all is a portrayal of the effects of the Brexit referendum result on British society, at one point directly echoing the oppositions of the opening of A Tale of Two Cities - All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they'd really lost. All across the country, people felt they'd really won - as well as a plot concerning Elisabeth's mother's lesbian awakening and rebellion against the mysterious and sinister fencing off of common land, presumably for the penning of immigrants. Interjected now and then are descriptions of the season as summer slides into autumn.
All of this, and more besides, is packed into a short book (the publisher has pumped it up with large print) and the effect for me for much of my first reading was of many very clever ideas and connections - a wide range of instances of oppression and resistance - being thrown into the air by an astute intelligence, but that I simply wasn't grasping it all and that maybe it didn't actually make a novel. It was only in the latter half of the book that I came to see that the elements, rather than being just the ponderings and imaginings of an author, played a part in a novelistic structure. The Tempest, it will turn out, is the play that Daniel Gluck took Elisabeth to see as a child; very belatedly it will become clear that Charlie Chaplin is relevant not only for his political resistance but because Daniel showed the child Elisabeth Charlie Chaplin films; the tree dream is an echo of one of those childhood conversations; Pauline Boty is central because Daniel Gluck once knew her and was in love with her 'way of seeing' (and Elisabeth now teaches her work), and Christine Keeler because Pauline Boty painted her image and Daniel attended her trial. Pauline Boty, we will learn, is the woman for whom he bought the postcard mentioned early on, and on my second reading that early mention carried a significance that was so lacking on my first reading that I simply forgot it altogether. The resisting Jewish woman is Daniel Gluck's sister, lost after all in the Holocaust. I didn't actually realise this until my second reading. In fact, she is named - Hannah Gluck - but there was so much else going in the novel and I was reading in such a headlong fashion the first time around that I only vaguely registered this connection and read on before I could digest it, and then forgot it. It was only on my second reading that I realised that the song lyric that Daniel once wrote which is now used in a supermarket TV advert is a song commemorating his sister. Then, in retrospect, his early memory of taking conkers to her as a baby took on an emotive resonance, while on my first reading, like the postcard, it seemed to have no significance at all. The Tale of Two Cities references are not simply pulled out of the air: it is one of the books that Elisabeth, having found it in a second-hand bookshop, reads to Daniel as he sleeps.
In other words, I said to the group, when I came to read the novel a second time, I was able to read everything through the frame of the history of Daniel and Elisabeth's relationship and their shared conversations and preoccupations, at which point what had seemed the first time a bit of mess, perhaps, became a jigsaw puzzle with everything slotted into place. Everyone present acknowledged that the book was beautifully written on the level of the sentences - that there is no doubt that Smith can write - but they nearly all said in chorus that, having read the book only once, their impression was, frankly, that it was indeed a mess. Ann, who was perhaps the most negative, said she felt that the book needed editing (to make the frame more obvious from the beginning) and this prompted speculation that the book had been written and produced in too much of a rush. Mark felt that although he could see from what I'd said that things did indeed slot together in retrospect, he wasn't sure that they really, thematically, fitted. What had sixties pop art and the Swinging Sixties got to do with Brexit? I felt convinced for a moment but then suggested that it was intended as a contrast, a time of hope and experimentation and the relaxing of rules contrasted with the closing down - the suspicion and resentment and austerity - of Brexit Britain, but people weren't very convinced, and there was some demurring about what the sixties in reality represented: the book seems a little starry-eyed about it all, but as Jenny pointed out, for most people the Swinging Sixties happened elsewhere.
The novel is clearly about the redeeming power of the arts in the face of political and social oppression, but the group were dubious about the wealth of literary references in the book: we did wonder what readers who didn't know them would make of them: would it give them a feeling of exclusion? Jenny said they made her think that Ali Smith was 'too clever by half'. Everyone was extremely interested in Pauline Boty, about whom none of us had previously known or known much, but I think it was Clare who said that she felt that the section describing her life and work came over as an injected lecture rather than an organic element of a novel, and there was general agreement on this. People also agreed that the Brexit sections, well written as they were, seemed levered in for the sake of contemporaneity, Mark being particularly strong on this, and Mark said he was really irritated by the sections describing the season, which he felt were also there simply to fit the original brief. Clare said she was really interested in and touched by the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth - and everyone agreed - but she felt that it was overshadowed by all the other elements and thus underdeveloped (and again people agreed). I was persuaded by this in the meeting and agreed, but think on reflection that reading with a clearer sense of the frame of Daniel and Elisabeth's relationship and preoccupations - the fact that so many of these things are elements of their relationship - would go a long way to dispel this impression. There were odd things that really sparked Clare's interest, she said, but which were only mentioned briefly, and that she wished had been developed, such as the fact that Elisabeth once had a boyfriend who expressed jealousy of her platonic love for Daniel. (I wondered whether this was an instance of a glancing technique that can work well in a short story, but perhaps not so well in a novel.) I did agree, and still think, that the mechanical architecture of the novel feels a little forced in order to bring the thematic elements together, the fictional Daniel Gluck having a relationship with the real-life Pauline Boty, for instance, and in particular his attendance at Christine Keeler's trial.
John kept quiet for most of the time as he felt much more ambivalent than the others. He too had read the novel only once, and he too had found it problematic, but like me he considered Ali Smith a brilliant writer and knew that she didn't make mistakes, and felt, as I had, that a second read would make him see it very differently. Jenny however questioned whether you should have to read a novel a second time in order to get it at all.
Trevor didn't make the meeting, but Ann had bumped into him beforehand. He hadn't liked it at all, he said: it certainly didn't come into his 'dead good' category. It was left to Doug to praise the novel. He wrote afterwards to reiterate how much he had loved it: 'I found it really uplifting. We are all time travellers!'
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
There were only four of us to discuss this, Arundhati Roy's 1996 Booker-winning debut - Ann, Jenny, John and me. It's now two months since our discussion - I've been extremely busy and distracted by my own writing and research for an article - so by now my memory of our discussion is patchy, and I'm afraid I'm not likely to do justice to everybody's contribution. However - stretching my brain to remember - here goes.
The novel opens with the return of a young woman, Rahel, to the Indian village of Ayemenem, where, in the summer of 1969 when she and her twin brother were seven years old, a tragedy befell their Christian Syrian family, involving the 'laws that lay down who should be loved, and how'. The tragic outcome - which included the death of a child - is flagged early on, though not the details of how or why, and it is only slowly unravelled via extended non-chronological flashbacks mimicking the operations of memory, often (though not always) seen through the unknowing child Rahel's perspective, and set against India's political turmoil of the time.
We all agreed, I think, that the book's depiction of the downfall and decline of the family, and the lushness and squalor of the surroundings in which it takes place, are vividly depicted. The characterisation is rich, and the book is full of startling observations of the physical world - water falls from a swimmer's arm 'like a silver sleeve', for instance. Jason Cowley, a judge for the 1997 Booker prize, justified the book's win by pointing to Roy's childlike ability to see the world anew, and it's hard to argue with this.
However, John, Ann and I did have some problems with the language and voice connected with this vision. Rahel and her twin Estha are especially bright children with a particular language facility - they have the quick-fire ability to read sentences backwards, play word games, make verbal lists, and apply to words (in their heads) the quaintness of capital initial letters. This works beautifully when we are seeing the world and events through their perspective. However, Roy extends this 'childlike' wordplay to moments when our perspective is not that of the children, and the effect for us was coy, and for me often introduced a levity inappropriate to the situation. To some extent, I guess, when the perspective is that of the adult Rahel, this could be said to be Rahel inserting herself back into her childhood mentality, but it didn't always feel like that, and the same language play is used when the perspective is that of other adults. Salma Rushdie uses the same techniques in Midnight's Children, but in my view they work much better in that novel, since it is more outrightly comic. Jenny didn't agree with us. She thought that the self-conscious spellings - 'Lay-Ter' - reflected the dialect left behind by the Raj, but even allowing for that, I found the self-consciousness of its usage in the book coy and possibly flippant. For me there was also a more fundamental problem of perspective: the whole novel is framed by Rahel's present-tense adult perspective, yet scenes are described (in vivid detail) - and in particular a crucial one near the end - of which even the adult Rahel can know nothing, or which she can at best only speculate about.
In particular, for me, the linked problem of tone came to a head in a scene towards the end where a posse of policemen files through a field towards a hut where they know a fugitive is hiding. By this time we identify with their prey, and we have known since the beginning of the novel that the outcome will be tragic, so one would expect the narrative tone to be one of tension. Yet not only is the scene described at length with a leisurely relish - 'ancient trees cloaked in vines. Gigantic mani plants. Wild pepper. Cascading purple acuminus' - the policemen are portrayed in comic terms - 'Their wide khaki shorts were rigid with starch, and bobbed over the tall grass like a row of stiff skirts'; they 'mince' across a fallen tree trunk - and however ironically this is intended, I found it almost dismayingly inappropriate.
We did all feel that the closeness of the twins, and the fact that they were separated by the tragedy, was very moving, but because of the very vividness of the depiction of the brotherly-sisterly nature of that early closeness, we did not find the present-day ending between them (which I won't give away here) at all convincing.
Mark was away when we held the meeting. Afterwards he told us that he'd taken a brief look at the book and put it aside - I think he said it was 'tedious'. An Angela's Ashes for India, he said, and he wasn't at all surprised that we'd been only four for the meeting: the others, he said, must have been frightened away.