Autumn (Seasonal Quartet #1)

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Title: Autumn (Seasonal Quartet #1)

Writer: Ali Smith

Publishing House: Penguin

Date of Publication: August 31st 2017  (first published October 20th 2016)

Rating: 5 stars

‘’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.’’

‘’How many words can you hold in a hand.

In a handful of sand.’’

Two old souls. Elizabeth, 34 years old. Optimistic, bookish, pragmatic, direct. Daniel, 101 years old. Dreamer, artistic, hopeful, stubborn. They come together once again in a time when autumn has fallen over the fate of a land that has seemed to lost its direction. Brexit is a reality, a bleak and terrifying reality for the entire continent. Daniel is about to depart, Elizabeth is at a crossroads. The United Kingdom is in limbo. And we now know that it isn’t going to get any better…

Ali Smith creates a monument. A literary testimony of the time when Europe lost a part of its heart. Without doctrines and preaching megaphones, without empty words, Autumn becomes a symbol for the void. Is it a new beginning or a death?

‘’A minute ago it was June. Now the weather is September.

The nights are sooner, chiller, the light a little less each time.

 Dark at half past seven. Dark at quarter past seven. Dark at seven.

The greens of the trees have been duller since August, since July really.

  But the flowers are still coming. The hedgerows are still humming. The shed is already full of apples and the tree’s still covered in them.

The birds are on the powerlines.

The swifts left long ago. They’re hundreds of miles from here by now, somewhere over the ocean.’’

Ali Smith writes about the duality of autumn. Its beautiful, haunting, sad nature. About Life and Death mirrored in the changes around us, and the way Art is able to immortalize seemingly detrimental details. We find ourselves walking with two brilliant characters in a country in disarray and doubt. The chill, the perfume of the chestnuts, the focus on the colours of Cezanne. Echoing Thomas Hardy’s masterpieces and the haunting part of Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with references to Huxley’s Brave New World and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (with its unmistakable comparisons, though we could change Paris with Berlin to be more acute and accurate…), the central theme is all about one thing our times are severely lacking: Dialogue!

The end of dialogue is the end of peace. When we don’t ‘’talk’’, discord and isolation follow. When countries don’t ‘’talk’’, there is tangible danger. BUT! Can ONE talk with someone who refuses to LISTEN, parroting lies, constructed threats or parading their own frightening ignorance? Dialogue requires bilateral participation. It is easy to lecture on its values, but it needs TWO to succeed. By God, we hardly see this anymore. And thus, wounds fester and madmen thrive in their lies. Well, too bad for those who believe them. They’re always the first to regret it.

I was moved by Smith’s writing. There is a beautiful, sensual chapter in which trees become a metaphor for womanhood and birth. She creates a parody of the ordeal of the ‘’perfect’’ passport photo in a telling example of every absurd regulation that not only makes travelling difficult but also discourages the citizens from trusting their countries’ own laws. As if ages-old prejudices weren’t enough…I mean, come on! We’re all for safety – OBVIOUSLY! – but the Sabbath for man not man for the Sabbath! 

Allow me to leave you with two extracts that deserve 10+ stars. This is how the melancholic tranquillity, the serenity and quiet sadness of autumn can be contained in two short chapters.

‘’They walked past the shops, then over to the fields where the inter-school summer sports were held, where the fair wnt and the circus. Elizabeth had last come to the field just after the circus had left, especially to look at the flat dry place where the circus had had its tent. She liked doing melancholy things like that. But now you couldn’t tell that any of these summer things had ever happened. There was just empty field. The sports tracks had faded and gone. The flattened grass, the places that had turned to mud where the crowds had wandered round between the rides and the open-sided trailers full of the driving and shooting games, the ghost circus ring: nothing but grass.

 Somehow this wasn’t the same as melancholy. It was something else, about how melancholy and nostalgia weren’t relevant in the slightest. Things just happened. Then they were over. Time just passed. Partly it felt unpleasant, to think like that, rude even. Partly it felt good. It was kind of a relief.

 Past the field there was another field. Then there was the river.’’

‘’October’s a blink of the eye. The apples weighing down the tree a minute ago are gone and the tree’s leaves are yellow and thinning. A frost has snapped millions of trees all across the country into brightness. The ones that aren’t evergreen are a combination of beautiful and tawdry, red orange gold the leaves, then brown, and down.

 The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.

 On the warm days it feels wrong, so many leaves falling.

 But the nights are cool to cold.’’