[Click on BLUE links for sources and information]
We are living in a culture that insists on lying as its delivery of how we are living,” she said then. “It insists on telling us information about which we are left wondering whether it is true or not … Fiction and lies are the opposite of each other. Lies go out of the way to distort and turn you away from the truth. But fiction is one of our ways of telling the truth. Ali Smith
Whenever I hear Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons my Proust moment kicks in and I find myself back in my restaurant days, in the Sea Gull, in Mendocino. I must have played and listened to The Four Seasons over a thousand times with eggs and hotcakes and bacon and German scrambles and coffee. All the details come back, every one including the faces and voices and even the mannerisms of the employees and the customers. It is a remarkable thing that involuntary memory that is triggered by our five senses when we least expect it.
Vivaldi composed four violin concerti to describe the four seasons. John Keats did it in a single sonnet.
The Human Seasons
Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;
There are four seasons in the mind of man:
He has his lusty Spring, when fancy clear
Takes in all beauty with an easy span:
He has his Summer, when luxuriously
Spring’s honied cud of youthful thought he loves
To ruminate, and by such dreaming high
Is nearest unto heaven: quiet coves
His soul has in its Autumn, when his wings
He furleth close; contented so to look
On mists in idleness—to let fair things
Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook.
He has his Winter too of pale misfeature,
Or else he would forego his mortal nature.
Anthropomorphizing the seasons is as old as Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (see verse 16). Shakespeare anthropomorphized the four seasons in his plays and in his sonnets (see Sonnet 73 (Autumn), 98 (Spring), 18 (Summer), 97 (Winter)).
The endlessly entertaining yet devastatingly sober Scottish author Ali Smith adds a new twist, a seasonal quartet of novels (Autumn, Winter, Spring already completed with Summer to follow in March of 2020). Autumn (or Fall if you insist on the American version) is our favorite season at TITM. Thus, like Smith we’ll start with Autumn and leave Winter, Spring and Summer for future blogs.
At TITM we write about what pleases us and Ali Smith’s Autumn pleases us very much. The book, out in 2016, has been heavily and favorably reviewed (Here, and Here and Here just to list a few). There is no use to repeat what’s already been said. We’ll try to add something new to the mix.
Autumn is about a young girl who befriends an old man in the autumn of his life which special friendship as nothing predatory or Lolita-ish about it. We see the girl, Elisabeth Demand, in flashbacks when she is a young girl and first meets the man, Daniel Gluck. They create their special friendship in words, ideas, books, stories, games and puns.
Words don’t get grown, Elisabeth said.
They do, Daniel said.
Words aren’t plants, Elisabeth said.
Words are themselves organisms, Daniel said.
Oregano-isms, Elisabeth said.
Herbal and verbal, Daniel said. Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting to come up.
Smith deftly navigates the common space between reality, truth and stories.
There is no point in making up a world, Elisabeth said, when there’s already a real world. There’s just the world, and there’s the truth about the world.
You mean, there’s the truth, and there’s the made-up version of it that we get told about the world, Daniel said.
No. The world exists. Stories are made up, Elisabeth said.
But no less true for that, Daniel said.
That’s ultra-crazy talk, Elisabeth said.
And whoever makes up the story makes up the world, Daniel said. So always try to welcome people into the home of your story. That’s my suggestion.
So how do we ever know what’s true? Elisabeth said.
Now you’re talking, Daniel said.
Daniel’s interior life emerges in his dreams, reminiscences, and personal thoughts. Elisabeth’s current life unfolds in a mish-mash of hilarious scenes such as when she visits the Post Office to renew her passport.
I’ve read nearly a whole book while I’ve been waiting here this morning, Elisabeth says. And it struck me that maybe it’d be a good idea to have books available here so all the people who end up waiting could have a read too, if they’d like to. Have you ever thought of opening or installing a small library?
This isn’t fiction, the man says. This is the Post Office.
Or, when she essentially lies her way into Daniel’s room (and life) at the elder care facility where he spends his last days in a semicomatose state.
Are you next of kin? Because we’ve been trying to contact Mr Gluck’s next of kin with no success, the receptionist said the first time Elisabeth came. Elisabeth lied without even pausing. She gave them her mobile number, her mother’s home number and her mother’s home address.
We’ll need further proof of identity, the receptionist said.
Elisabeth got out her passport.
I’m afraid this passport has expired, the receptionist said.
Yes, but only a month ago. I’m going to renew it. It’s obviously still clearly me, Elisabeth said.
The receptionist started a speech about what was and what wasn’t permitted. Then something happened at the front door, a wheelchair wheel jammed in a groove between the ramp and the edge of the door, and the receptionist went to find someone to free the wheelchair up. An assistant came through from the back. This assistant, seeing Elisabeth putting her passport back into her bag, assumed that the passport had been checked and printed out a visitor card for Elisabeth.
Now, when Elisabeth sees the man whose wheelchair wheel got caught in the groove, she smiles at him. He looks back at her like he doesn’t know who she is. Well, it’s true. He doesn’t.
Smith weaves her novel along a yellow brick road where we encounter an odd cast of characters that may only vaguely ring a bell for the reader, for example British pop art painter Pauline Boty who died in 1966 at 28 or model and topless showgirl Christine Keeler whose affair with John Profumo (Secretary of State for War) helped topple the conservative government of Harold Macmillan. But, she does this so skillfully that these characters seem to be old friends.
Mavis Gallant’s short story (or novella if you prefer), The Four Seasons, has some similarities with Smith’s Autumn. I like both very much and read them together. Both conjure up elegiac accounts of displacement, rootlessness, the fear of the unknown and lost innocence. In The Four Seasons it’s the advent of World War II that sets the ominous tone; in Autumn it’s Brexit, populism and the anti-immigrant rhetoric we are living with today. Smith’s is a very contemporary novel.
About fifty pages into the novel, Ali Smith riffs (for several paragraphs) on the familiar divisions we feel today:
All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.
All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic.
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. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing …
War comes and winter sets in. There is a legitimate concern about whether spring will ever come again. In Autumn, Smith leaves us with a whiff of hope.
The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like – no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass.
There’ve been a couple of windy nights. The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring.
The furniture in the garden is rusting. They’ve forgotten to put it away for the winter.
The trees are revealing their structures. There’s the catch of fire in the air. All the souls are out marauding. But there are roses, there are still roses. 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.
Yet, one can’t help but be haunted by the opening lines of Smith’s book:
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.
Carmela, the protagonist in Mavis Gallant’s story, feels the truth of that opening sentence. She’s not about to be fooled by a chauffeur who doesn’t feel it.
Although she had spent her life not many miles from the sea, it made her uneasy to be so close to it. At night she heard great waves knock against the foundations of the town. She dreamed of being engulfed, of seeking refuge on rooftops. Within the dream her death seemed inevitable. In the garden, coaxing the twins to walk, she said to the chauffeur from Castel Vittorio, “What happens when the sea comes out?”
In his shirtsleeves, walking the Marchesa’s dogs on the road outside, he stopped and laughed at Carmela. “What do you mean, ‘out’?”
“Out, up,” said Carmela. “Up out of where it is now.”
“It doesn’t come up or out,” he said. “It stays where it is.”
Nothing stays where it is. That is the point of the four seasons. The seasons move along in their regular pattern. Until they don’t.
Elisabeth is staring up at an old tenement rooming house, the kind you see being bulldozed and crashing down into themselves on old footage from when they modernized British cities in the 1960s and 70s.
It is still standing, but in a ravaged landscape. All the other houses have been pulled out of the street like bad teeth. She pushes the door open. Its hall is dark, its wallpaper stained and dark. The front room is empty, no furniture. Its floor has boards broken where whoever was living or squatting here ripped them up to burn in the hearth, above the old mantel of which a shock of soot-grime shoots almost to the
She imagines its walls white. She imagines everything in it painted white. Even the holes in the floor, through the white broken boards, are painted white inside.
The house’s windows look out on to high privet hedge. Elisabeth goes outside to paint that high hedge white too.
Inside, sitting on a white-painted old couch, the stuffing coming out of it also stiff with white emulsion, Daniel laughs at what she’s doing. He laughs silently but like a child with his feet in his hands as she paints one tiny green leaf white after another.
He catches her eye. He winks. That does it.
They’re both standing in pure clean white space.
Yes, she says. Now we can sell this space for a fortune. Only the very rich can afford to be this minimalist these days.
Daniel shrugs. Plus ça change.
In his beginning dream in the opening chapter Daniel foreshadows another theme in Smith’s book.
Seems the self you get left with on the shore, in the end, is the self that you were when you went.
Plus ça change.
There are too many great lines in this book not to read it. So, read it and read Mavis Gallant as well. That’s all we have time to say for now. More to follow.