In Ali Smith's wonderful book Artful (2013), based on a series of lectures she gave at Oxford, which combines fiction and the essay form in an astonishing and complex discussion of art and storytelling, she writes the following
Books need time to dawn on us, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them, because books are produced by books more than by writers; they're a result of all the books that went before them. Great books are adaptable; they alter with us as they alter in life, they renew themselves as we change and re-read them at different times in our lives. You can't step into the same story twice-- or maybe it's that stories, books, art can't step into the same person twice, maybe it's that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it's this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and goings. Because come and go we will, and in that order.
I share this for two reasons. First, because it is emblematic of her cast of mind, of her subtle understanding of complexities, of her grasp of both art and the human heart, and of her humor. Second, to grieve. I know her idea to be correct, and at my age (late-middle) I grieve that I will have fewer opportunities than lucky younger readers, to re-appreciate and wonder at each repeat read of her new novel, Autumn.
Smith wrote it last summer after the Brexit vote in the UK. Autumn, which travels back and forth through time, has a feisty anger in its present-day scenes. People for or against Brexit are stunned and wonder what the future might hold. It is an understatement to say it resonates here as well. But the politics, ripe as they are, play a minor roll.
This is a book about an unusual and profoundly tender friendship between 32-year-old (in the present scenes) Elisabeth, and Daniel, her former next-door neighbor and sometime babysitter, who in the present scenes is 101. It is a book of memory, forgetting, music, art history, love, family, poverty, a book about so many things, but always about connection and a hunger for life whatever it might have in store for each of us.
As it slides through time and we learn bits of each person's story, their disappointments, their tiny triumphs, the unbearable richness of each and any life rises up and catches our hearts over and over. Sad, funny, informative, insightful and deeply moving, it is an astonishing achievement. It is the beginning of a planned quartet of novels named for the seasons. It is difficult to imagine the other seasons having the abundance of Autumn, but I can hardly wait to find out.