From the dreamy, disorienting opening of “Autumn,” we are in the strange territory that will be familiar to readers of Ali Smith, whose books play slyly with notions of time, character and plot. The first of a projected quartet, “Autumn” hovers around the season of harvest and final things, but the possibility of transformation is also very much in the air.
Daniel Gluck, 101 years old, seems to be dreaming his death. “It is perhaps rather fine, after all, being dead. Highly underrated in the modern western world.” Amazed, delighted and embarrassed to find himself young again but naked, he stitches together a swanky green coat of leaves.
Daniel is in the “increased sleep period [that] happens when people are close to death,” as the care assistants inform Elisabeth, the young woman who visits him — and reads aloud from what invariably become literary touchstones for Smith’s story. Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” for instance, echoes Daniel’s many arboreal manifestations. “Brave New World” gestures at our dystopian moment, but also at its source, “The Tempest,” which makes an appearance.
Most salient, though, is “A Tale of Two Cities,” because it is just over a week since Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. “All across the country,” Smith writes, “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.”
It was, in other words, “the best of times, it was the worst of times,” a very good time to take up Dickens’s novel, whose opening words “acted like a charm” for Elisabeth. “They’d made everything happening stand just far enough away.”
Putting things into perspective is very much what “Autumn” is about. Smith weaves in and out of the story of Elisabeth and Daniel, who meet when Elisabeth, 8 years old, is tasked with creating a portrait in words of a neighbor. Her mother tries to dissuade her. “You can’t just go bothering old frail people. . . . Why don’t you make it up? Pretend you’re asking him the questions. Write down the answers you think he’d give.”
“It’s supposed to be true, Elisabeth said. It’s for News.” To which her mother, very much a woman of our times, says, “The real news is always made up anyway.” The “portrait” that Elisabeth does make up is not so much about their neighbor as about the questions she would like to ask him (e.g., “why his house is full of pictures why they are not like the pictures we have in our house”). Handed over by her mother, it brings Elisabeth and Daniel together — “Finally,” Daniel says, perplexing the 8-year-old. “The lifelong friends,” he explains: “We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.”
Daniel, who takes Elisabeth to see “The Tempest,” is something of a Prospero to her Miranda, a fatherly magician summoning the wealth of words and images that will shape her life. Through his reminiscences about one long-ago love, he introduces her to the painter who will preoccupy her as a student of art history: Pauline Boty, a real-life female British Pop artist whose joyous depictions of female sexuality and fate touch on some of Smith’s favored themes, specifically the ways in which experience, in life and in art, is subject to the vagaries of time and place.
Smith took this up in her previous novel, the Booker Prize-shortlisted “How to Be Both,” by offering two different editions, in which the first and second halves of the story were reversed. Her approach in “Autumn” is more direct, moving us around so that what happens at one time (say, to Daniel’s beloved younger sister, in Nice in 1943) resonates with another moment (eruptions of xenophobia in post-Brexit Britain).
“And then what happened next, well, it happened next,” Smith writes, “and history, that other word for irony, went its own foul witty way, sang its own foul witty ditty, and the girl was the one who died young in this story.”
History is one story, but then there are all the others waiting to happen, waiting only for someone to make them up. “And whoever makes up the story makes up the world,” Daniel counsels the 13-year-old Elisabeth, in a very serious game of make-believe. “So always try to welcome people into the home of your story.” This is guidance straight out of Ali Smith’s playbook — and it makes for a novel that, under all its erudition, narrative antics, wit and wordplay, is a wonder of deep and accommodating compassion.
Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, “World Like a Knife.”
By Ali Smith
Pantheon. 264 pp. $24.95