Autumn by Ali Smith is never going to Nigel Farage’s choice of book, though reportedly he (and it is better to think of him as a ludicrous ham, like, very much like, a braying Bernie Clifton riding a bucking toy ostrich around the stage on The Good Old Days) doesn’t read novels, nor does he listen to music. That only adds to the impression of him being an unsavoury Graham Greene villain, one who might turn up in some horrible update of The Captain and the Enemy. Conversely, Nicola Sturgeon has described Autumn as “glorious”.
Joanna Kavenna writing in The Guardian hailed the book as “a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities”. Hitherto, the lingering impression had been of Ali being very much a favourite of Guardian reviewers and readers, though it is now clear the praise is justified, unlike the text in her books.
Some kinds of critical acclaim can be off-putting, which may be something to do with why Ali’s work passed by unnoticed here. There is something, occasionally, about a certain tone in glowing reviews which repels. Once this might have been called the Go-Betweens syndrome, back when there was a running gag about how prosaic positive pop press coverage would even put Robert and Grant off the Go-Betweens.
It is good to be wrong. It is not the first time, and it will not be the last. Certainly, memorably, one had been horribly wrong about Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano books, which became an addiction. Similarly, it turned out that Fred Vargas’ crime novels were not, as suspected, in the Harlan Coben or Dennis Lehane tough thriller tradition, but were actually gloriously odd, poetic flights of fancy, which was a wonderful surprise.
Ali Smith being so funny was the lovely big surprise, and a massive factor in so quickly deciding to make a dramatic switch from a default, faulty, ‘not for me’ position to one of ‘very much for me’. There is not enough humour in ‘serious’ books nowadays. Autumn’s passport renewal scene in the post office is supreme farce worthy of Shena Mackay or Muriel Spark (there was a picture of Ali artfully holding a copy of Abbess of Crewe as part of the publicity for the Desert Island Discs appearance), though without their venomous sting.
It has been remarked on many times, no doubt, but Ali’s writing is remarkable for its torrent of words and unstoppable gushing of word play, the revelling in puns, jokes, the careful construction of immaculate sentences, capturing the rhythm of words, like a rapper’s meticulous attention to how their lyrics flow, creating a carnival of sorts. It creates an impression of performers on an old Variety show, a bill made up of contortionists, dancers, acrobats, conjurers, illusionists, mesmerists, comedians, ballad singers and so on, but not one with some idiot riding a toy ostrich.
The humour in Ali’s writing does perhaps form a link to the early days of Orange Juice and Postcard Records. Edwyn Collins’ and James Kirk’s songs were funny, witty, clever, moving, super smart, providing a link (via their hero Vic Godard) to the greats like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Their cleverness and wit could also irritate some, which is presumably the case with Ali Smith’s writing too.
A review of Autumn in Private Eye was decidedly sniffy: “A new Ali Smith novel presents a number of challenges to the reader, which is perhaps putting it mildly.” Well, many people like a challenge. Later on in the piece the sneery tone persisted: “The great drawback to the Smith approach to fiction-writing lies not in its non-linear narratives, its circular flights, its very mild avant-gardarie or its rapt interrogations, in which question marks descend like so much flung confetti – but in the construction, the sense of everything just being chucked down more or less at random and the reader being left to do the bulk of the work.”
The review came across a little like one of the contrarian comment pieces The Guardian might run about, say, Captain Beefheart, or the way Trout Mask Replica will be featured in a round-up of difficult listening. Is Ali difficult? Is Trout Mask Replica difficult? Celine Dion or Adele or Duran Duran, for some of us, could be considered difficult to listen to, but Trout Mask Replica is great fun for many.