Ali Smith entertained Penguin Random House staff yesterday (5th September) at a special lunch-time preview event of her upcoming novel, Autumn (Hamish Hamilton), which weaves the “contemporaneous” political narrative of Brexit with the “timeless” changing of the seasons.
Smith read extracts of the novel to a room of around 30 PRH staff ahead of its publication next month.
Part of a seasonal quartet centred on the concept of time, the novel chronicles the platonic relationship between a young girl, Elisabeth, and an old man from a European country who has experienced the rise of fascism in the 1930s. It also references the run-up to and aftermath of the Brexit vote and the murder of Batley MP Jo Cox, which Smith said at one point would have been “a year’s worth of news", but "news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff”.
While Smith intends the novel to be “utterly contemporary", it is also the culmination of 20 years’ careful planning and strives to demonstrate "leaves fall off trees and then the new buds come".
Smith, who once said Brexit was like “being hit by a brick”, told The Bookseller: "Doing this project it was impossible not to [be responsive to political developments], I knew I had to honour both the project and the reality. If the novel was to mean anything about contemporaneousness, I had to deal with the contemporary; it had to come right up against it.
"The book starts before [the EU referendum] and comes through the three months that takes us practically to September. Meanwhile, the book also progresses at its own pace to the next season (winter). What the book does is ask you to know that time passes. And that things that feel immediate and shocking, it passes.
"Dickens was the most contemporaneous of writers. Whatever was happening, it came through Dickens like actual sweat or something. It was like perspiration, it just came out of him directly into his writing: energetically, intellectually and physically. And yet he can write a book - 'It was the best of times,it was the worst of times' - which gives you, whatever the time, a [way to] step back from it so you can see it properly.”
Smith added: “This year, this is what happened when I asked those questions [about synchronicity and time passing]. And in some ways I couldn’t have been luckier, and in other ways it was really an extraordinary experience [...] that it would be that close to the bone for all of us.
"But the book is also about history that is not so recent, and how those things never go away and there are reasons the present happens like it does.”
Smith’s influences for the novel also include English pop artist Pauline Boty and the Keeler Scandal, which involved a London dancer helping bring about the downfall of the Conservatives in the early 1960s following an affair with a minister for war and connections with Russian spies. It is also inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Homer’s Odyssey.
Smith with editor Simon Prosser and Anna Ridley, senior campaigns manager for Penguin General
In an interview with The Bookseller, Smith pointed to the preservation and adaptation of libraries as one practical way of healing the divisions in society, exacerbated by the EU referendum.
“If we look at the divisions being made visible to us more than we even could have imagined just in this past three months, one of the ways to heal divisions is to pour money into community services in a way that people feel their community is understood and honoured," Smith said. "It seems to me that a really good way to go about healing division is to remake those spaces which allow us all regardless of age, money, anything about ourselves, to participate equally.
"There is a sense of local pleasure and pride that came from a building which you knew belonged to your area and which you knew you belonged to your area, and which meant all the people who belonged to the area could share this fantastic thing. That to me is one of the beneficence of the library tradition. If we looked closely enough at how to adapt our libraries, we could do that now. Immediately, right now."
Smith was one of a number of authors to support the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals' (CILIP's) "My Library By Right" campaign in January petitioning the government to uphold its legal responsibilities to provide library services.