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Autumn by Ali Smith


by Ali Smith

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Seasonal Quartet (1)

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1,1007412,477 (3.89)232
"From the Man Booker-shortlisted and Baileys Prize-winning author of How to be both: a breathtakingly inventive new novel--about aging, time, love, and stories themselves--that launches an extraordinary quartet of books called Seasonal. Readers love Ali Smith's novels for their peerless innovation and their joyful celebration of language and life. Her newest, Autumn, has all of these qualities in spades, and--good news for fans!--is the first installment in a quartet. Seasonal, comprised of four stand-alone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as are the seasons), explores what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative. Fusing Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness with the vitality, the immediacy, and the color hit of Pop Art, Autumn is a witty excavation of the present by the past. The novel is a stripped-branches take on popular culture and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means"--… (more)
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The story of Autumn, the first of Ali Smith's quartet of season-themed novels, revolves mainly around an unlikely pair: Daniel Gluck, a 101-year-old man, and Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-year-old woman who teaches literature at a university.

Smith's style is typically experimental, typified by the opening scene, in which Daniel imagines waking up on a beach, strangely transformed. There, he notices the bodies of people washed up on the shore and, nearby, families enjoying a fun day out at the beach. These scenes are then followed by Elisabeth's grimly humorous attempts to renew her passport at the post office, a process that takes so long that she manages to read the entirety of [b:Brave New World|5129|Brave New World|Aldous Huxley|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1565605881l/5129._SY75_.jpg|3204877] while she is waiting.

Gradually, the real story what is going on comes into focus. Daniel is in a nursing home, where he lies unconscious for extended periods. Upon learning of his condition, Elisabeth poses as his granddaughter and comes to sit by his side and reads him books. This narrative framework is punctuated by Smith jumping back and forth in time and space, revealing the ties that connect her two main characters.

Daniel, it turns out, was Elisabeth's neighbor during her childhood, and a school project gives her the excuse she needs to connect with him. Despite her mother's initial reluctance, the two soon forge an unlikely bond. Daniel's refusal to be conventional, in direct contrast to her tedious mother, is what draws Elisabeth to him. He plays instructive games with her, describing art works he once saw, or collaborating on telling stories that veer off in unexpected directions. He exhorts Elisabeth always to be reading, even when she doesn't have a book with her.

"Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant." (p.68)

Essentially, Daniel challenges Elisabeth always to think deeply and critically about the world around her, rather than just accepting whatever she is told. When Elisabeth tells him she wants to go to college, for instance, he tells her that she should go to "collage" instead.

"You’re using the wrong word, Mr Gluck, Elisabeth said. The word you’re using is for when you cut out pictures of things or coloured shapes and stick them on paper.
I disagree, Daniel said. Collage is an institute of education where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative, and because of these skills everything you think you know gets made into something new and strange." (pp. 71-72).

These unconventional exchanges become the basis for a profound love that develops between Daniel and Elisabeth, and it is a testament to Smith's skill as a writer that this relationship is entirely believable, even moving.

When Elisabeth does go to college/collage, she studies art history and, challenged by her supervisor to find a single female pop artist, she discovers the work of Pauline Boty (1938-1966) and realizes that Boty's images are the ones Daniel was describing to her. The introduction of Boty is Smith's chance to juxtapose the contemporary politics of Brexit with the Profumo sex scandal of 1962, an event that rocked public confidence in Britain's political system. Boty uses images of Christine Keeler, the woman at the center of that scandal, in her art.

The nursing home tells Elisabeth that Daniel's money is running out. She recalls that Daniel once wrote a hit song, "Summer Boy, Autumn Girl," and discovers that a supermarket is using the song in its ads. She blackmails the supermarket into paying Daniel money for use of his music, which she can then use to keep him alive.

Smith uses all these elements to weave together a powerful meditation on life that, while informed by today's politics at one level, transcends it at another to meditate more deeply on how life refuses to conform to human expectations.

"There’s always, there’ll always be, more story. That’s what story is. (Silence.) It’s the never-ending leaf-fall." (p. 193)

Smith's style is not for everyone, but Autumn is one of those books where she hits that sweet spot between experimental innovation and a sense of universal relevance - you never get the feeling that tangents she is exploring are irrelevant or unnecessary. There are canny references to Joyce, Shakespeare, Dickens, Huxley, and many more, but my favorites, and the most important ones for my reading of the novel, were from Ovid. Life is constantly changing into something new and unexpected, and it is precisely in such a direction that Smith is taking us with this novel. ( )
  vernaye | May 23, 2020 |
Set in 2016 Post-Brexit vote Britain, "Autumn" revolves around the experiences of a young art historian and the old man who helped her learn to see and think when she was a child. The story moves up and down the timeline of both their lives and flips from strange, presumably allegorical, dream sequences, through discussions of art and imagination and freedom through to hyper-real depictions of modern life.

The opening chapter is an allegorical dream sequence that screams the literary equivalent of college band concept album and was almost enough to make me stop reading, yet the next chapter got my complete attention.with a sequence about going into to use the “Quick Check” passport service in the ruined post offices our governments have created as they've pillaged public assets. Ali Smith makes this familiar activity fresh by a muted rage that clings to irony and comic observation as it hangs above the pit of despair that life in a totalitarian state produces.

"Autumn" is a book you have to engage with rather than glide through. It's a conversation with the reader rather than an entertainment. For the most part, it was a conversation that I took a lot of pleasure in but there were some parts, dream sequences, long lists of how Brexit split the nation, where I felt as if I wandered into the "Time Passes" section of "To The Lighthouse": I knew I was reading something bold and innovative but it didn't really engage me.

"Autumn" made me re-examine what I thought I knew about the allegedly swinging sixties in England. I was four in 1960 and I realised it's a period that I've never really examined from an adult point of view. I grew up being aware of things referred to in "Autumn" like Christine Keeler and the Profumo Affair, and (at the time) risqué movies like "Alfie" but had no real understanding of them. They were too recent and too long ago.

I came to British Pop Art much later, so I thought I'd be on firmer ground but I was completely unaware of the work of Pauline Boty, who features heavily in the book and who Ali Smith examined in a piece in the Guardian. Seeing pop art through the eyes of Ali Smith's characters made me hungry for it, even though most of it normally slides past me.

This is a book of big themes and real people. It explores the relationship between memory and imagination and how they compete and cooperate to construct and sustain the story of our lives that we tell to ourselves and others. It’s about seeing past the obvious to the real. It’s about a bloody-minded refusal to give in to all the people and institutions that try to make us live smaller lives. It's about borders and crossing them or being kept out. It’s about triumphing by finding a way to express joy.

This was my first Ali Smith book. It wasn’t always an easy experience but it was a memorable one. “Autumn” is the first of a four-novel seasonal sequence covering how the contemporaneous relates to the diachronic. I will be back for the rest. ( )
  MikeFinnFiction | May 16, 2020 |
I loved so many of the references here and the thoughts and feelings it evoked. The relationship between Elisabeth and her mother was realistic and relative. However, so much of this book was descriptions of something on a television, too much. I found myself skipping through these lengthy descriptions. Not sure I'd read the other 3 in this unnecessary "quartet". ( )
  supermanboidy | Mar 29, 2020 |
The novel seems to want to present me with all the sadness in the world, and all the bleakness of recent history, and it seemed determined to remind me of all the meannesses that people can heap upon one another (some of it through neglect) (some of it through evil acts)--and yet even as the novel forced me to face these things, at its center was a beautiful hope. The novel is a paean to the power of language, and to the mystery of human interaction, and to the way small daily gestures of kindness can reverberate and magnify upon themselves across the years.

I think that's what it was about, anyway. That's what it was about for me, today. More than most novels, this novel felt like a dialog, where I was part of the creation of story, and where the feelings an image or a scene gave to me, however personal, were being acknowledged and even invited in by the text.

It left me feeling sad, and it left me also feeling very much in love with my own family, somehow. I felt more appreciation for all that is idiosyncratic and flawed, and f0r those who try to think new thoughts rather than just going along with what everyone else thinks. ( )
  poingu | Feb 22, 2020 |
I really don't know what to say about this book. I just loved it. It was beautifully written and hard to put down. ( )
  obtusata | Jan 9, 2020 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Smith, Aliprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Alfsen, MereteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grove, MelodyNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hockney, DavidCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kustodiev, Boris MichaylovichCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Munday, OliverCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Santen, Karina vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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“Spring come to you at the farthest,
In the very end of harvest!
William Shakespeare
At current rates of soil erosion, Britain has just 100 harvests left.
Guardian, 20 July 2016
Green as the grass we lay in corn, in sunlight
Ossie Clark
If I am destined to be happy with you here – how short is the longest Life.
John Keats
Gently disintegrate me
WS Graham
For Gilli Bush-Bailey
see you next week

and for Sarah Margaret
Hardy perennial Wood
First words
It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again.
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Daniel Gluck, a 101-year-old former songwriter, lies asleep and dreaming in his care home. He is regularly visited by 32-year-old Elisabeth Demand, who had been his next door neighbour as a young child. Her mother had disapproved of their early friendship, based on her belief that Daniel was gay, but Elisabeth had nevertheless formed a close bond with him and been inspired by his descriptions of works of art. As a consequence of his influence on her, Elisabeth is now a junior arts lecturer at a London university. A major character in the novel is the long-dead '60s pop artist, Pauline Boty,[6] the subject of Elisabeth's graduate school thesis. The story largely alternates between Daniel's prolonged dreams as he edges closer to death, and Elisabeth's recollections of the origins of their friendship and its repercussions.
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