Language like poppies in Ali Smith’s Autumn

Autumn (2016), like all of Ali Smith’s novels (I’m guessing – I’ve only read a few so far), is a delight in linguistic and other ways. This post features a few excerpts that focus on language in one way or another.

The main character, Elisabeth, is visiting her old friend Daniel in a care home. Daniel is asleep. A care assistant talks to her:

A very nice polite gentleman. We miss him now. Increased sleep period. It happens when things are becoming more (slight pause before she says it) final.

The pauses are a precise language, more a language than actual language is, Elisabeth thinks.

I like how the writing itself conveys the particular pause in speech before the word final. Smith could have used dashes or described the pause in a subsequent clause or sentence, but the parenthesis, unexpected, feels just right.

Whenever Elisabeth meets Daniel, the first thing he asks her is what she’s reading. Here, aged 11, she has been telling him about a book called Jill’s Gymkhana.

The word gymkhana, Daniel said, is a wonderful word, a word grown from several languages.

Words don’t get grown, Elisabeth said.

They do, Daniel said.

Words aren’t plants, Elisabeth said.

Words are themselves organisms, Daniel said.

Oregano-isms, Elisabeth said.

Herbal and verbal, Daniel said. Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting to come up.

Botanical metaphors for language have a fertile history, as I noted at Macmillan Dictionary some years ago; more recently I enjoyed this thread on Twitter that finds languages more like forests than gardens. You could nitpick the analogy Daniel uses, but in the fictional context it rings true. (Etymology of gymkhana here.)

Penguin UK book cover. The upper part is orange, with black and white text of the author's name, book title, and short blurbs from newspapers. Below this, on the bottom half and a little more, is a painting by David Hockney, "Early November Tunnel". It shows a sunlit path into the distance, with thick grassy verges and trees overhead, their leaves browning and shedding. A ridge of grass runs down the middle of the path.

The theme is echoed in a later passage. Elisabeth, an adult again, is staying with her mother, who is watching an antiques show on TV:

Elisabeth notices how truly beautiful the cow parsley is at the sides of the backroads in the footage of The Golden Gavel, which is playing on catch-up, from an episode set in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, filmed, her mother tells her, last year. The cow parsley holds itself stately and poisonous in the air while the celebrities (Elisabeth has no idea who they are or why they’re celebrities) maunder about. One sings pop songs from the 1970s and talks about when he owned a gold-painted Datsun. The other chats chummily about her days as an extra in Oliver! The vintage cars fume along through England; outside the car windows the passing cow parsley is tall, beaded with rain, strong, green. It is incidental. This incidentality is, Elisabeth finds herself thinking, a profound statement. The cow parsley has a language of its own, one that nobody on the programme or making the programme knows or notices is being spoken.

At the risk of getting too meta, this seemingly incidental passage in the book is also profound, for example in what it says about people’s attitudes to nature (which mostly range from blasé to destructive). And without being preachy about it, unlike me.

Finally, a rant for the ages that jolts into comedy:

Her mother sits down on the churned-up ground near the fence.

I’m tired, she says.

It’s only two miles, Elisabeth says.

That’s not what I mean, she says. I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.

I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.

Wonderful stuff.

You’ll find more Ali Smith in these posts about compulsive pedantry and transcending mutual unintelligibility, and in this interview she did with Penguin about the book’s themes and ideas.

8 Responses to Language like poppies in Ali Smith’s Autumn

  1. Roger Hill says:

    Regarding use of the pause: yes, in everyday talk, the pause is effective. It’s especially effective in telephone conversations in order to slow the pace when said pace is too fast or frenetic; or when the caller is an unknown, perhaps with a set of questions for a survey and needs to be slowed down while one considers the legitimacy of the call. In courtooms, standing advice in handling lawyers is not to answer their questions too quickly; rather, presumably, slow the pace of interrogation by means of a (judicious!) pause or two.
    At the time of the (2nd) Iraq War, a student interviewed on local radio (i.e., far from the conflict) introduced himself, saying “I’m from Iraq”, followed by an apparently necessary & quite noticeable pause, during which listeners might assess what being from Iraq meant, pro or con. He could have added an ethnicity, such as “Oh, but I’m Kurdish and secular”, but left it to the audience to figure.
    In film and broadcsting, the pause is much used by actors and voice-workers of all kinds; .e.g., Brando, Bogart, Lee J Cobb. Or it may be an outcome of respiratory deficiency or illness, as in John Wayne’s situation; and then put to use by intent, or re-purposed, as one might say now.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, it has all sorts of pragmatic (and dramatic) uses. I often see pauses associated with ‘umm’s and ‘erm’s and criticised for disfluency, but they serve a range of important functions and can carry a weight of implied meaning – or feign it.

  2. angryelegist says:

    I agree with you— Roger and Stan, that is—about the expressiveness of pauses. But how are they best rendered in a piece of writing? In the example from Ali Smith, she notes the pause as the narrator, but that seems to only work here because the character’s thoughts on speech pauses is about to be conveyed.

    Ellipses can convey routine hesitation or buying for time, but not quite the sense of poignant tact the care worker speech conveys.

    • angryelegist says:

      Oh, boy, I just a subject-verb disagreement in my response. And a missing apostrophe!
      Sorry but you know what the sloppiness the impulse to post and not write can lead to.

    • Roger Hill says:

      L F Celine was the greatest ellipticist of modern lit. Check his dot-driven novels, ellipses throughout separated by words, of course.
      You could use the ellipsis to suggest a pause, though the exemplar probably had other intentions.
      Elsewhere, the dash to suggest a breaking-off, cited by W. Lewis in Ezra Pound’s writing. O dear, Celine, Lewis, Pound: three “fascists” in a row — though better to spotlight method than politics (!)

      • angryelegist says:

        Thank you, Roger. I’ll check out Celine. And Wyndham as well.
        Firbank came to mind when I read your reply, but I think his frequent dashes in dialogue served to break off thought, suggest or imply a tone or unsaid thought of a character.
        One thing I think an author has to count on is a reader who will speak the dialogue in his own head so as to give the right rhythm and timing to what a character says. You need to voice each character the way an actor would, but you have to see punctuation as a kind of musical score.

        • Stan Carey says:

          Yes, that’s well put, angryelegist, and thanks for the examples, Roger. So much depends on the author’s surrounding style – and indeed their characterisation. Even the best approach to rendering pauses in speech can become overworn: judicious use is vital.
          I’ve seen a few writers (especially in genre literature like crime fiction) insert the phrase ‘A beat’ as a separate line, sometimes as its own paragraph, to mark a significant pause. It’s not my favourite option, but I have seen it succeed on occasion.
          (You may already know this, but an abrupt breaking off of a thought mid-sentence is called aposiopesis.)

          • angryelegist says:

            Good points, Stan. The author’s surrounding style can really teach a reader how to render the speech of different characters. And, yes, relying on one means can become a tic, and be obnoxious to constantly encounter as a reader.

            The Greek term is new to me. Thanks.

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