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.)
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.