Saturday, March 03, 2018

How else will we read the world?

Hello, he said. What you reading?

Elisabeth showed him her empty hands.

Does it look like I'm reading anything? she said.

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.
Autumn, by Ali Smith, is a joy.

There's so much joy in this book, despite some heavy matters throughout, like Brexit and dying and the inability to effect change and the absurdity of our day-to-day and how feminist icons have been dismissed by the establishment and how we forget, but Smith's writing is so light and gentle and funny, and there's hope and love and joy. And wordplay. It's about how we tell our stories. There's fear and awe (and love and joy) in discovering that people have lives quite apart from the narrow contexts in which we know them.

The novel follows Elisabeth, a lecturer in art history, and traces her relationship with Daniel, an old songwriter and art collector, her next-door neighbour when she was a little girl, who is sleeping away his final days at a care facility in the town her mother has moved to. Because Elisabeth visits Daniel regularly, she sees more of her mother too. The United Kingdom has just voted to leave the European union, and there's something in the air.

I read Winter, the second book in Smith's seasonal cycle, first. I don't think that matters — they're set more or less contemporaneously, with a small bit of character overlap. Both books brush up against Shakespearean tales. Both books describe acts of protest and resistance.

Both feature long-forgotten women artists, in Autumn's case, Pauline Boty. Many readers see the discursions on art as incidental, but I suspect they're quite central to this cycle. I think Smith is reminding us to listen to what women say through art, that it could be quite different than what you think it is, and it is important.
A great many men don't understand a woman full of joy, even more don't understand paintings full of joy by a woman.

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