Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973The two things I’ve heard or read most often about grief are “it takes time” and “wait until you’re ready.” These are helpful comments, as far as anything is helpful; they lessen my anxiety and confusion by reminding me that there is no timeline, there are no rules, there are no ‘oughts’ that follow from this shocking and disruptive ‘is.’ They are also, less reassuringly, very vague: nobody knows how much time or can say exactly what “it” is, or when, if ever, I’ll be “ready” for the things I currently can’t face doing—sorting through his belongings, for example, so poignantly scant and so heartbreakingly reminiscent of him. But it has been good to remind myself that it is OK for now just to get from one day to the next as best I can.

SnowyTreesThe world won’t wait for me, though. The days keep relentlessly coming and going, their accumulation inexorably putting distance between this sad present and the innocent times before—especially that last happy day, the day when he knew but we didn’t that it was the last one, the day he told us, as it came cheerfully to a close, that he would remember for the rest of his life (how different that remarks sounds today). And now winter is starting, slowly and haltingly but perceptibly, to change to spring. Usually I am impatient, desperate even, for this to happen: the contrast between the shorter, milder winters I experienced growing up in Vancouver and the longer, harsher winters we suffer through here has always made me depressed. I never understood why April would be considered cruel until I lived here; if winter comes, I often crankily exclaimed, spring can indeed be ‘far behind.’ Now, however, the lighter mornings, the lengthening days, the brighter sunshine all exert the kind of pressure on me that those consolatory phrases attempt to protect me from.

Mourning in winter has been very hard, and very isolating, because of the added complication of COVID concerns, but it has also made emotional sense to me that the weather has stayed as bleak as my feelings. “He left us in the dead of winter,” as Auden’s poem goes; “the day of his death was a dark cold day.” Beauty and brightness seem so incongruous. I went to the park one rare mild morning, hoping to find some consolation in the loveliness of sea and sky, but I was immediately flooded with memories and overwhelmed with grief knowing that Owen would never again turn his face to the sun.

PPP February 11 2022

It takes time, I know. I’ll try again, when I feel ready. But spring will come whether I’m ready or not, and this year I can’t imagine that the renewal of warmth and life around us will seem anything but painful, a constant reminder of our loss. It takes time—but “the dead slip away,” as Riley says, “as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” I’m not ready for that.

smith springAs it happens, my recent reading has also been seasonal, though I don’t think there’s any connection to these ruminations. At any rate, if there is a link, it’s not conscious or deliberate. Prompted by my attempts to conceptualize my book project, I looked up information about Ali Smith’s recent Orwell Prize win. What I read about it and her it sent me back to reread Autumn, which I had liked but not loved before; with questions about form and content and ‘novels with a purpose’ in mind, I found it engaging and thought-provoking, so I read on through Winter and Spring, and I will get to Summer soon. I’m not confident that the connections I was making between her series and the other earlier books I am planning to write about are good ones, or that it makes sense to include a contemporary example, but the flicker of intellectual excitement this idea gives me feels good enough to make it worth following up on anyway.

Image: Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman (1937, Tate Gallery)

“Things That Happen In the World”: Ali Smith, Autumn


What pictures? Pictures of what? her mother said.

Things. Things that happen in the world, Elizabeth said. A sunflower. A man with a machine gun like out of a gangster film. A factory. A Russian-looking politician. An owl, an exploding airship —

Ali Smith’s Autumn seemed incoherent to me, though artfully so. It is composed of many pieces, some of which fit together in the orderly way we expect of a novel, with interconnected characters moving forwards (and sometimes backwards) through a shared plot, but other sections don’t belong to that plot, or they are related to it tangentially or associatively; instead of completing the picture, they add color or shape or contrast or interest of their own.

There’s a lot of attention to collages within the more conventional narrative parts of the novel, and it occurred to me after a while that Autumn was designed to be collage-like itself. After hearing her friend Daniel describe a work that we later learn is by the British Pop artist Pauline Boty, the novel’s main character Elisabeth, then a child, comments, “I like the idea of the blue and pink together”:

Pink lace. Deep blue pigment, Daniel said.

I like that maybe you could touch the pink, if it was made of lace, I mean, and it would feel different from the blue.

Oh, that’s good, Daniel said. That’s very good.

“Today I myself particularly like the ship,” Daniel adds; “The galleon with the sails up.” Juxtaposition brings out texture; our own interest and attention vary and need different provocations at different times. These both seem like ideas that illuminate the process of Autumn itself.

autumn-2-coverWhat did “I myself particularly like” in Autumn? I liked the meticulous descriptions of the landscape as it changes with the season:

October’s a blink of the eye. The apples weighing down the tree a minute ago are gone and the tree’s leaves are yellow and thinning. A frost has snapped millions of trees all across the country into brightness. The ones that aren’t evergreen are a combination of beautiful and tawdry, red orange gold the leaves, then brown, and down.

I liked Elisabeth’s unruly mother, especially her timely and heartfelt outburst:

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 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 or not.

I liked the riff on “things from the past” accumulating and spilling out across the nation. I liked learning about Pauline Boty. I liked Elisabeth and Daniel a lot. I liked the nods to Dickens, beginning with the opening line (“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times”). I liked reading the more fantastical, dream-like bits–but those are also the parts that most frustrated my desire to make collective sense of what I was reading.

offillI liked all of these parts and more about the novel, and yet while I could find a lot more examples to quote with pleasure or admiration, I don’t know quite how to talk about or conceptualize the novel as a whole, and that leaves me somewhat frustrated with it overall. I trusted Smith’s bricolage more than that of some other more fragmented novels I’ve read in recent years (Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculation, for instance, or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, neither of which I actually enjoyed much at all). I think that’s because there’s a stronger narrative thread running through Autumn, and it gives a deeper grounding in its central characters while still (especially in Daniel’s case) leaving them somewhat opaque or enigmatic. There was enough in Autumn for a reader like me to enjoy in my usual way, though Smith clearly wants to do something more, or something other, than that.

I’ve been thinking lately (not without some anxiety, to be honest) that my reading taste and habits are hopelessly conventional, mainstream, middlebrow–choose your poisonous label! I don’t seek out experimental fiction or make my critical home in some interesting and underpopulated niche, whether literature in translation or obscure mid-century novelists of the NYRB Classics kind. This is a disadvantage for someone trying to define a critical voice or personality: what (I wonder in my bleaker moments) if I don’t really have such a thing? But then I remind myself that it’s OK just to read as well as you can, and that besides, I can’t become a reader I’m not (though of course it’s good to question and challenge my own taste). It’s a bit disconcerting to think that Autumn, which is hardly a fringe work, is very nearly outside my comfort zone. For all the things I liked about it, I admit I do not feel inspired to follow up with Winter.