As one of the most significant political turning points since the Second World War, Brexit will no doubt provide rich and controversial material for novelists to explore for years to come. Antony Mullen looks at one of the first works of fiction to engage head-on with Brexit, in the form of Ali Smith’s Autumn.
Among the titles on the 2017 Man Booker Prize shortlist was Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016). This was the fourth time that one of Smith’s novels had been shortlisted, though she has never won. The prize is widely regarded as an indicator of quality writing and of a novel’s seriousness.
Autumn, as the first novel to tackle the UK’s impending departure from the EU, is certainly serious – so much so that it may even indicate a new direction for British political fiction. Smith’s use of the novel to map out social and cultural changes revitalises the British’s novel’s engagement with political culture.
The 1980s was a turning point for British fiction in this regard. British writers such as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Alan Hollinghurst began to channel ideas about individual and national identity. In particular, many of them used their writing to directly contradict the idea of Britishness articulated by Thatcher. Many of the tropes that these writers included in their initial responses to Thatcherism continue to be echoed in their more recent work. What Ali Smith has done is to move this debate further, engaging with a more recent political shift with questions of national identity at its heart.
In many respects, Autumn fulfils the role that the Scottish moral philosopher, Adam Smith, believed the novel had. Research by Maureen Harkin suggests that he considered the novel to be a means by which we can see the world from other peoples’ perspectives. By reading novels, we are better positioned to empathise with others’ experiences of the society in which we live. Harkin also writes that Adam Smith saw the process of writing history as a literary project, rather than a scientific one. To construct history is to tell a subjective story – and that inevitably leads to the exclusion of some perspectives.
Autumn tells the story of Elisabeth Demand, an art history lecturer, and her life-long friendship with an old, eccentric neighbour. This is set against the backdrop of the UK’s vote to exit the European Union. Elisabeth’s name, her neighbour tells her, means “of the world” (a reference to Theresa May’s “citizens of nowhere” speech). Political tropes and events like the Home Office’s “Go Home” immigration vans, the murder of Jo Cox and the referendum outcome also ground the novel in our current political moment.
The novel raises questions of citizenship and belonging, particularly in relation to immigration. Throughout the novel, Elisabeth’s attempts to renew her passport satirise the issue of identity in the UK. She is told that her old passport (one month expired) does not prove who she is. Then, her new passport application cannot be accepted because her face does not “look right”. She is requested, then, to pose in a way which makes her look unlike her everyday self, to prove that she is herself.
The novel concerns itself with the reliability of dominant narratives, asking us to interrogate whose voice is heard. Smith mixes the past and the present by drawing parallels between the EU referendum campaign and the Profumo affair.
The affair, which occurred in 1961, involved John Profumo, the Conservative Secretary of State for War and the 19-year-old model, Christine Keeler, who was romantically involved with him. It was thought that Keeler was also possibly involved with a Soviet diplomat, which heightened public interest in the affair on the grounds that there may have been a potential security risk. Profumo denied any involvement in the affair in the House of Commons, but later admitted the truth.
The dominant narrative of the affair has been shaped by Lord Denning’s investigation into it. Keeler challenged Denning’s account throughout her life, but never managed to counter the negative reputation she acquired as a result of the affair.
Elisabeth’s art history research leads her to consider how Keeler has become a footnote of history. Rather than simply the woman involved in an affair, Elisabeth presents Keeler as somebody who challenged gender stereotypes and images of femininity. In doing so, Smith asks readers to see the affair as an example of women being written out of history and remembered only on men’s terms.
This episode’s relationship to the novel more broadly implies parallels between the affair and Brexit. Accounts of both political events, for Smith, are influenced by the lies of powerful men, at the expense of ignored minorities. Overall, what her novel suggests is that it is those who control and dominate the narratives most prominent and retold in society who most influence how history is recorded. What Smith implies is that Brexit will be remembered in the same way: as a lie, told through a narrative of identity and belonging, which was perpetrated by figures in positions of political authority.
Like the British novelists of the 1980s, Ali Smith has used fiction to attempt to intervene in the current formation of a narrative of Brexit Britain. Those novelists were by no means pro-Thatcher, but their engagement with Thatcherism led to a revitalisation of the British novel. Even now, writers like Martin Amis and Kazuo Ishiguro return to the themes in their work with which they first became concerned in the 1980s. Indeed, some of the authors who rose to literary stardom under Thatcher have also spoken out against Brexit – a possible indicator of what their future work will deal with.
Fundamentally, though, Smith’s novel shows us that Brexit, like Thatcherism, could be good for contemporary British fiction. It has the potential to inspire authors to use their fiction to ask questions about the changing nature of our nation, as they did in the 1980s.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Antony Mullen is co-organiser of a forthcoming conference on Thatcherism Now, looking among other things at how Thatcher’s legacy has been handled by contemporary literature.
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