The faces of a literary autumn

Stephanie Chng 7 October 2017

Spring is hopeful, summer youthful and winter mournful, yet autumn is frustratingly ambiguous. It is at once a symbol of catharsis and change, a mark of degradation and revival. More importantly, autumn signals our return to Cambridge: the days are chillier and our surroundings a more colourful mix of reds, yellows and browns. As the leaves start to fall and squirrels begin to stash nuts away for the cold season, this is the perfect time to curl up with a good book and a cup of hot tea. So dip into the following for a taste of autumn in a number of different forms.

A tale about love, memories of the past and second chances, Jane Austen’s Persuasion reminds us of all that is wistful about autumn; here, it is a season of melancholy and regret, a time of fading bloom and increasing gloom. The autumn fields of November in the early parts of the novel mirror the protagonist Anne Elliot’s “declining year”, “declining happiness” and her bygone “youth and hope”: will the heroine be able to find love and happiness, after she had seemingly put an end to the prospect years ago?

On the contrary, in his memoir A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway highlights the potential for the renewal of hope in autumn. Published posthumously, the memoir is a reflective, personal account of the time he spent in Paris after the First World War. In chronicling his struggles as a young writer, Hemingway’s tone nevertheless remains cheery and hopeful, noting that although “part of [a person dies] each year when the leaves [fall] from the trees”, there would “always be the spring”.

On the other hand, Ali Smith’s post-Brexit novel Autumn – a story about the nature of time, the shortness of life and different forms of love – deftly interweaves all facets of the season into single masterpiece. Poetic prose coupled with Woolfian stream-of-consciousness blends modern reality with Keatsian fantasy; autumn is dream-like in its misery, sensible in its idealism for the present and utterly comfortable with the paradox that it embodies.

Autumn is also situated among the other seasons: memories of spring and summer represent the indulgence of a past self, whilst hopes for winter symbolise an acknowledgement of hard times to come. At first sight, both paths seemingly diverge: the former speaks to the past, the latter speaks to the future. Such divergence is nevertheless bridged by the middle ground of autumn – this is the time when one reminisces about what has happened, comes to terms with it, and then moves on to face a challenging future with renewed conviction.

Smith’s setting the story against the backdrop of the referendum is also extremely telling. Just as how one’s survival through winter is predicated upon one’s preparation and attitude during autumn, here it is as if Smith is pointing out that how the UK will eventually emerge from the Brexit storm depends on present efforts and the approach of the country’s people. Autumn, in this case, is certainly ‘change’, but only the deliberations of the current socio-political narrative can determine whether it is a change for the better or for the worse.

Autumn is enigmatic because of its contradictory ability to personify both death and hope at the same time. Falling and decaying leaves bring one’s story to a coda, but like darkness before dawn, they also signify the impending arrival of lush greenery in the spring. Likewise, not all in the present of Smith’s Autumn is demoralising; this season is the first in a series of four books to be released, despite its conventional associations with the denouement of a story. Her refusal to consign the season of ‘autumn’ to traditional interpretation is also shown in the inversion of the structure. The novel opens with the notion of death, a gravity that is signalled by the subversion of the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities into ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times’. The end of the novel is permeated with hope and awakening, yet this does not yet mark the end of the present solemnity; Smith’s last chapter is still full of imagery of rotting leaves and rusting furniture, and is ‘more winter than autumn’. However, it posits the possibility of a new beginning: there is still vibrancy amongst gloominess, for ‘in the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still’.