Anyone that’s read this blog for any length of time (thank you) knows my disposition for literature with a modernist spirit, books that share a language of reticence, an ironic stance perhaps. I read with the conviction that through what Shklovsky terms defamiliarisation, it is possible to reveal usually veiled boundaries of our own familiar world, thus offering the possibility of a secular re-enchantment.
Over the last few months I’ve listened intently to the Backlisted podcast, a high-spirited literary conversation that focuses on old books. Before they discuss a featured writer, the podcast hosts chat about the books they’ve read. A comment by Andy Miller piqued my interest in Ali Smith’s Autumn, his argument that the novel is so very contemporary that it demands to be read immediately, almost that it has a literary use-by date.
In choosing our recent European referendum as its backdrop, there is a voguish aspect, which I worried beforehand might be excessive. I’ve not read Ali Smith before and steer away from most contemporary literature, preferring a 10-year delay in order not be to influenced by social media hyperbole and sponsorship. What I discovered in Autumn was greater subtlety than expected, a restrained political context that centred to a greater extent on periodically forgotten and revived British pop artist Pauline Boty, and the Keeler/Profumo scandal.
But there was more of interest in Smith’s book: her exploration of time and memory in particular. In common with many writers that continue to write in the spirit of modernism, Smith embraces a more fluid view of self, confronting the scientific notion of consciousness, of linear moments of time strung out like a set of rosary beads. Her characters in Autumn live with time as a distinctive substance of their selves, with memories, as Bergson wrote, as “messengers from the unconscious” reminding us of “what we are dragging behind us unawares”.
My reading intentions for next year, to what extent I ever stick to a plan (very little), is, as Andy Miller exhorts in the Backlisted podcast, to read outside my taste. I remain very interested in what Seagull Books publish, but also intend to thoroughly explore the backlists of Open Letter and Fitzcarraldo Editions, and to be less squeamish about contemporary books.