Zadie Smith’s new book is comprised of seventeen essays, clumped into five brackets: “Reading”, “Being”, “Seeing”, “Feeling” and the last, “Remembering”, which contains a single excruciating essay (by far the longest in the collection): a remembrance of David Foster Wallace. In her six essays from “Reading”, Zadie opens with a rather complicated one that has as much to do with her mother as with her ostensible subject, Zora Neale Hurston: being black and the meaning of “soulful”.
She really hits her stride with her essay on E.M. Forster (“tricky bugger”), a subject that Zadie is obviously very fond of.
In the taxonomy of English writing, E.M. Forster is not an exotic creature. We file him under notable English Novelist, common or garden variety…he never believed the novel was dead or the hills alive, continued to read contemporary fiction after age of fifty, harbored no special hatred for the generation below or above him, did not come to feel that England had gone to hell in a handbasket, that its language was doomed…
“Banal and brilliant” at the same time, Zadie shows her Forster feelings with gentle humor. And on literary criticism in general, Zadie shares these insightful thoughts:
Here’s the funny thing about literary criticism: it hates its own times, only realizing their worth twenty years later. And then, twenty years after that, it wildly sentimentalizes them, out of nostalgia for a collective youth
It’s fun to listen as Zadie brings thoroughly modern sensibilities to her commentary on, say, the likes of George Eliot (“the result is that famous Eliot effect, the narrative equivalent of surround sound”). Poking at Henry James for his denseness on the subject of Middlemarch, Zadie notes that Virginia Woolf had it right: “One of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
Jane Eyre is one thing. Middlemarch another entirely. Zadie makes a passionately strong case for the humanism of Eliot’s writing:
We are moved that is should pain Eliot so to draw a border around her attention, that she is so alive to the mass of existence lying unnarrated on the other side of silence. She seems to care for people, indiscriminately and in their entirety, as it was once said God did.
“Rereading Barthes and Nabokov”, is an example of Zadie “changing her mind”. As a young reader, she read one way. As a writer, she’s taken a somewhat different path. From the arguments of Barthes and Nabokov, she’s created an elegant synthesis.
Nabokov is not God, and I am not his creation. He is an author and I am his reader, and we are stumbling toward meaning simultaneously, together. Zebra cocktail!
You’ll need to read the essay to understand that reference.
Alas, there were certain pieces that were well beyond my reach. Among them the essay on Kafka. But in “Two Directions For The Novel”, which first deals with Netherland and then with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, Zadie tears into the publishing game.
When it comes to literary careers, it’s true: the pitch is queered. The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to “Netherland”, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to “Remainder”, that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard. Friction, fear and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions – yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov….In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that “Remainder” comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the deadwood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. We could call this constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks “Remainder” as one of the great English novels of the past ten years.
She likes it. She really, really likes it! And in the same essay, she goes on to call J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, “possibly the greatest British avant-garde novel. I’ve put Ballard’s book on my tbr list (I’ve already read Netherland, and Remainder).
In “Being”, two of the three essays are culled from lectures Zadie gave: One has her addressing her writing craft (“That Crafty Feeling), and “Speaking in Tongues” is a thoughtful essay on multiracialism and ‘voice’ – not the writers voice, but the voice of identity, of culture, and of heritage. She draws several parallels to Barack Obama in this one, that make extreme sense. The third essay is a reportage piece about Liberia, that frankly, just seems out of place here.
In “Seeing”, Zadie culls some of her film reviews – not much to cull from due to the nature of the films she had to review. There’s this though: In “Hepburn and Garbo” Zadie writes just the most wonderful eulogy to Katherine Hepburn. She was her role-model and icon. This is superior writing, and shows an immediacy that is real – she wrote it just a few days after Hepburn died. I’m not ashamed to admit that I laughed and cried when I read this. You can read it here.
After that, there was not much of interest for me, so I’d say it’s a spotty collection. Back to waiting for her next novel…
This review can also be found in slightly altered form at Like Fire.Org