Riffs and RapturesPrint
Zadie Smith’s essays offer crisp prose and hard-won insights
By Sarah L. Courteau
December 1, 2009
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press, $26.95)
When her mother thrust a copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God upon Zadie Smith as a girl, she resisted reading it. “I had my own ideas of ‘good writing,’” she recalls in the essay that opens Changing My Mind. “It was a category that did not include aphoristic or overtly ‘lyrical’ language, mythic imagery, accurately rendered ‘folk speech’ or the love tribulations of women. My literary defenses were up.”
I cop to a similar prejudice about Smith. I hadn’t read her novels (ignorance, of course, being a sturdy foundation for harsh judgments), and she is a writer about whom it’s easy to presuppose. She sold her first novel, White Teeth, on the basis of 80 handwritten pages, when she was a 21-year-old Cambridge student. Upon its publication three years later, this sprawling tale about multicultural London met with the kind of rapturous reviews that invite skeptics to cry “Hype!” (In a notorious review in The New Republic, James Wood labeled White Teeth “hysterical realism,” saying it was more concerned with antic plotting than with character.) Interviewers and even critics are compelled to mention her beauty, and White Teeth made her a literary celebrity—a wealthy one. In short, it was easy for me to view Zadie Smith with suspicion—a writer with the world at her feet and a pocket full of gimmicks hardly seems to have the makings of a reflective essayist.
I was wrong. Smith’s essays may be even better than her novels. (I can say that now, having read her modest fiction canon.) In these 17 essays, Smith ruminates on literary idols E. M. Forster, Vladimir Nabokov, and Franz Kafka; cinema amazons Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn; the late and, in her opinion, stupendously great David Foster Wallace; the craft of fiction; and her own past. Many of these pieces were published—in The New York Review of Books, The Telegraph, The Guardian, and elsewhere—within the past four years, during which time she was ostensibly at work on a manuscript about the morality of the novel. If life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, essays are what happen while you’re writing other books.
Smith’s unadorned prose, crisp and clean as a bed made up with hospital corners, immediately invites our confidence. She’s never shy about inserting herself into her writing, but neither is she overbearing; her own considered reactions to her subject seem natural to the discussion. A tendency to riff, which can be distracting in her fiction, is an asset here, leading her to make the fruitful associations that are an essayist’s stock in trade. Most of her pieces are admiring. She is capable of gushing (Hepburn “is the last of the great stars, the very last”), but she can also enumerate precisely the elements of the actress’s appeal (“Her eyes—and there isn’t a movie star who doesn’t come down to the eyes in the end—had that knack of looking intelligently and passionately in the middle distance, a gaze that presidents strive for and occasionally attain”).
Smith’s essay on Forster is particularly memorable. He was her first literary love, and Howards End was the inspiration for her most recent novel, On Beauty. She wrote an excellent piece about him a few years ago for The Guardian, but the essay included in Changing My Mind reviews a 2008 collection of talks he delivered on the BBC, mostly about books. It’s easy to see why Smith is drawn to Forster—for many of the strengths and weaknesses ascribed to him have been ascribed to her as well. “There’s something middling about Forster; he is halfway to where people want him to be,” she writes, perhaps thinking of those who have praised her own talent and expressed disappointment that it only shows itself in patches. “To love Forster is to reconcile oneself to the admixture of banality and brilliance that was his, as he had done himself.” Her treatment of Forster and his bookish fireside chats is empathetic and insightful, generous in its quotation, forgiving yet incisive in its criticisms, and as humane and charming as she credits him with being.
On the evidence of her portraits of Hepburn and Garbo, and her analysis of the British comedy series Fawlty Towers, Smith has a gift for writing about film, so it’s a shame that the weakest pieces in the book are about movies. They might have been left out. On assignment to cover the 2006 Oscars Weekend, Smith is so determined not to be a cog in the star-making machine that she doesn’t name a single one of the celebrities she sees, an admirable exercise that gets a little tiresome, like reading an insider’s account of the White House in which all the VIPs get aliases. “At the Multiplex, 2006” is a collection of film reviews Smith wrote for The Sunday Telegraph. While her takedowns of mediocrities like Date Movie and her hosannas for George Clooney make for entertaining breakfast-table reading, they don’t belong cheek by jowl with the earthy homage to the Italian actress Anna Magnani that precedes them.
On the whole, however, the essays in Changing My Mind, while they may have been occasioned by a particular cultural moment, are durable. In Smith’s enjoyable novels, the characters are sympathetically drawn, but it’s difficult to take most of them seriously, to feel that much is at stake in the resolution of their fates. The insights in Smith’s essays, on the other hand, have been wrung from the writer at some cost. Smith brings a little of her soul to bear on all she sees.
In “Speaking in Tongues,” for example, she gently yet steadily ups the ante as she turns from consideration of the “silly posh English voice” she developed at Cambridge to George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle to the chameleon nature of Cary Grant to the all-things-to-all-people quality that makes Barack Obama appear so suspect in the eyes of his critics. Shakespeare makes a more-than-perfunctory cameo. It’s an essay about identity, flexibility, and the human capacity for transformation. That Smith can tread territory this familiar—another close reading of Dreams from My Father?—and make it new, even a little subversive, testifies to her own extraordinary flexibility. She ends the piece on a more hopeful note than is warranted, a weakness in her I admire.
Smith’s subtitle for that first essay on Hurston is “What Does Soulful Mean?” After overcoming her initial skepticism, she read the book in an afternoon, grappling with her passionate response to it (she would concede to her mother only that “it was basically sound”). As a girl, Smith wanted to be an “objective aesthete and not a sentimental fool”; as an adult she knows that a literary critic is supposed to “aspire to neutrality.” But what she feels about Hurson is “She is my sister and I love her.” What comes through in all these essays is that capacity for love. While I can’t bring myself to be as demonstrative, I can say that I finished Changing My Mind feeling I’d made a friend.
Photo by Roderick Field courtesy of Penguin Press
Sarah L. Courteau is literary editor of The Wilson Quarterly.
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