A casual genuflection in the direction of Zadie Smith

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In the persona and works of the British author is a fluidity that brims with radical openness to every little thing the world makes perceptible to her mind.

Zadie’s personal offerings are important acts of intimacy because they allow her to make wild reaches into big questions of aesthetics, identity, philosophy. And we readers follow, because she has whispered in our ear. | Dominique Nabokov

I first met Zadie Smith at a writer’s retreat in Tuscany. She showed up for the weekend with her husband, the poet, Nick Laird, and their adorable pug Maud. Because Zadie knew that dessert at this retreat was a fruit bowl, she had brought with her two giant delicious puddings. She told me if I’d lived in Baltimore and not watched the television show The Wire, I should rectify that immediately. She also gave me a piece of advice I didn’t take. Because you don’t look like the back end of a bus, she said, people will want to put you in pretty clothes and photograph you in magazines. You should say no. (More on that later).

The quality I found most enchanting about Zadie is that she spoke with an intimacy that suggested we might be great friends. I knew this was the way she spoke with everyone. It’s how she spoke in her books and essays — in a manner that was curious and comprehensive. A pedestrian description would be: Zadie is someone who lives in the moment. But it’s really more intense than that. It’s a quality of lightness, and I mean light the way Italo Calvino did in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. The ability to rise above heavy structures. To be weightless, not frivolous (which would be heavy and dull). To engage completely before FLIT — moving — on to the next subject. Lightness as a form of precision, but also, fluidity.

 

 

Smith’s latest offering, a collection of essays, Feel Free, is such a delightful compendium of FLIT that I have been reading it in a manner not prescribed by the contents, but ruffling the pages and feeling free to read wherever the spirit lands. The range is impressive. An interview with Jay-Z (Is it possible to compare the Oulipo experimental French literary group of the 60s to J-Hova, you may ask? Yes). A meeting between international pop star Justin Bieber and the dead philosopher Martin Buber. A personal takedown of how she got Joni Mitchell wrong and now can’t listen to her without bawling. Italian gardens, the pursuit of happiness, dance lessons for writers, and a masterly piece on Billie Holiday, which is a kind of ventriloquism — not speaking for, or speaking to, but a voice in the head: “All respect to Ella (Fitzgerald), all respect to Sarah (Vaughn), but when these gals open their mouths to sing, well, to you it’s like someone just opened a brand-new Frigidaire.”

In her introduction she writes, “I have no real qualifications to write as I do… My evidence — such as it is — is almost always intimate. I feel this — do you? I’m struck by this thought — are you?”

There’s a hint of fellow-Brit Geoff Dyer in her laissez-faire approach to subject matter. Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Zuckerberg, Brecht, Baryshnikov, Brexit, a comparative study between Janet Jackson/Madonna/Beyoncé. Everything is fair game. Dyer and Smith share the same sharp humour and intelligence, and belong to that grand English tradition of self-deprecation. Smith is a more anxious personality though. While Dyer is in love with his own boredom, Smith seeks, entreats, and as already demonstrated with her previous collection of essays, Changing My Mind, is heavily invested in the idea of transformation.

 

 

Many of her essays have kernels of personal offerings. A walk with her daughter in her old London neighbourhood leads to a plea for public libraries. A vodka-riddled return to her apartment in New York leads to a philosophical exploration of what it might be to be a corpse, which leads to thoughts on abstractionism, Rothko, ‘memento mori’, Warhol, Auden and on and on. We meet the 15-year-old Zadie who knocked a girl out for kissing a boy she had a crush on (and find out this was the subliminally motivated centrepiece for her novel On Beauty). We meet Zadie going off to Cambridge with her poster of Flaming June by Frederic Lord Leighton, bucking the popular choices of her time — Klimt’s The Kiss or Matisse’s Blue Nude, firm in her love for redheads and the desire to live for art. We see Zadie and her elderly father blinking at the zeros on her first book contract, setting off on a Grand Tour that they can finally afford, only to struggle with the disappointments of tourism — the rooms without a view, and how it is that wherever you try to go in Florence, you end up at the Duomo, which always seems to be changing its location.

These personal offerings are important acts of intimacy because they allow her to make wild reaches into big questions of aesthetics, identity, philosophy. And we readers follow, because she has whispered in our ear.

 

 

What makes Smith’s voice so compelling isn’t just this intimacy but her ability to realise human limitations, especially her own. Whether it involves going from Joni Mitchell–hating pilgrim to Joni Mitchell–weeper, or getting over her moral queasiness over using the first person in novels. Or even, changing her mind about being photographed in pretty clothes for magazines. There is the underlying radical idea that in human limitation lies the possibility of freedom.

In this, you sense a person alive to the world — bristling, open, delighting in risk-taking. You can almost hear the gears in her brain clicking with glee on the realisation that Bieber and Buber are the alternative spellings of the same German surname. As she says in her footnote: “Who am I to ignore these hints from the universe?”

It’s this earnestness matched with the capacious wide-angled view with which Smith sees the world, despite all the crumbling, that propels her curiosity. Who else has the audacity to compare Prince to Keats, Michael Jackson to Byron? Who else is going to jump from The Polar Express to Schopenhauer’s On the Suffering of the World? Multiculturalism, which has been Smith’s great project since White Teeth, are central to these essays. Enshrined in them is the glory of cultural hotchpotchness — the pop, the profound and the Prozac, all snuggled up together.

 

 

These essays were written during the Obama years, and the multicultural dream Smith writes of has since been fairly shredded. Rather than point fingers at other peoples’ narrowness though, she points first to herself. Here is Zadie walking around a record shop in Canada, depressed by her ignorance. Here is Zadie at a dinner party seated next to a woman who has children and knows a lot about novels and French wine and Renaissance painters and The English Civil War, and she thinks, Where does she find the time? Here is Zadie with her best friend Sarah — their kids running crazily around the house while they get slowly pissed on a bottle of white wine, falling through an Alice in Wonderland looking glass–type “retrospective swirl” about her own mother and what her concerns might have been. Because now she has become that woman who, when the kids get on her nerves, goes silent and stares at a wall because she just can’t take one more second of it.

It’s a truthfulness and vulnerability writers rarely reveal. Which is why, although I would like to extend a deep and gracious bow to Ms Smith, I offer only a casual genuflection, because, as she has so wisely said: “The worst possible thing for an artist is to exist as a feature of somebody else’s epiphany.”

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