Weapons-grade suc­cinct­ness

Rang­ing over a vast num­ber of top­ics, Zadie Smith’s lat­est col­lec­tion of es­says re­veals both a mod­esty of pur­pose and an em­bar­rass­ment of vi­sion, in­tel­li­gence and style

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John Self on Zadie Smith’s lat­est col­lec­tion of es­says

FEEL FREE: ES­SAYS ZADIE SMITH Hamish Hamil­ton, 464pp, £20

The sub­jects cov­ered here are vast: art, cin­ema, dance, mu­sic, lit­er­a­ture, life. The pieces that open the book are the weak­est, par­tic­u­larly those on Bri­tish pol­i­tics, per­haps be­cause they were all writ­ten for US pub­li­ca­tions and tend to stick to the sur­face as a re­sult, though there’s no doubt­ing the force of Zadie Smith’s feel­ings on the “ar­son­ists” be­hind Brexit, or her pas­sion to ex­plain (again, to a US au­di­ence) the im­por­tance of state in­volve­ment in ev­ery­one’s lives. Or per­haps it’s be­cause she is “by na­ture not a po­lit­i­cal per­son”. Then again, through the rest of the book, Smith re­peat­edly dis­claims her own ex­per­tise on ev­ery­thing (“a ca­sual ap­pre­ci­a­tor of paint­ing, a dilet­tante nov­el­ist, a non-ex­pert”), then daz­zlingly proves her­self wrong.

This is part of a tech­nique that we see through­out this col­lec­tion. Smith breezily wel­comes us in, giv­ing the reader a per­sonal mem­ory or a pop­u­lar cul­ture com­par­i­son, de­nies her own abil­ity, and then writes rings round us. She wor­ries that an ear­lier draft of one es­say was “too for­mal or cold”. On Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trem­bling, she ob­serves that it con­tains an open­ing sec­tion that “many peo­ple (in­clud­ing me) skip, in con­fu­sion”. When ex­plor­ing Jewish philoso­pher Martin Bu­ber’s es­say I and Thou, through ref­er­ence to paid sign-and-greets with Justin Bieber, she pauses: “This is a bit per­plex­ing; I need to un­pack it a lit­tle for my­self.” Yet into an­other es­say she can drop Par­menides and Her­a­cli­tus in the same sen­tence with­out sound­ing forced.

There is some­thing per­for­ma­tive in this (false) mod­esty: “I have no real qual­i­fi­ca­tions to write as I do”. Smith’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions are an em­bar­rass­ment of vi­sion, in­tel­li­gence and style; for most of us, read­ing Smith’s smooth eru­di­tion gives that sense of “a trans­fu­sion from above” that Martin Amis de­scribed when read­ing Saul Bel­low. But there’s more to Smith’s suc­cess than this.

She is a great com­mu­ni­ca­tor of joy. The best es­says here achieve this, and the stan­dard is set by Some Notes on At­tune­ment, an ac­count of how, dur­ing a long car jour­ney with her hus­band, Smith went from be­liev­ing that Joni Mitchell’s voice sounded “like a bee caught in a wing mir­ror” to find­ing “an al­most in­tol­er­a­ble beauty” in her mu­sic – all ex­plained clearly and con­vinc­ingly via Wordsworth, Seneca and Kierkegaard. Sim­i­larly, Smith makes Chris­tian Mar­clay’s film The Clock – which lasts for 24 hours and com­prises solely clips from other movies, con­tain­ing ref­er­ences to each minute of time from mid­night to mid­night – sound as if it re­ally could be “sub­lime, maybe the great­est film you have ever seen”. This is be­cause “you don’t feel you are watch­ing a film, you feel you are ex­ist­ing along­side a film”. It is “a joy­ful art ex­pe­ri­ence but a harsh life ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause it doesn’t dis­guise what life is do­ing to you”.

Smith has, also, the sim­ple declar­a­tive right­ness of a good critic that makes the reader see things they should have seen but never did, and a weapons-grade suc­cinct­ness with which to de­liver it. So in writ­ing about JG Bal­lard’s

Crash, she notes that the “ici­ness” of Bal­lard’s style “is partly a con­se­quence of in­vert­ing the power bal­ance be­tween peo­ple and tech­nol­ogy, which in turn de­prives his char­ac­ters of things like in­te­ri­or­ity and in­di­vid­ual agency”.

Mark Brad­ford’s short film Ni­a­gara, in­spired by Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe’s fa­mous walk in the movie of the same name, de­picts a man sashay­ing away from the cam­era, and in­spires Smith to sum up “camp” as “do­ing more than is nec­es­sary with less than you need. The less-than-you-need part is im­por­tant. Camp be­gins in lack, in ab­sence. It is the nu­clear op­tion of the dis­en­fran­chised.”

Things in the world

Above all, Smith works very hard not to daunt the reader, to give us a good time even when the sub­ject of the es­say is some­thing we didn’t know we were in­ter­ested in. For ex­am­ple, her reg­u­lar but short-lived book re­view col­umn for

Harper’s (more coy­ness: “I said yes. I lasted six months”) is suf­fi­ciently rich and de­tailed to leave the reader with a wish­list com­pris­ing most of the ti­tles un­der re­view, though it’s never quite clear if we would en­joy read­ing, say, Ian Thom­son’s book on Ja­maica as much as we like read­ing Smith telling us about it.

An­other way of put­ting this is that th­ese es­says are not just con­se­quences, de­scrip­tions of some­thing else: they are a pri­mary source, full of sen­tences that have been, as Ge­orge Saun­ders put it, the sub­ject of so much con­cen­tra­tion that they have be­come a thing in the world. On artist Lynette Yi­adom-Boakye, Smith writes that “ev­ery­one is born with a sub­ject, but it is fully ex­pressed only through a com­mit­ment to form”. Sim­i­larly, ev­ery­one has opin­ions, but those that treat the reader with re­spect will be most likely to con­vince.

This is a big book. Read­ing it as a re­viewer does – binge­ing on it like a box set – is use­ful for spot­ting trends and traits, but it can feel like too much con­fec­tionery, too rich. In­stead, treat each es­say as a short story, and con­sider Mavis Gal­lant’s ad­vice: “Sto­ries are not chap­ters of nov­els. They should not be read one af­ter an­other, as if they were meant to fol­low along. Read one. Shut the book. Read some­thing else. Come back later. Sto­ries can wait.” Es­says can wait. Take this ap­proach, and Feel Free will keep you com­pany – good com­pany – for a long time to come.


Zadie Smith: ‘makes the reader see things they should have seen but never did’.

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