Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith, Penguin Press, 288 pages
Two of the best entries in Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, her first nonfiction collection, deal with the author’s father. One is a war story, and the other is about British humor. And both remind us why Smith, the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and On Beauty, has drawn so much praise in her short career.
In “Accidental Hero,” she recounts Harvey Smith’s experience in WorldWar II and the seeming disconnect between the easygoing man his family knows and his time as an English soldier during the 1944 Normandy invasion. Smith writes that, as a child, she never heard her father talk about the fighting, and as a result, she simply could not see him— a man she describes as “pacifistic in all things and possessed of a liberal heart that does not so much bleed as hemorrhage”— as a warrior. Nonetheless, the elder Smith served when his country needed him, and “he did some remarkable things. He caught a senior Nazi, an episode I turned into idiotic comedy for a novel.” Smith’s fans will appreciate the reference; in White Teeth, a character named Archie Jones captures one of Hitler’s men and lets him go when he can’t bear to kill the prisoner.
“Dead Man Laughing” is about comedy and the way it bonded father and daughter together. Fans of English humor will enjoy Smith’s thoughts on Monty Python, the Goons, Fawlty Towers, and The Office— especially her take on what Office honcho David Brent’s home décor might have looked like (“the risqué Athena poster, the gigantic entertainment system, the comical fridge magnets”).
“Great situation comedy expands in the imagination,” Smith writes of shows like Fawlty Towers and The Office. You don’t have to be familiar with the programs she mentions to know that her essay is a smart commentary on popular culture or to know what fiction— even the sitcom version of fiction— can mean to its most devoted fans.
Smith uses another piece to discuss what works for her when she sits down to write. In contrast to some of her peers, who read nothing but their own words when writing, Smith makes sure to spend time with her favorite books. “Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments,” she writes in “That Crafty Feeling.” “Others want to hear every member of the orchestra— they’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. I am one of those. My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility.” Specifically about novel writing, it’s an essay that contains advice that can inform any kind of creative work.
Smith’s piece on the novelist David FosterWallace, author of Infinite Jest, abounds with wonder for his writing, a feeling she wants to share. “To appreciateWallace, you need to really read him — and then you need to reread him.” She then goes about leading her readers throughWallace’s heady prose. It’s the work of a fan and a wonderful tour guide who is also an accomplished essayist.
— Kevin Canfield