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A Passage to England

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Dominique Nabokov
Zadie Smith, New York City, 2009

Changing My Mind is a very good title for a collection of essays, a genre in which one is supposed to be trying things out or trying things on. But the intimation is not as simple as it seems. “I’ve changed my mind” is a phrase that often implies stasis, as if we need to change our minds only once, as if we have come to rest in wisdom, and are happy to deny our ancient errors and go on denying them. Zadie Smith will have none of this. In the foreword to her smart and swift-moving book she cheerfully says, “Ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith”; and in an epigraph she quotes Katharine Hepburn alias Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story: “The time to make your mind up about people is never!”

Ideological inconsistency” is a bit heavy—if the author achieved it the result might be almost as heavy as ideological consistency—but the Hepburn quote is perfect. Zadie Smith is not inconsistent and she doesn’t actually change her mind, she just doesn’t make it up. Her mind has changing colors and registers and interests, and in these pages we get to see these elements as they shift. We watch her at work and play, as she thinks about books, movies, travel, language, home, history, her father, the work of David Foster Wallace. She is extremely funny, although sometimes she claims she isn’t; and she has an extraordinary ability to look closely at bleak truths and not lose heart. She has a various mind but it’s faithful to itself.

Reading these essays I began to understand her relation to the work of E.M. Forster, and not only because she writes about him so well in one of the pieces collected here, and first published in these pages. Forster was “a tricky bugger,” she says, a proposition that certainly indicates a friendly interest in the man and the writer, but doesn’t seem much in tune with Forster’s reticence or middling style. An epigraph from Where Angels Fear to Tread adorns Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, and her third, On Beauty, opens with a turn of phrase borrowed from Howards End. On the acknowledgments page of that book she writes of her “love of E.M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other.” I didn’t doubt the love or the debt when I read these books, but the connection from writer to writer seemed skimpy to me, an abstraction I couldn’t find fleshed out on the page. That’s because I wasn’t looking carefully enough or thinking obliquely enough.

On Beauty has a lyrically painful scene that is a perfect instance of the link, and that has an unmistakable clue set firmly in the middle of it—although it’s not so unmistakable that I didn’t miss it the first time around, and the clue works as a dark joke rather than a homage. One of the book’s main characters, Howard Belsey, an English art historian who teaches at a university in America, goes to visit his father in Cricklewood in North London, not far from Willesden, scene of much activity in Smith’s fiction and life. Depressed by the decaying real estate, Howard is cheered up by the multicultural locals:

African women in their colorful kenti cloths, the whippet blonde with three phones tucked into the waistband of her tracksuit, the unmistakable Poles and Russians introducing the bone structure of Soviet Realism to an island of chinless, browless potato-faces, the Irish men resting on the gates of housing estates like farmers at a pig fair in Kerry.

Howard is proud of his “working-class roots,” although the working-class father he is about to see keeps slipping into the casual racism that goes with those roots in England. The father’s house is not poor; but it is small, and changeless, as indeed are the relations between parent and child. Within minutes of his arrival—eight minutes, the narrator is carefully counting—Howard is ready for a quarrel, the old quarrel, the one they always have, the quarrel that is their relationship. “He meant to be kind and tolerant,” we are told; but he is instantly “incensed” by something his father says, as he would be by anything his father says.

Smith doesn’t have much sympathy for Howard—she has some, because she is not a novelist who dislikes her characters—but she really feels close to the uneducated, resentful, lonely, possibly well-intentioned father. He sits “on the edge of his seat, pleading, and always pleading with the wrong words.” And when he finally drives Howard away with a remark about Howard’s black American wife (“She found a black fella, I spose. It was always going to happen, though. It’s in their nature”), he didn’t mean to hurt or lose his son. He was trying to say, “It’s good to see you. It’s been too long.” There is only one book in the father’s house; not his, it belongs to the woman who looks after him. It is A Room with a View.

Forster is one of the great novelists of misunderstanding, and once Smith was on to this fact she didn’t need to borrow language or plot, above all she didn’t need to sound like Forster, to repay pieces of her debt to him. White Teeth is bouncy, talky, quirky, full of jokes, with all the energy of a first novel that can’t wait to get written; its ironies are not quiet like Forster’s. But it could in its way have been called A Passage to England, and indeed one (black) character pictures herself as “sneaking into England” when she visits a white middle-class family. And think of bravura passages like these:

They can’t help but re-enact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign. It will take a few replays before they move on to the next tune…. They cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow.

They” are immigrants; but we have just seen that the white working class in England is in the same predicament. Forster’s “not now, not here” at the close of A Passage to India has become just now, everywhere, and again and again. The difference between the immigrants and the natives is that the former tried to change their history, and the latter haven’t even thought it could be changed. But the reenactment is similar. What’s striking about Smith’s work, what we hear in the sheer verve and wit of the writing, as we hear it in Forster’s stealthy, dissident kindness, is the refusal to give up hope of the next tune.

The literary criticism in Changing My Mind is sane and lively and (with one exception) generous. Smith admires books that are nothing like her own, and is as much at ease with fancy theory as with old-fashioned apparent plod. The arguments get a little stiff-jointed here and there, because she likes to find just two roads on any map, and ask herself which to take. Sometimes we wonder why she wants to think about these two particular options—Roland Barthes versus Nabokov, for example—and get a goodish answer. Barthes’s view of writing liberates the reader; Nabokov’s view of reading celebrates the writer: “Maybe every author needs to keep faith with Nabokov, and every reader with Barthes.”

But at other times we wonder: why just two? Are we stuck with “sentimental…popular novelists” or “cerebral…experimentalists,” and only the memory of George Eliot in between? Are Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder “antipodal” to each other, and if they are, do they belong to a single story about “the future for the Anglophone novel”? Does it have to be O’Neill’s “lyrical realism” on the one hand and McCarthy’s black comic minimalism on the other? Smith certainly says that “in healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene,” but that’s still only two, even if they are meant to stand for more. And those are the healthy times.

Smith likes the desperate, parodic refusal of grandeur in Remainder, and worries about the fine writing in Netherland. She correctly identifies the anxiety in the latter book but takes it as a critical problem rather the book’s subject. It’s true that the narrator of Netherland writes and thinks with an extraordinary fussy, self-regarding elegance, and I didn’t like the book as much on first reading as on the second. But O’Neill is using the device of the hampered, damaged, inordinately articulate consciousness to say something about the limits of language. Smith says, “I have written in this tradition myself and cautiously hope for its survival,” but thinks Netherland ‘s indulgence of its readers’ nostalgia won’t do this enterprise any good. “The ghost of the literary,” she says, “burns away” whatever interesting thoughts there might be in the book.

But she herself doesn’t write in this tradition. She doesn’t restrict herself to a single consciousness and she doesn’t use language to show us its failures. She uses it to remind us of our chances, especially when there seem to be none. What connects her to O’Neill, and is perhaps the source of her worry here, is neither “tradition” nor technique—neither the “nineteenth-century lyrical realism of Balzac and Flaubert” nor the device of the restricted observer—but her own ghost of the literary, which doesn’t have to haunt either her or us negatively. Her ghost, like O’Neill’s, cares passionately about writing and will not settle for minimalism or go all the way out into experiment. What it demands is not artful style but visible hard work and a memory of who its readers might be; it asks her to find words for things and to put them in sentences she can live with, at least long enough to publish them.

Smith is much more relaxed as a movie critic and as the reporter with the laptop in Hollywood at the Oscars weekend and she is even better than relaxed in her essays on her love of cinema: on Katharine Hepburn (“Possibly because she got to me so young, her effect is out of proportion with what any movie star should mean to anyone, but I am grateful for it”), on Anna Magnani (“We see her anger, panic, and desperation…. Magnani’s…face stays where it is…makeup free, wrinkled, bagged under the eyes, shadowed round the mouth…a different kind of challenge to the male gaze”), and on the “little funerals” she held as a girl for the death of stars: “I held one for Fred Astaire and one for Bette Davis and Cary Grant. On these occasions I would light candles in my room, cry a bit and mark the photo on the wall with a little cross in the right-hand corner.” The right-hand corner; the affection is in the detail. A little later Smith says she envies her father his experience of movie-going’s youth. “I envy him that vintage year [1945] of cinema and all opening weekends between, say, 1933 and 1955.” The movies also travel within Smith’s writing. Her memorable image for George Eliot’s great enveloping style is “the narrative equivalent of surround sound.”

The pleasure of these essays on literature and film is that of conversation: we’re in good company, and we’re getting to know our companion a bit. But at the heart of Changing My Mind is a more difficult enterprise, another passage to England, we might say, which has results that are both funnier and darker. Most of this book is written by a person who also writes novels. This one section, consisting of essays on a family Christmas, on Smith’s father’s army service in World War II, and on his death, along with his taste in comedy, is written by the novelist at her best.

Much of English social life is a form of entrapment, and I don’t know whether it’s heartening or horrifying to learn that Christmas in a biracial London family in 1980 is virtually identical to the same torment in a white Midlands family in the 1940s. “Christmas is heavy,” Smith says.

Families speak in semaphore at Christmas; the falcons are the only ones to understand the falconer, and something dismal is slouching toward Bethlehem. It’s called The Truth About What Happens to Your Family When No Member Is Allowed to Leave the House.

Smith pictures the problem through the figure of Denzil, an uncle “off the plane from Jamaica into bitter England,” who has no sense of this world of prohibitions:

Denzil wants to open a present on Christmas Eve—don’t do that, Denzil. Denzil wants to go for a walk—I’m so sorry, Denzil, that’s impossible. We’d like to, but we just can’t swing it. Why not? Because, Denzil. Just because…. Don’t mess with us on this, Denzil…. We want Christmas, dead or alive.

A little later Smith says, “Santa help me, but I believe this, too.” She believes, that is, that the very idea of family, as it is experienced in England (“Family represents the reality of which Christmas is the dream”), is both a prison and a miracle. No one should have to stay in it, but no one who survives it is ever the worse for the experience. You learn how to make jokes about what you can’t do and you understand the possible kindness of putting up with stupid customs. This is how Smith comes to grasp the film Brief Encounter so well. It’s not about freedom, it’s about love; and why love comes second to the principle of not hurting others; or as Smith beautifully puts it, it offers the “hypothesis…that the possibility of two people’s pleasure cannot override the certainty of other people’s pain.”

The same spirit informs the amazing essay “Dead Man Laughing,” in which Smith’s younger brother becomes a stand-up comedian—a successful one, but only after Smith herself has suffered agonies at the sight of what she thinks is a public form of dying—as a curious late echo of their father’s keenness on comedy classics, from The Goon Show to Monty Python via Steptoe and Son, and especially including the radio and television programs of the disheveled and always upwardly aspiring Tony Hancock. Benny Hill, the whole family thought, was a bit low. They were “comedy snobs,” Smith says; certainly comedy addicts.

Of course comedy is desperate if you take it seriously, and this is Smith’s refrain. But desperation is often comic if your sense of humor isn’t dead—I mean the awful overwrought structures of its occasions cry out for our amused attention. In the wake of her brother’s career move, Smith analyzes comedians’ routines with a great deal of sympathy and subtlety. “Can’t go home, can’t leave home,” she says, is the theme of Russell Kane’s act, “a subject close to my heart.” Thinking of Kane she marvels that a comedian can improve so fast, since “what it might take a novelist a lifetime to achieve a bright comedian can resolve in three seasons.” Like what? Oh, “How to present working-class experience to the middle classes without diluting it. How to stay angry without letting anger distort your work. How to be funny about the most serious things.”

Smith gives a detailed account of the performance of an even newer comedian called Edward Aczel, whose routine is to pretend to get everything wrong, and then tell funny jokes when all expectations of anything conventionally funny are gone. “It was an easy and wonderful thing to believe this show a genuine shambles, saved only by our attention and by chance.” But then Aczel does the same show the next night, and the next night, every stumble perfectly in place.

Dying, however, really is a shambles, and Smith is desperately funny about her father’s death. She reports his life as if she were a stand-up comedian:

Listen, I’ll tell you a joke: his mother had been in service, his father worked on the buses; he passed the grammar-school exam, but the cost of the uniform for the secondary school was outside the family’s budget. No, wait, it gets better….

But she also tells the funny/unfunny joke on herself: “I refused to countenance any morbidity from my father, or any despair. The funniest thing about dying is how much we, the living, ask of the dying; how we beg them to make it easy on us.” Smith’s father did what he could, and the whole essay is a tribute to him, a miming and an analysis of his hapless sense that comedy is the art of those without options, and all the funnier because the condition it depicts is so inescapable.

Between the Christmas essay and the dying essay is a piece about Smith’s father as a reluctant hero—as a man who refuses the title, in spite of the medals he collected. He insists he wasn’t brave—“I wasn’t individually brave; that’s how you should say it for the paper.” He was lucky, he made some mistakes, he became horrified at the thought of “killing ordinary people.” But he fought at Normandy and took part in the liberation of Belsen, and even saved the life of a senior Nazi others wanted to kill outright, an event Smith says she “turned into idiotic comedy for a novel.” Needless to say, the comedy is not idiotic, but we don’t have to argue with her—elsewhere she says she suspects that she and White Teeth “may never be reconciled.”

Archie Jones, the version of her father she puts into the novel, cuts a lamentable figure in almost every way, except that he does, almost by accident, make a habit of saving the lives of people others want dead. Smith tries at first for the grand note to describe this effect in her essay: “He was a man able to retain his humanity in the most inhumane of circumstances.” Then she decides these words are debased and deceitful. “My generation was raised with the idea that those who pride themselves on their humanity are perfectly capable of atrocity.” So she says, “I think I’ll put instead: he didn’t lose himself in horror.” It’s a fine phrase, and the previous sentence may hint at an even better one. Not only not to commit an atrocity, but to be incapable of committing one: an unlikely and needful virtue.

Smith writes of Forster’s diagnosis of the kinds of fear and incomprehension that “deformed the heart,” and we might say that the deformation of the heart is Smith’s own recurring subject. But she has also committed herself to a harder and more particular quest: the discovery of still undeformed hearts in the most unlikely places, like the racist little living rooms of Cricklewood, rooms without a view.

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