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 …

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