The Dancer & the Dance

Zadie Smith, New York City, June 2016
Dominique Nabokov
Zadie Smith, New York City, June 2016

“I feel dance has something to tell me about what I do,” Zadie Smith wrote in a recent article in The Guardian. She cites the dancer Martha Graham’s advice as useful for her writerly self:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique…. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Her new novel, Swing Time, is both about dancers and, on some level, a dance itself, syncopated, unexpected, and vital. There is a moment late in the novel when the narrator (mysteriously unnamed, for well over four hundred pages) joins in a dance with a group of village women in Gambia:

I watched them for a minute, the two women, as they danced at me, teasing me, and I listened carefully to the multiple beats, and knew that what they were doing I, too, could do. I stood between them and matched them step for step…. There were so many voices screaming at me I stopped being able to hear the drums, and the only way I could carry on was to respond to the movements of the women themselves, who never lost the beat, who heard it through everything.

She observes, over twenty years after her first dance lessons, “I still had no ideas about dance, only instincts.” This, too, might be a comment on writing, on fiction’s call for a balance between form’s constraint and creative freedom.

Smith’s fifth novel addresses many themes—dance, as an idea and an art form; friendship and rivalry between girls and women; mothers, daughters, and motherhood; racial and cultural identity; creativity and success; ambition; love—and touches, too, on many more: contemporary forms of liberal Western cultural imperialism; the effects of social media; the return to religion in developing countries (in this case, to Islam, in Gambia); the culture of celebrity and its effects; Europe’s immigration crisis. It is an unwieldy list, to be sure, and represents, in fictional form, the consuming and urgent preoccupations of one of our generation’s significant literary minds.

Smith is a fine essayist (many of her meditations have been published in these pages), and could have written a collection of memorable essays on these various topics. But essayistic or didactic fiction is rarely successful; and Smith, a fine novelist also, knows this well. The novel form, capacious and elastic as it is, nevertheless requires that ideas and emotions—all abstractions, really—be pressed and transformed, passed through the fine sieve of the material world and made manifest in action, conversation, and concrete detail. Fiction is created out of T-shirts and tomato plants, oven fries, chalk dust and rainfall,…

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