Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith

2020 Perspective Zadie SmithShort vignettes as Zadie Smith observes this particular moment in history passing, as she prepares to become one of those who returns, fleeing, always listening and observing others, sometimes in accordance with their uttered thoughts, at other times thinking she was, only to encounter her own subconscious bias.

Meditations by a Stoic

They open with the foreword in which she reveals she has been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for practical assistance and admits that she is no more a Stoic for having read it. Rather, she leaves that experience with two valuable intimations:

Talking to yourself can be useful.
And writing means being overheard.

I was intrigued to see what Smith had been talking to herself about and what she wished others to overhear, she is a mistress of eavesdropping and she is a Londoner and rider of the No.98, living/now leaving a country that turns many towards needing the benefits of meditation, though I can’t help but wonder if she would have gained more by listening to 21st century meditators such as Deepak Chopra, David Ji and Sharon Salzburg than Aurelius.

Writer’s and Their Reality

In Peonies, she dismisses writing as being creative, alleging that planting tulips is creative; inferring writing is control.

Peonies by Zadie Smith Tulips Intimations

Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com

Experience – mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious – rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mould of their own devising. Writing is all resistance. Which can be a handsome and even a useful, activity – on the page. But, in my experience, turns out to be a pretty hopeless practice for real life. In real life, submission and resistance have no real shape.

It was observing tulips that brought about this reflection, a few days before the global humbling began, providing a preview into the now common feeling of everyday, one she describes as a ‘complex and ambivalent nature of submission‘.

She saw tulips and imposed peonies, like the fiction writer she is.

Thoughts On Flowers and Self Care

As ever, Zadie Smith creates a space for the reader to think and affirm their own views, even if she does fill it with her own words and worries.

I was a little concerned by her reading habit in A Man With Strong Hands, though an avid reader myself, there are some times and places when it might be better to put the book down and allow the mind to rest, for this self-care activity she indulges, is one the few that allows one’s existential angst to cease, if only momentarily, for that weekly half hour she regularly gifts herself.

I am reminded that we have as much to learn, if not more in the act of mindful contemplation of flowers as we do in observing that less well understood creature of Nature, humanity.

Further Reading

New York Times: Zadie Smith Applies Her Even Temper to Tumultuous Times

Swing Time by Zadie Smith #ManBookerPrize

The original Swing Time is a film clip of Fred Astaire dancing on stage at a cabaret, with a giant screen behind him, in which three shadow versions of himself attempt to keep up with his energy, his footwork, his dance. In the end they give up and walk off leaving him alone to continue, enrapturing his audience.

In Zadie Smith’s opening to her Swing Time, the protagonist is sitting in London’s Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames, having walked aimlessly from the apartment she’s been hiding out in, opposite Lord’s Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood into the city, crossed the river and spontaneously bought a ticket to an event.

During this “conversation with an Austrian film director” they show this clip, which she is very familiar with from her own childhood obsession, and watching it now, she realises how much she has been a shadow in the lives of others, never taking centre stage in her own life, despite the strong passion for music and dance she has had within her all along.

“I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

Structured in seven parts, from Early Days, Early and Late, Intermission, through Middle Passage, Night and Day, Day and Night to Late Days the novel shows the family life and friendship of the protagonist and her friend Tracey, two girls who take dance classes together when they are seven years old, who live on adjoining North London housing estates, with mothers who aspire for their children to have a different experience than their own and while some may judge them otherwise, they do the best they can to make that so.

“At this early stage Tracey and I were not friends or enemies or even acquaintances: we barely spoke. Yet there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.”

Tracey is outspoken, the more talented dancer and ambitious, she masks her curiosity and disappointments with malice, telling her friend, they had things “the wrong way around”.

“With everyone else it’s the dad” she says, and because I knew this to be more or less accurate I could think of nothing more to say. “When your dad’s white it means…” she continued, but at that moment Lily Bingham came and stood next to us and I never did learn what it meant when your Dad was white.

Jeni LeGon with Bojangles in a scene from the movie, Hooray for Love. [Merlin Archive]

Tracey’s dance ambitions take her to a special school where she can develop those skills, while her friend reluctantly follows the more academic route her mother has paved for her, ignoring her own passion for singing those old-time songs and the early days Fred Astaire and Jeni LeGon (see her in the video clip below) dance moves. She studies media and looks for admin jobs and for a short time is drawn back into Tracey’s world as a stagehand, when Tracey lands a role in a West End musical.

During her first media job, she has a chance encounter with an ambitious Australian pop star, who later requests her to work for her. The singer attempts to bring her out of her reservedness by taking her somewhere where she feels most herself, a bike ride to Hampstead Heath. Her life is thus viewed through the lens of a woman of extraordinary means, who has a certain kind of power to do and to have anything and anyone she wants, a life that is facilitated by those she employs to keep her from the untidy reality of real life.

It reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend in its premise of the female friendship, two girls who’ve known each other since childhood, who are simultaneously attracted and repelled by each other, who separate but never entirely sever their precarious connection, toxic yet familiar, fulfilling an unhealed need to be witnessed in their entirety.

The plot takes our narrator out of London to New York and into an African country where the singer wishes to make a difference to girls’ lives by opening a school. Sending her in advance and on numerous occasions, she sees and experiences aspects of life there at greater depth than her employer and becomes increasingly frustrated by what others fail to see, that which she is unable to adequately communicate.

It has not been her place to be forthright (a weakness that while it stayed that way served her well), however she can’t ignore it, especially not since her mother began to realise her own aspirations, rising up out of her situation, educating herself as an adult and becoming a local politician/activist with strong views on West African dictatorships and celebrities that adopt babies from poverty-stricken countries.

If London was unreal, if New York was unreal, they were powerful stage shows: as soon as we were back inside them they not only seemed real but the only possible reality, and decisions made about the village from these locations always appeared to have a certain plausibility while we were making them, and only later, when one or other of us arrived back here, and crossed this river, did the potential absurdity of whatever it was become clear.”

It’s a rich, exciting, thought-provoking novel, even if being the employee of a pop star may sound unreal. In effect, it is more about whether escaping one’s roots and elevating oneself in or associated with fame or success equates to a sense of fulfilment, or whether one is empowered by finding and following one’s passion. Our narrator is attracted to those who appear to her to be true to themselves, focused and unafraid to express it.

As she did with NW, Zadie Smith creates a strong sense of place and community, and through her choice of characters shares many poignant insights and realities of mothers and daughters and the effect the past exerts on the choices they make in the future.

I admit, I do love this novel all the more for having lived in North London for eight years, and in the latter years, in an estate in Kilburn, so I remember these streets and this community from a period in the late 1990’s that brings it alive more so than if it were set in a city I’d never lived in. It’s not necessary to know it, but if you do, it’s like the icing on the cake! I’ve read all Zadie Smith’s novels except The Autograph Man and I’d say now that Swing Time is my favourite. I hope to see it make the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Brilliantly executed, highly recommended.

NW, life’s passage via the Kilburn High Road

The back cover of Zadie Smith’s novel NW, recently long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 mentions This Is The Story Of A City, the north-west corner of city, however that’s not how I think of it. London is something else, as is The City of London.

NW is a community, a fluid changing community, one of London’s many pulses; for some it is a stepping stone to the next stage, for others it is home. It has been a thoroughfare into London since the days of the Romans and in more recent times, the resting place for Irish immigrants fleeing their country for one reason or another, sometimes dramatic, sometimes not. And following the Irish are the many other groups who found NW their starting point to a life in London, that city of promise and unending challenge. NW is the same, the faces that pass through it, indicative of the era we are living within.

NWNW the novel is experimental, its structure changes with each section and after starting the second part which focuses on Felix, I realised that the narrative voice was being used as a metaphor for the state of mind of the character, a brave step or a risk on the authors part by commencing with Leah, who thoughts are all over the place and is suffering from that anxiety of a young, married woman with a successful career and a husband who loves her, who doesn’t understand why she is not content, or why she can’t admit that she isn’t ready to start a family.

So we start with the staccato stream of conscious thoughts of a woman who would benefit from therapy and/or meditation to still that rampant inner chatter, planting the reader in the midst of prose that is challenging for some and uneasy for those listening to the audio version. Not when chapter 7 is shaped like a tree, though that is one of the least challenging pages, one of beauty in fact.

But once we get to Felix’s section, things calm down, Felix’s major life troubles are behind him, the reading is easy and the pace picks up.  Although he’s not entirely immune to temptation, he seems to have moved on from his more despondent days, he’s been clean for 2 years and plans to stay that way. To me, he is the only character who shows real signs of moving on, however he has not moved out of NW,  his mistake perhaps is in staying and trying to convert those around him.

The other female character Keisha, changes her name to Natalie when she becomes a lawyer, an attempt to outgrow her past; she marries and has two children. She and Leah have been friends since their school days and their connection provides the one strong thread throughout the novel. Natalie, like Leah has risen above her past, but can’t seem to resist undermining it, with her strange behaviour, in what was for me, one of the least believable parts of the novel, in part because the author keeps us from knowing exactly what Natalie is up to online and offline, before she gets caught and flips out. I was hoping she might be more influenced by the role model of  Theodora Lewis-Lane, who tries to advise her.

“The first lesson is: turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.”  She passed a hand over her neat frame from her head to her lap, like a scanner. “This is never neutral.”

NW6For me personally, it was in part a nostalgic read, Zadie Smith’s writing comes alive when she evokes place and it is a neighbourhood I lived in and around for many years, NW is the most complete and yet complex character of all, embracing so much diversity, inviting everyone in without prejudice and yet claiming some in the harshest terms possible. There are as many reasons to hate it as there are to love it and anyone who has lived there will likely never forget it.

NW is a melancholic novel about four characters trying to escape their past and leaves the reader with few signs of hope for the future, or at least that future is left for us to imagine. Those who focus on the uniqueness of the writing or who have some experience of /interest in these communities may enjoy it, while those looking for the traditional transformation of character, or any kind of escape may be disappointed.

Despondency is the norm and we will not be rescued from it, it merely lessens with time if we survive.