Feel Free, by Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, 452 pp, £20, ISBN:
Zadie Smith is an enterprising and accomplished novelist. Like her near-namesake Ali Smith, she has perfected an unusual approach to the art of fiction (one is famous for being quirky, while the other is richly colloquial and discursive). She electrified readers back in 2000 with her novel White Teeth, which announced itself as something of a tract for the times, with its spirited ironies and melting-pot abundance, its ebullient interplay of individuals with one another. Between it and Swing Time (2016) her attitude has sharpened perhaps, as her sense of the world has expanded, but what remains consistent in her work is its alliance of contemporaneity with intellectual force ‑ and this is true of her non-fiction as well as her fiction. She is a compelling essayist who turns her intensive scrutiny on an amazing variety of topics. Whatever engages her attention ‑ avant garde film, questions of class and caste, the shattering implications of Brexit, modern city life ‑ takes on an invigorating particularity by virtue of the unique sensibility brought to bear on it. Like its predecessor Changing My Mind (2009), Feel Free, with its title, proclaims its intention to eschew the impersonal. There’s nothing of the lofty or detached perspective about the essays assembled here. Instead, they are alive with self-awareness and alert to every nuance of contemporary hustle-and-bustle. They are free to roam where they will: to a dismayed contemplation of the blurring of seasonal distinctions, to the paintings of Sickert and Degas, to the author’s home territory in northwest London, to trips to Europe and a New York sojourn. At one level, with their pungent autobiographical details, they add up to an appetite for experience in full flow.
Actually, although it’s everywhere between the lines, an overt autobiographical element is judiciously restrained. It’s just a matter of side glances at university teaching, at motherhood, at a long car trip to a wedding in Wales. It is during the last that a moment of epiphany occurs, with a glorious description of Tintern Abbey ‑ “Reduced to a Gothic skeleton, the abbey is penetrated by beauty from above and below” ‑ and this is accompanied by a sudden revaluation of the singer Joni Mitchell, a bolt from the blue: “How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably?” The conjunction of Tintern, Wordsworth with his recollection of “dizzy raptures”, and Mitchell is one of the (many) connections in the book held together by sheer exuberant energy and inspiration.
Feel Free begins in Willesden, where the author herself began: that particular seedy, dishevelled, brash locality in northwest London between Kilburn and Queen’s Park, with its multiracial ambience and robust self-image. The opening essay, “North-West London Blues”, has the author revisiting Athelstan Gardens Estate where she grew up in the 1970s and ’80s ‑ the place which determined her way of seeing and endowed her with a great capacity for wit and exhilaration, balanced by a twenty-first-century nonchalance. If Zadie Smith is the laureate of northwest London, and entitled to a certain nostalgia for its vanished ingredients (“What ‘used to be’ is painful to remember”), she nevertheless keeps a hold on a wry, self-mocking awareness which undermines the (suspect) emotion: “Nostalgia is such a distorting force”, says a character in the novel NW. If you can’t avoid it altogether, having reached a certain age and harbouring a propensity for looking back, you can at least avoid giving in to it, unreservedly. You can regret the demolition of libraries and consequent erosion of the library system ‑ the real, proper library with its shelves and shelves of real, proper books ‑ and pay tribute to bygone ‑ and benign ‑ state intervention in every area of every individual’s life: housing, health, education, and so on. Put simply, Zadie Smith says, “the state educated me, fixed my leg when it was broken, and gave me a grant that enabled me to go to university. It fixed my teeth (a bit) and found housing for my veteran father in his dotage.” All very fine and enlightened ‑ but you can’t allow yourself to become a “better-in-our-day” bore, or not if you’re a good social liberal like Zadie Smith ‑ not that she’s in any danger of being a bore. “Things change.”
Things change, society moves forward; only sometimes a backwards momentum seems to have taken over. “Fences: A Brexit Diary” illustrates the point. The sobering distortion of “democracy” which led to the Brexit disaster brings Zadie Smith as close as she gets to depression and recrimination. However, in the following essay, “On Optimism and Despair”, she is back in spirited mode (notwithstanding the rise of President Trump and the impending dissolution of the European Union). Faced with the two alternative states of feeling, the author tentatively comes down on the side of the former, holding fast to the idea of “a decent and tolerant society”, or at least acknowledging the existence of decent and tolerant people, among whom she singles out for consideration her late father Harvey Smith, twice-married, admirer of John Berger, aficionado of Fawlty Towers and Hancock’s Half Hour (he was elderly and white, her mother young and black). When she earned some money from writing, in the early days, she travelled with Harvey to Italy and France, where he, “a talented amateur photographer, snapped pictures of beautiful women as they dashed from shade to shade”. (Archie Jones, a character in Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, is loosely based on the author’s father. “Archie’s marriage felt like buying a pair of shoes, taking them home and finding they don’t fit.”)
In Florence, the heat is oppressive; in Rome, where Zadie Smith lived for a time with her Northern Irish husband and their pug dog, the Borghese Gardens, all unregulated attractions, add zest and a touch of wildness to the formalities attached to European protocol. Incidentally, the pug makes an appearance in the novel NW, where it comes to a bad ‑ I hope imaginary ‑ end; and in a delightful poem by Nick Laird (the husband), its engaging features are playfully evoked: “You … who grew from a glove / to a moccasin slipper …”. The real dog too, thank goodness, was safely off the scene when Zadie Smith accidentally caused their flat in Rome to burn down ‑ an event she describes with an eye for the half-comic contretemps, though in actuality it must have been far from funny.
She is an opponent of dullness, of mediocrity, of pusillanimity, of taking yourself too seriously. Many striking opening sentences – for example “The connection between writing and dancing has been much on my mind recently” ‑ lead on to a vivid elaboration or exposition. Dance lessons, she says, involving “position, attitude, rhythm and style”, are equally relevant for writers; and the movements, the suppleness and elegance peculiar to certain dancers (Fred Astaire, Michael Jackson) have their literary equivalents too (“See also Dostoevsky; see also Tolstoy”). Many different genres and motifs can be linked up or allowed a free range, if you do it with conviction. Writing about the very young Canadian singer and songwriter Justin Bieber, Smith can’t resist importing into his vicinity the ancient Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965). Well, these are different spellings of the same German surname, and “who am I to ignore these hints from the universe?” This article is about meeting ‑ truly meeting ‑ someone, in the sense of responding to something inherent in the other person’s psyche ‑ which obviously you don’t do as a fan, and only rarely do in Buber’s philosophy. You’d have to say the twists and turns of Zadie Smith’s arguments and reflections are gripping and ‑ occasionally ‑ disorientating.
A sizeable section of Feel Free is given over to the columns Smith contributed to Harper’s Magazine over a period of six months: mostly book reviews — Edward St Aubyn, Magnus Mills, Ursula Le Guin, and many others most readers this side of the Atlantic won’t have heard of. These may remind us just how astute a literary critic Zadie Smith is, and send us back to Changing My Mind with its strong assessments of EM Foster (Howard’s End of course is more than an influence on Smith’s 2005 On Beauty: it stands conspicuously behind it), George Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov and others. (In the current collection, however, when rereading leads her to “change her mind” and accord some merit to the execrable Anaïs Nin, I have to part company with her.) But the Harper’s columns: these are resolute, illuminating, opinionated, captivating, brilliant. As are the other literary pieces: on Hanif Kureishi, for example (“Perversity is the central sensibility of The Buddah of Suburbia: it’s a book that refuses to toe the party line”), or on JG Ballard and his “gift for defamiliarisation”, his disinclination to take England seriously. Writing about the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgard, Smith succumbs to the fascination of the everyday detail which alone makes up his six-volume novel (or quasi-memoir). As Virginia Woolf famously said about Dorothy Richardson’s twelve-volume Pilgrimage (1915-38), the Knausgard work is just an account of “life going on and on”. It should be boring ‑ ah, but it’s the quality of the recording intelligence that counts, in both cases. It’s a peculiar knack, for which Zadie Smith has applause, an ability to take potential tedium and render it absorbing.
The Karl Ove appraisal occurs in an essay entitled “Man versus Corpse” ‑ yes, I know, but it is all tied up in a thought-provoking package and presented with the author’s customary aplomb. Man versus corpse, being and nothingness, the unimaginable prospect of personal non-existence: all of this is sparked off by contemplating a Renaissance drawing, in charcoal, of a muscular nude figure with a dead person draped across his shoulders. (It is reproduced in the book.) The critical impulse, in this author, is as free-ranging as it’s possible to be, and her shifts in tone are attuned to the requirements of successive subjects. She is funny about Manhattan, brisk about the Facebook phenomenon, lyrical about English parks and gardens, thoughtful (almost reverential) about her old family bathroom which was decked by her mother with green and tropical-looking plants, tremendously insightful about Philip Roth, enthusiastic about performance of all kinds, guardedly nostalgic about NW6, erudite in relation to almost everything.
The Feel Free essays, of necessity, are written in the first person; with her novels, though, Zadie Smith is free to choose a different narrative method, and up until Swing Time (2016) she has opted to do without the “I”, or stand-in “I”, with its faint (very faint) suggestion of “narcissistic weakness” — that is, parading yourself, or one of your various selves, before a (hopefully) appreciative audience. “The I Who Is Not Me”, the title of what is perhaps the most cogent piece in the book, considers specifically the reasons for the switch to a first-person voice in Swing Time, while expanding outwards to take a sharp look at the novel in general, its forms, functions, freedoms, its effects both willed and inadvertent, its necessities so pressing that they have driven the writer to write in this way as opposed to that, its relation to the life fermenting around it. As Smith said in an earlier essay (“Two Directions for the Novel”, in Changing My Mind), “The world has changed and we do not stand in the same relation to it as we did when Balzac was writing”. The world has changed, and the great Victorian, third-person, omniscient narrative view no longer has a place in it ‑ though one of its offshoots, the branch she calls “lyrical realism” has survived; and “having written in it myself”, she says, she cautiously hopes for its continued survival. (It’s a form in which a touch of mockery is never too far away.) Having withstood the assault from works like Finnegans Wake, no doubt lyrical, or some other form of realism, will survive, with all its “beautiful plenitude” (we detect a sardonic undertone here).
There are complexities and ambivalences to be considered. When it comes to impersonality versus impersonation, for example, you might accord a place to Zadie Smith’s novels midway between the two (or indeed, between traditional fiction and metafiction). If you take On Beauty (2005), with its Forsterian confidence and authority (deliberately embraced), you may find it has partially defeated its own purpose: at least, this is what the author finds, on rereading: “The I who is me [runs] through it, in a subterranean way” (it wasn’t supposed to ‑ not that this matters to anyone but the author). If that “I” cannot be completely suppressed, then the “I who is not me” comes into her own in Swing Time, with its unnamed first-person narrator: by means of which the author undergoes an unexpectedly heady experience. “What a freedom I felt, constructing this entirely false autobiography which still, at every turn, sounded real, because I had allowed myself to write ‘I’ and in this way falsely insist on its truth.” Truth and falsity, authenticity and artifice: these are ways of getting to grips with the human condition. And fiction, of course, is “the place where things are true and not true simultaneously: the ultimate impossibility”. And within that impossibility is contained the ultimate freedom: freedom to experiment, to try out different identities, to change your mind. “Feel free”, whether proffered to the reader as a half-sarcastic invitation (feel free to argue, to disagree, to uphold a different ethic, to ascribe another meaning to any of the texts discussed), or as a liberating instruction, gets to the heart of the matter, the author’s strong liberal instincts. It’s also an instruction to herself, “feel free”: and she does.
In its tough-minded engagement with observations and ideas, Feel Free is an exceptionally buoyant and expressive undertaking. In its exclusion of ennui and as a stimulus to the imagination, it calls to mind such outstanding and enduring critics and social commentators as Elizabeth Hardwick, Frank Kermode, Joan Didion, Brigid Brophy, Karl Miller, Mary McCarthy (to make a list completely at random). The final essay in the collection is called “Joy” and its purpose is to differentiate between that rare and overwhelming emotion and its counterpart “pleasure”, which exists in a lower key. Between ecstatic joy and everyday pleasure, the latter is safer, more reassuring, an essential component of the state of psychological well-being. It may reside in companionship between husband and wife, in a shared enthusiasm, in ‑ God help us ‑ a sweet treat like a pineapple popsicle. Joy is different: it lifts you out of yourself. And, like Zadie Smith’s stylish, eloquent, idiosyncratic novels, the Feel Free essays contain a good deal to put you in touch with a bit of both.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.