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Then Again

Kevin Power
Intimations: Six Essays, by Zadie Smith, Penguin Books, 82 pp, £5.99, ISBN: 978-0241492383 How has your pandemic been so far? Have you been writing about it? If so, has it helped? “Writing is control,” Zadie Smith observes in the first piece in Intimations, her slender collection of lockdown essays. “The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department.” Out there, in “the field”, there is “Experience”: a “largely shapeless bewilderment” with “no chapter headings or paragraph breaks or ellipses in which to catch your breath”. Experience “just keeps coming at you”, perhaps especially in “this strange and overwhelming season of death”. But at the desk, on the page, “space and time itself [sic] bend to my will”. Writers, therefore, are in the business of exerting control over experiential flux – over the blooming, buzzing confusion of the real. In a time of crisis, writing helps. Or so the theory goes. And yet, and yet. Isn’t the shapeliness and order offered by literary prose a kind of cheat? “[T]o write,” Smith observes, “is to swim in an ocean of hypocrisies, moment by moment” – to offer attitudes and insights as if they were final, or true, and then to discover, “out in the field”, that they “cannot be relied upon”. Everything we encounter is in fact more complex, offers more subtle valences to the interpretative mind, than even the most capaciously well-intentioned prose can encompass. “Is it possible to be as flexible on the page – as shamelessly self-forgiving and ever-changing – as we are in life?” Who better to write about lockdown than Zadie Smith? Which living essayist is less likely to bombard us with the heavy ordnance of epigram or to enlist us peremptorily in a political argument, for or against? Smith’s great achievement as a writer of nonfiction prose is to have made a virtue of uncertainty. Which is not to say that she lacks ideas, or to suggest that she arrives at no firm conclusions. Rather, it is to say that she distrusts the traditional essayist’s will to mastery. For Smith, mastery of this sort – in which each essay, and perhaps even each sentence, offers implicitly the essayist’s final word on her subject – is a shirking of ethical responsibility, even a kind of lie. Hence Intimations, and not Assertions or Persuasions. From her brief foreword: There will be many books written about…

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