Essays Books

These essays and journalistic pieces, which date from 2010 to last year and cover a range of subjects from Brexit to Justin Bieber to Italian gardens and her childhood bathroom, confirm Zadie Smith as a non-fiction writer of striking generosity and perception. The generosity takes the form of a permanent, embracing invitation to the reader – even when she is writing about, for example, Arthur Schopenhauer – and the perception is impressive because it operates not only outwards but also inwards, taking in the writer herself. There is a simpler way of putting it: here is Smith, coolly appraising, connoisseurial, discerning; and here she is, too, the book nerd, the culture geek, reading, hearing and seeing, occasionally dizzied by her own place among all these works of art, and dying to talk to somebody about it.

The question of voice – where you find one, where other people find theirs, whose gets listened to first and, perhaps most important, how you know when you can trust your own and when it is beguiling or deceiving you – is central to Smith’s novels. She elaborates on the issue in The I Who Is Not Me, a lecture exploring the use of autobiographical material in fiction, by considering the fact that it took her until her last novel, Swing Time, to break her self-imposed taboo on using the first person.

“For what is impossible about any real-life identity is its narrowness,” Smith writes. In childhood, that impossibility took the form of being biracial in a binary culture of black and white, but whatever its cause, she notes, it can lead to “anger, sadness, despair, confusion”. But it can also provoke another “inherently creative” response, which she believes to be “at the root of the reason so many writers will tell you that they felt in some way alienated as children. When you are not at home in your self, as a child, you don’t experience your self as ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’ – as so many other people seem to do.” By way of compensation comes an awareness “of the radical contingency of life” – and, indeed, the desire to create other lives in fiction.

On Get Out, she says: ‘I will not forget the close-ups of suffering black faces; suffering, but trapped behind masks’

In her novels, Smith argues, she has sought to free herself from the obligations of inevitability – to construct characters who are entirely themselves, rather than representations of those either trapped by historical circumstances or the novelist’s idealism; Philip Roth’s Portnoy and Karim Amir, the narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, are particular influences.

Cultural commentaries, pieces of criticism and essays would seem an obviously different category of writing, their concern primarily with inspection rather than invention. But Smith is too canny a thinker and writer to fall for that one; she’s aware not only of the presence and the impact of the observer, but also of the liberation that can come from playing fast and loose with what is being observed.

And perhaps the most freeing moment comes when the writer decides to drop her inhibitions, to banish the self-consciousness that has lurked in her hinterland, and agrees to appear far-fetched, even ridiculous. “At times he restricts himself formally, like the Oulipo, that experimental French literary group of the sixties.” Who is she writing about? Why, the rapper Jay-Z, of course. And whose records, now freighted with nostalgia, does she liken to “listening to a pleasant slice of Sinatra”? Tupac, naturally.

She is sharp enough not to make such florid comparisons without the goods to back them up, and her piece on Jay-Z, The House That Hova Built, is a fantastically illuminating account of the protean nature of hip-hop, the constant shifts of power and purpose that are in its code. I was happily reminded of the way Smith blended Howards End with Public Enemy in her novel On Beauty, but this piece, written in 2012, is a different example of subversion. In the age of celebrity, she has rebranded an interview as an essay, and freed herself from the demands of editors and readers to deliver a hot take, let alone a take-down.

Zadie Smith: ‘I have a very messy and chaotic mind’

In fact, the only target, really, is herself, still clinging to her love of Wu-Tang Clan. “Listening to Jay-Z – still so flexible and enthusiastic, ears wide open – you realise you’re like one of these people who believes jazz died with Dizzy.” Even there, though, is the embrace: one of “these” people, not one of “those”.

That piece sits in a section called In the Audience, which also features an exploration (“review” doesn’t quite cover it, since this is where Schopenhauer enters the scene, and Smith can’t stand the word “meditation” in this context) of Charlie Kaufman’s film Anomalisa and an extended encounter with the US comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele from 2015. Smith returned to Peele last year, when she wrote stunningly about Get Out, his debut feature film, now Oscar-nominated.

Tellingly, that essay comes under the heading In the Gallery, alongside pieces about art and artists. That’s partly because she describes Get Out as a series of frames (“I will not easily forget those lengthy close-ups of suffering black faces; suffering, but trapped behind masks, like so many cinematic analogues of the arguments of Frantz Fanon”) but also because she segues into a discussion of a painting by Dana Schutz of Emmett Till, the black American teenager murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman, which Smith goes to see two weeks after she sees the film.

Zadie Smith says using social media would threaten her writing

The painting, Open Casket, became the focus for an intense argument about appropriation; it should not, critics argued, appear in the Whitney Biennial because it should not be acceptable for its creator, a white woman, “to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun”. Could Smith, a biracial woman, lay claim to the subject matter, she wonders? Could her children, who, “by the old racial logic of America” are “quadroons”? If not: “When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern?”

The point here is not to settle the question of cultural appropriation; to decide who can say what, when and how. It is, rather, to give voice to what Smith calls “the ever-present torsion” within her experience; the feeling that clarity is denied her and the suspicion that clarity is a bodge job anyway. And after all that, there’s a simpler light to navigate by: the painting doesn’t make her feel anything, particularly. They do not communicate.

Two other delights of this wonderfully suggestive collection: memories of her parents and her upbringing, including the bathroom filled with greenery that she recognises years later, when she stands amid similar shades in Jamaica; and the fact that Feel Free provides you with a spiralling list of things to read, listen to, watch. Back to JG Ballard! Off to Rome, to find the lovely public gardens to which she wishes she’d taken her father! On the turntable with Joni Mitchell!

Over and again, Smith comes back to the gift of culture that fell into her lap when she was a child, but which she also had to find a way to assimilate into her life. Her essays hit on a truth about such a treasure trove: transformative and enriching it can certainly be, if you’re lucky – but also puzzling, painful, exposing, even treacherous. The title Feel Free itself implies the contradiction: can you order a feeling? Can freedom come as the result of an instruction? Perhaps not, says Smith, but it’s the best chance we’ve got.

• Feel Free is published by Hamish Hamilton. To order a copy for £15 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

The achievement of Robinson’s novels has been how elegantly she folds questions of faith, ethics and eschatology into fiction, and presents them to us as human dramas, in language bright and bare as bone. She has been compared to the Dutch masters for her sense of silence and light, for the quality of patient attention that gilds the most modest moments. But she also has a gift for wit and metaphor that turns the ordinary on its head.

In nonfiction, Robinson approaches her quarry directly, with frank combativeness (or ranting, as her critics have it). She worried about this once: “My writing has perhaps taken too much of the stain of my anger,” she wrote in “Mother Country,” her 1989 study of nuclear pollution. No more. She opens the new collection telling us: “I am too old to mince words.”

She is democratic in her censure, flaying the left for its “slick, unreflecting cynicism,” the right for its “unembarrassed enthusiasm for self-interest.” She upbraids the religious for their fear and willful dismissal of science; scientists for their juvenile understanding and dismissal of faith.

But back to the original question. How did Robinson end up here — with an orientation so open to the world that it feels less cosmopolitan than cosmic? Was it libraries?

Mostly. Robinson came to the habit of self-scrutiny early. As a child, her teachers told her, “You have to live with your mind your whole life”; they taught her the value of building it, making it worthy. It was, she has said, the most important lesson she ever received. She kept at it, following the publication of “Housekeeping,” with one of the more interesting silences in American letters. She published no new fiction for 24 years, devoting herself instead to deep study of Marx, Darwin and the history of political thought.

In many ways, “What Are We Doing Here?” is a response to those years of study, a repudiation of Marx and Darwin, of powerful ideologies of any stripe that simplify the world. “Our ways of understanding the world now, our systems and ideologies, have an authority for us that leads us to think of them as exhaustive accounts of reality rather than, at best, as instruments of understanding suited to particular uses,” she writes. No argument here. But when she says that ideologies are to be avoided because they come with conclusions baked into them, I begin to fidget. This sounds an awful lot like some of Robinson’s own nonfiction. For a book that so espouses the virtue of mind interrogating mind, there’s not much evidence of it in this book. Her arguments unspool neatly, like silk off a spindle, because they are frequently arguments she has made before.

When Robinson warns against historical amnesia, her regular readers will know exactly where she’s heading: to the Puritans — caricatured as “cankered souls” but actually “the most progressive population on earth through the 19th century at least.” I was very persuaded by the case she makes for their importance. I was even more persuaded by it when I first encountered it in her 1998 essay collection, “The Death of Adam.”

Most of the essays in this new book were delivered as speeches, and some repetition is inevitable. But so too is our desire for more — for the refinement of her ideas instead of the rehashing — especially since the final essay, which takes an unexpectedly personal turn, delivers like no other.

“Slander” is the story of Robinson’s strained relationship with her mother. “With a little difficulty we finally reached an accommodation, an adult friendship,” she writes. “Then she started watching Fox News.” Her mother and her fellow retirees began to share “salacious dread over coffee cake,” fretting over the rumored “war against Christmas.” “My mother lived out the end of her fortunate life in a state of bitterness and panic, never having had the slightest brush with any experience that would confirm her in these emotions, except, of course, Fox News,” Robinson writes. The essay brings all the abstractions home, makes real and painful the cost of ceding an independence of mind. It’s composed in a rare register: mourning and fury counterpoised by humor and a refusal of despair.

Robinson tells us that old scholars would speak of being “ravished” by a text. “I think they were held to their work by a degree of fascination, of sober delight, that we can no longer imagine,” she writes. She’s wrong. I know exactly what she means.

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