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Zadie Smith and the revenge of beauty

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Zadie Smith and the revenge of beauty

It’s no use worrying about Time

This is the second part of an essay about Zadie Smith. You can read the first part here. As an experiment, I have recorded this essay so you can listen rather than read. Let know what you think…

Both essays are partly paywalled. But, good news, there’s a summer sale—20% off a subscription if you sign up before September 13th.

Summer Sale

Don’t forget, the next bookclub is this Sunday 10th September, 19.00 UK time. We are discussing The Annotated Alice.

My next salon, in October, is about sonnets.

Zadie time

The only poem Zadie Smith knows by heart, apart from some Shakespeare, is ‘Animals’ by Frank O’Hara. (“In the brain space where memorised poems should be,” she once said, “I have a large collection of rap couplets.”) ‘Animals’ is about looking back from middle-age to youth. “It’s no use worrying about Time,” O’Hara writes, straight after remembering a time when “the day came fat with an apple in its mouth.”

The obvious image that brings up is a pig, ready for feasting—a symbol of fleeting youth, inevitable death, and all that jazz. One day you’re a pig in the field, the next you’re roasted It might be no use worrying about time, but that’s because it’s inevitable.

‘Animals’ is about looking back to a time when “the whole pasture looked like our meal”. Not youth itself, but the changed perspective that comes with middle-age. This sense of time changing our perspective of the world might be the central theme of Smith’s work. Talking about how she gets started on a book, she said:

the writing process... for me, is usually “I started at page one and kept going” or “I was struck by some tedious trauma from my childhood and had to make it into a novel to be free of it.”

Struck by some tedious trauma is a nice Larkinian phrase and it sums up the way that Smith makes her bigger arguments—about the importance of equal access to beauty, or the loss of the post-war social order—through stories of ordinary life and her changed perception of the past. So many of her novels are driven by one generation not knowing how the other understands the world. As she told BU Today:

It’s so hard to understand when you’re 19 or 20 why middle-aged people are like they are or why marriages continue. You don’t understand any of it, you just wonder, what’s wrong with you people? And then, of course, you become middle-aged and go, ah, OK, I get it now.

Smith has talked about the importance of time in historical perspective, too. The essence of Swing Time is the interruption of history, the forced changing of a people’s times.

…what was done to black people, historically, was to take them out of the time of their life… who knows what would have happened — nobody knows. But it would’ve gone a certain way, and we were removed from that timeline, placed somewhere entirely different, and radically disrupted.

That sense of being dislocated in time is, of course, the basis of Howards End, which opens with an engagement between two people from different social classes. A tremendous fuss is caused—but by the time Helen arrives to sort it all out, the engagement is over. The characters are removed from one timeline and put into another one. It was a minor affair, barely that, but it changes the course of all their lives. You might call it some tedious trauma.

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