Zadie Smith vs E.M. Forster
In anticipation of her new novel, it’s Zadie Smith season here at The Common Reader. Today is an essay about On Beauty (2005). Some of this essay is paywalled. But, good news, there’s a Summer Sale —20% off.
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On Beauty and E.M. Forster
In 2006, I walked out of the bookshop reading On Beauty, and barely looked up until the end. I had become unaware that there was a world around me. My mother eventually gave up trying to talk to me and planted me in a cafe. As Jerome writes in the opening, I was “reading and feeling like you’re in a novel.”
In the last twenty-four hours, I re-read On Beauty and it holds up. Its model is Howards End, which Smith parallels throughout, even in the small ways she narrates time. Forster’s ingenious opening to chapter ten, “Several weeks passed”, is mirrored in Smith’s, “We must now jump nine months forward.”
Smith’s narrative interventions are often more subtle. She makes it clear that she is concerned with the poor, contra Forster’s notorious assertion, but she doesn’t declare it. Forster uses “We” obtrusively. Smith often makes this usage into more of an aside. (See the swear jars in chapter nine.) His characters are named after a writer of German Romanticisim whose ideas are being praised,—hers after a literary Theorist whose ideas are being critiqued. (Rightly so. Catherine Belsey believed Shakespeare’s plays are not works of art but “a location of cultural history.” Ugh.)
Forster sides with the Schlegels, against the forms of modern life that spoil his bucolic upper-class vision. He wrote in 1908, hearing a man had flown in an air machine, “Science, instead of freeing man … is enslaving him to machines.” This was the impetus for Howards End two years later. Forster wanted his readers to “connect the prose in us with the passion.” This is his shared aim with Smith, who takes post-structuralism to task, and comes down on the side of beauty.