Pocket Review: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

Smith As a young reader, Zadie Smith approached books one way; as a writer, she’s taken a somewhat different path. Changing My Mind is a collection of 17 essays grouped into five brackets: Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling, and the last, Remembering, which contains a single excruciating remembrance of David Foster Wallace, by far the longest piece in the collection.

Of the six pieces that make up Reading, the lead is a rather complicated musing on being black and the meaning of “soulful,” which has as much to do with her mother as with her ostensible subject, Zora Neale Hurston. Where Smith really hits her stride is her essay on E.M. Forster, a “tricky bugger” she is obviously very fond of:

In the taxonomy of English writing, E.M. Forster is not an exotic creature. We file him under notable English Novelist, common or garden variety… he never believed the novel was dead or the hills alive, continued to read contemporary fiction after age of fifty, harbored no special hatred for the generation below or above him, did not come to feel that England had gone to hell in a handbasket, that its language was doomed…

Describing him as “banal and brilliant” at the same time, she shows her hand with gentle humor. And on literary criticism in general, she shares these insightful thoughts:

Here’s the funny thing about literary criticism: it hates its own times, only realizing their worth twenty years later. And then, twenty years after that, it wildly sentimentalizes them, out of nostalgia for a collective youth.

It’s fun to listen as she brings thoroughly modern sensibilities to her commentary on, say, the likes of George Eliot (“the result is that famous Eliot effect, the narrative equivalent of surround sound”). Poking at Henry James for his denseness on the subject of Middlemarch, Smith notes that Virginia Woolf had it right: “One of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Jane Eyre is one thing, Middlemarch another entirely, and she makes a passionately strong case for the humanism of Eliot’s writing:

We are moved that is should pain Eliot so to draw a border around her attention, that she is so alive to the mass of existence lying unnarrated on the other side of silence. She seems to care for people, indiscriminately and in their entirety, as it was once said God did.

“Rereading Barthes and Nabokov” is a prime example of Smith changing her mind. She creates an elegant synthesis from their arguments:

Nabokov is not God, and I am not his creation. He is an author and I am his reader, and we are stumbling toward meaning simultaneously, together. Zebra cocktail!

You’ll need to read the essay to understand that reference.

Alas, there were certain pieces that were well beyond my reach, among them the essay on Kafka. But in “Two Directions For The Novel,”, which deals first with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and then with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, Smith tears into the publishing game:

When it comes to literary careers, it’s true: the pitch is queered. The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard. Friction, fear and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions—yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov…. In its brutal excision of psychology it is easy to feel that Remainder comes to literature as an assassin, to kill the novel stone dead. I think it means rather to shake the novel out of its present complacency. It clears away a little of the deadwood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward. We could call this constructive deconstruction, a quality that, for me, marks Remainder as one of the great English novels of the past ten years.

Ballard She likes it. She really, really likes it! In the same essay, she goes on to call J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition “possibly the greatest British avant-garde novel.” I’ve put Ballard’s book on my TBR list (I’ve already read Netherland and Remainder).

In Being, two of the three essays are culled from lectures. “That Crafty Feeling” has her addressing her writing craft, and “Speaking in Tongues” is a thoughtful essay on multiracialism and voice—not the writer’s voice, but that of identity, of culture, and of heritage. She draws several parallels to Barack Obama in this one that make real sense. The third is a reportage piece about Liberia, which frankly just seems out of place in this collection.

In Seeing, Smith culls some of her film reviews, slim pickings due to the nature of the films reviewed. There’s this, though: In “Hepburn and Garbo” she writes the most wonderful eulogy to Katherine Hepburn, her role model and icon. It is superior work, and—written just a few days after Hepburn died—shows an immediacy that is real. I’m not ashamed to admit that I laughed and cried when I read this. You can read it here.

After that, there was not much of interest for me, so I’d say it’s a spotty collection. Back to waiting for her next novel…

Charlie Wendell is dedicated to the three R’s: Reading, Running and Rhapsodizing on the other two. He lives as close to Boston as he can reasonably afford.


1 Comment to Pocket Review: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  1. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    December 1, 2009 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    Chazz scores another one, thankee.

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