Sunday 16 December 2018

Highbrow mischief

Essays: Feel Free, Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, hardback, 464 ­pages, €21

Zadie Smith: 'Illusiveness can possess a deeper beauty than the legible'
Zadie Smith: 'Illusiveness can possess a deeper beauty than the legible'
Zadie Smith: Feel Free

Hilary A White

From Beliebers to Buber's philosophy, Facebook entrapment to an analysis of the arts, Zadie Smith's collection of writings take you on a playful and beguiling journey.

Leafing through this new compendium of essays, reviews, articles and speeches - her second - the breadth of subject matter makes it clear that Smith's radar scans widely and with a trace of hunger. But in this sense, they also reveal so much about the brilliant Londoner who wowed the world at the age of 25 with her post-colonial saga White Teeth. Take 'Some Notes on Attunement', Smith's paean to Joni Mitchell related by way of her own post-adolescent blindness to the Canadian troubadour's powers.

Here, we find inadequacy in her self-analysis, bottlenecked through a discussion about the nature of philistinism and the "existential" levels of anxiety she feels when she meets somebody who has cultured, extensive knowledge that traverses a range of humanities. This is from a woman who can't walk 50 paces without being mugged by awards, honours and other confirmations of her precocious wisdom. No wonder, then, that these 31 entries roam so far and wide, both within themselves - Smith's voyage into Mitchell, for example, takes in Seneca, Kierkegaard and Abrahamic scripture en route - but as a collection, too.

We're also told about the "intensely naïve" Smith ("most novelists are, despite frequent pretensions to deep sociopolitical insight") just before she takes a broom to the failings of UK society and politics as part of a love letter to the endangered local library. Keenly, she argues the worth of these facilities in which "you do not have to buy anything in order to stay".

It is the kind of bright, irrefutable logic Smith brings to any table she alights at. Just when you're thinking that a memoir-style chapter about her time living in Rome (with her partner, the Ulster poet Nick Laird) is drifting into prosaic jabber, she closes things neatly, circling lower without you noticing, towards the nub of the piece. A discussion on JG Ballard's Crash commences with memories of an "agonising" 10-minute conversation on a Thames cruise with the author that was a metaphorical car crash ("Every book I championed he hated. Every film he admired I'd never seen… I could see that moon face curdling with disgust").

She is similarly laid bare in her notes on The Buddha of Suburbia, and how Kureishi's seminal novel was passed around school like contraband due to its blue passages. There is great affection for the girl she once was running alongside her discourse of the book itself ("This was thrilling. I had no idea you could start a book like that").

Elsewhere, however, she can be rigorous, bemusingly so, in her analysis of the arts. 'Man versus Corpse', a dense and ponderous deconstruction that flowers laboriously out of a Luca Signorelli Renaissance drawing, is one end of it. The other is 'Windows on the Will: Anomalisa', a Schopenhauerian reading of the filmmaking of Charlie Kaufman that is meaty enough to sate the pickiest of film students while also being a thoroughly entertaining 20 minutes in the company of written words. It's all academic, of course, but fun nonetheless to watch an essayist of Smith's calibre flex her muscles.

It's there, too, in 'Dance Lessons for Writers', a joyously over-iced confection that prises open the dance routines of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, David Bowie and Byrne, Beyoncé and Madonna, and Michael Jackson and Prince with the bespectacled reverence of a critical theorist. It would be tiresome were it not for Smith's ever-present sense of highbrowed mischief. "People will be dancing like Michael Jackson until the end of time. But Prince, precious, illusive Prince, well, there lays one whose name was writ in water. And from Prince, a writer might take the lesson that illusiveness can possess a deeper beauty than the legible."

She can fangirl it up with the best of them, too. An interview with Jay-Z sees her profiling of the hip-hip mogul underpinned by traces of gushing ("Jay-Z in technician mode is human voice as pure syncopation") while she can't help but blurt out some geeky admiration for Edward St Aubyn ("Oh, the semicolons, the discipline!").

You find yourself looking at commonplace items and people with a new seam of awareness. Applied to subjects as ubiquitous and knowingly millennial as Mark Zuckerberg or Justin Bieber, Smith's stethoscope detects elusive but fundamental sensations. In a 2010 essay first published in The New York Review of Books, Smith is scathing of Facebook, a medium she abandoned and now vociferously denounces as being little more that "500 million people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore" (Smith herself was a resident on campus in Zuckerberg's day and recalls the Facemash scandal). Bieber gets it, too, with Smith (slightly facetiously) weaving in the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber because their names have the same root ("Who am I to ignore these hints from the universe?"). Bieber, she reasons, is often engaged in corporate meet-and-greets. Buber, meanwhile, believed "meeting" was a complex state, and that the Belieber in the signing queue never really "meets" her idol.

For someone whose career is a 15-year psychodrama (as one friend put it to her), Smith is much better company than you would give her credit for, able to laugh at both the po-faced liberalism of her previous years as well as her imposter syndrome.

"I feel this - do you? I'm struck by this thought - are you?" she says, turning to us in the foreword and including us in her truths from the very start.

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