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Elegant and Thoughtful Essays,
This review is from: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Hardcover)
In addition to her considerable talents as a novelist, Zadie Smith has been quietly assembling an impressive body of literary and cultural criticism over the past several years. Those pieces have been collected in this volume, a virtuosic demonstration of the workings of a first-class mind expressed in consistently lucid prose. Smith, who divides her time between New York and London, is an acute observer of contemporary culture, possessed also with the intellectual grounding to make her commentaries more than ephemera.
The first section of the volume consists of six scholarly essays on writers like Zora Neale Hurston (one of her early literary inspirations), Nabokov and Barthes, George Eliot, E.M. Forster and Kafka. The most intriguing (and perhaps controversial) piece in this section is one entitled "Two Directions for the Novel," in which she contrasts the lyrical realism of Joseph O'Neill's lavishly praised NETHERLAND with her preference for the "constructive deconstruction" of English novelist Tom McCarthy's experimental REMAINDER.
Smith's lecture, "Speaking in Tongues," the highlight of a section entitled "Being," is a moving meditation delivered only a few weeks after the election of Barack Obama. More than any other essay in the collection, this one puts her dazzling talents on full display. In it, she moves gracefully from the story of shedding the accent of her birth ("Willesden was a big, colorful, working-class sea; Cambridge was a smaller, posher pond, and almost univocal; the literary world is a puddle.") to a discussion of Pygmalion, to an incisive dissection of Obama's memoir. Along the way, she discourses on such subjects as Shakespeare, the religious wars of 17th-century England and Cary Grant. None of this feels as if it's calculated to showcase her erudition. Rather, it's an invigorating display of the breadth of her learning and of her ability to knit together seamlessly elements of culture both high and low.
A close study of Smith's generous essay "That Crafty Feeling" (a version of a lecture delivered to Columbia creative writing students) will repay aspiring writers many times over. In it, she lays down 10 genial guidelines about the writing craft, of which this terse admonition about literary influences is but one example: "Other people's words are so important. And then without warning they stop being important, along with all those words of yours that their words prompted you to write...Other people's words are the bridge you use to cross from where you were to wherever you're going."
The three essays collected under the heading "Feeling" are the most poignant in the book. Smith begins with a description of a family Christmas around 1980 (she was six or so at the time), and then in "Accidental Hero" recounts her father Harvey's wartime memories, including his participation in D-Day ("So much experience that should be parceled out, tenderly, over years, came to my father that day, concertinaed into twenty-four hours.") and concludes with "Dead Man Laughing," a sly meditation that winds its way effortlessly from the gentle fun she pokes at her father's sense of humor (he loved "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and "Fawlty Towers") to a professional critique of the art of comedy.
Smith's collection winds up with a lengthy reconsideration of David Foster Wallace's short story collection, BRIEF LIVES OF HIDEOUS MEN. In the same vein as the literary criticism that leads off the volume, it's a discussion that will challenge the general reader, but it's an unsurpassed introduction to Wallace's work and an exceptionally generous tribute to a departed colleague.
The only section of CHANGING MY MIND that mildly disappoints is "Seeing." Focusing on the movies, Smith offers an appreciation of Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, a profile of the Italian actress Anna Magnani and a series of vignettes from Oscar weekend 2006. The longest piece in this section collects Smith's reviews of mainstream films that year. The problem with this relatively lengthy chunk of the book is that a good many of the films Smith critiques (such as the ghastly Get Rich or Die Tryin' and Date Movie) are best forgotten and, in any event, unworthy of her talents.
In a recent essay in the Guardian, Zadie Smith explains that something she calls "novel nausea" inspired her to turn to the essay form. "But in a strange circular effect, it has been the experience of writing essays that has renewed my enthusiasm for the things fiction does that nothing else can," she concludes. "Writing essays on Kafka, on Nabokov, on George Eliot, on Zora Neale Hurston, I was newly humbled and excited by the artificial and the fully imagined." It's reassuring to know that a gifted writer of fiction now has recharged her creative batteries, but these elegant and thoughtful essays can only inspire the hope that she'll return with more soon.
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 15, 2009 5:32:18 PM PST
C. Knievel says:
David Foster Wallace's book is called BRIEF ***INTERVIEWS*** WITH HIDEOUS MEN.
Posted on Apr 10, 2011 4:31:41 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 10, 2011 4:39:04 PM PDT
<< a section entitled "Being," is a moving meditation delivered only a few weeks after the election of Barack Obama.>>
I agree with the comments from others about her flashes of brilliance amongst a lot of not such meaningful meanderings. But I'm finding that true of most of my reading now, so it's me, not the authors.
Some favorite quotes: Under the influence of Spinoza, via an understanding of Fred, she thought with her heart and felt with her head. It's a fictional procedure perfectly described by one of her creations, Will Ladislaw:
To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion--a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.
& pardon my shorthand & lack of pages they come from:
if we had a keen vision & feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow & the squirrel's heart beat, & we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. as it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
another one is about two sisters talking about one sister's experience & the other asks for the story & the sister says "No dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know."
another: Once she saw thru a glass, darkly, now she is the less deceived. ... "the scales fall from our eyes".
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