Friday, 5 December 2014

Changing My Mind: Occasional essays by Zadie Smith

Reviewed by Rebecca Johnson Bista

Changing My Mind is the perfect mental challenge for those fascinated by the acts of reading and writing – surely all of us here. In 17 scintillating essays, covering culture, cinema, race, politics, identity and family as well as literature itself, Zadie Smith reveals more about the writer’s experience of reading and the reader’s experience of writing than anyone else I have read. She does so with a fierce and precise intelligence, a light touch of self-aware humour and a streetwise contemporary voice that draws you in and on through her philosophical arguments. She can move seamlessly from Heidegger and Spinoza to Katherine Hepburn and George Clooney; from literary theory to confessional sneak-peek into the writer’s secret craft, and from personal experience to international relations with the same confidential charm and laser vision.

The essays in this collection are arranged in sections. In the first, ‘Reading’, are her critical essays on authors including her beloved E M Forster and Nabokov, Zora Neal Hurston, George Eliot, Kafka, and a comparison between Netherlands (Joseph O’Neill) and Remainder (Tom McCarthy). The second, ‘Being’, includes essays on the craft of writing, Liberia, and Barack Obama’s “vocal flexibility” of bi-racial rhetoric. In the third, ‘Seeing’, is film criticism including an essay on the gender politics of Hepburn and Garbo. In the fourth, ‘Feeling’, are autobiographical writings; and in the fifth, ‘Remembering’, her essay on David Foster Wallace, which seems to sum up in a sense the essence of all else she has said about what constitutes the craft and significance of reading and writing.

Along the way we discover that Zadie the writer is a pantser (in NaNoWriMo terms, that is – she calls it a ‘micro-manager’) not a planner (I think we knew); that Zora Neal Hurston was her awakening into the possibility of a literary identity as a black woman; that she rewrites her first 20 pages dozens of times to get the tone and voice right for the rest of the novel, and that she’s ashamed to re-read her own work. We also find out that she thinks of novels as houses in which to live and writing as construction (including scaffolding); that she writes only one ‘draft’; that the writer, as person and creator, is just as important to her as the text itself and that David Foster Wallace is, in a sense, her ultimate reading experience.

In examining the elements that inform her readings and construct her writer’s world, she offers a beautifully delicate exploration of Forster’s “humane charm” and cultural acuity. She praises George Eliot’s “surround sound” and her ability to “pull it all out into the light” in terms of human folly and self-deception, and knocks Henry James from his self-important perch. She also looks at creative pleasure in Nabokov’s idea of inspiration, consisting of a hot, brief “rapture” at the conception of a book, followed by a cool, sustained “recapture” during which the actual labour of writing happens. Part of this, she says, leaving college-study Barthes behind, is the author being in control: “putting walls around the playground” to define and delimit the reader’s “play”.

In examining writers’ political credentials, historical circumstances and literary antecedents, she leaves no stone unturned. And by similarly setting out her own influences, history, family, political hopes, practice, voice and cultural context she shines the same light on her own writing, and the roots of her own ideas. She is particularly coruscating about notions of ‘ethnic authenticity’ and any hint of racial bad faith from any quarter – she’s down on “keeping it real” or any single unified concept of blackness (in literature as well as life) while also defining herself as a black woman writer. At the same time, she will not let this constrain her and insists pithily: “like all readers I want my limits to be drawn by my own sensibilities, not my melanin count.” Smith has no limits but her own. And she is fully in control of those, delineating them with such pinpoint accuracy, brilliantly articulate thinking and erudite wit that there is little space for disagreement.

Having said that, Smith’s world is not for the faint-hearted. She leaves no place to hide and no zone of comfort in her writing. Her world is a very precise place in which every word, image and emotional response is critically analysed. She is as aware of context as she is of voice, of political implications, identity markers, the tone, texture and flavour of words and what they say about your origins, truthfulness and intentions. She misses none of the layers. There is no escape. Her essays are so dense with ideas that every sentence needs attending to. This is not a book you can knock off at one sitting. You will find yourself desperately needing to (re)read all of Nabokov, or George Bernard Shaw, or Begley’s biography of Kafka, or the complete works of Spinoza, or view the oeuvres of Garbo and Werner Herzog. You will feel inadequate, but in the nicest possible way.

Sometimes I found myself wishing she would not write with such precise fully-formed opinions or be so head-girlish about her moral authority and clear-sightedness and that just once in a while she would fumble her lines or come up against a limitation in thought or feeling that even her well-stocked mind can’t quite handle. She doesn’t. And yet, if I were Zadie Smith herself, I would also point out that of course I am aware that my wish is just a dog-in-the-manger fantasy born of envy and would immediately offer a more morally and emotionally impeccable alternative. Except that I confess I have no replacement, just an untidy, unattractive longing to be as smart, well-read and charming as she is. Zadie rocks.

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