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25 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Zadie Smith’s essays reveal how success is not all it’s cracked up to be

Feel Free: Essays shows the limitations of a star literary career – and the freedom of a remarkable critical mind.

By Tom Gatti

Zadie Smith does not feel free. Throughout her new essay collection she defines her life by its limitations. There’s her very public career: after a friend tells her that “your writing so far has been a 15-year psychodrama” Smith admits that she often worries that she has “made myself ludicrous in one way or another”. There are the children “who eat all my time”; the people who expose her interests as too narrow (sitting next to someone at dinner who shares her love of literature but is also knowledgeable about opera or Renaissance painters, she feels “an anxiety that nudges beyond the envious into the existential”); the “cocoon” of class; her addictive iPhone. She identifies a point in her life – in Rome with her husband, the writer Nick Laird – when she was completely unconstrained and yet her abiding memory is moping, bored, from square to square: “with my freedom I did very little, almost nothing”. She has talent, beauty, success, famous friends and an impeccable literary marriage – the Condition of Zadie Smith is something to be aspired to. But, I hate to break this to you – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Smith’s mental screensaver is not of open roads and cloudless skies but fences, chasms and ticking clocks.

When she is in full critical swing, it’s a different matter. Here Smith really does seem to feel free: free to riff, link, converse, think aloud, and occasionally light out for the territory. Having overcome her past queasiness about the first person, she writes in an intimate mode, dropping exclamation marks into sentences when a notion delights or appals her, speaking to the reader across the table, not from the podium, and structuring her thoughts around an essentially egalitarian question: “I feel this – do you?” In this way you are subtly shielded from the glare of her intellect: she walks and talks you through her theses and it’s like spending an evening with your most brilliant friend.  

Though the collection spans climate change, conceptual art, JG Ballard and the little-known Viennese writer Mela Hartwig, it is the pieces on pop culture in which Smith shines brightest. A review of The Social Network, David Fincher’s 2010 film about Mark Zuckerberg, becomes a discussion of Hollywood’s inability to resist ascribing idée fixe motivations to its moguls and then a compelling argument for why we should resist Facebook, in which everything “is reduced to the size of its founder”. For those of us who instinctively feel that rap can be great literature but aren’t articulate enough to prove it, Smith’s interview with Jay-Z is a delight. “Asking why rappers always talk about stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies,” she writes. “Because boasting is a condition of the epic form.” The same piece namechecks Martin Amis, Harold Bloom and Oulipo, but there is no sense of straining to bridge “high” and “low” art (as there was, for example, when in the early 2000s music critics clumsily embraced Mike Skinner of the Streets as a new Shakespeare). It’s all part of the landscape of language. As is movement: “Dance Lessons for Writers” crystallises the contrasting styles of Prince and Michael Jackson and offers, via the angular spasms of David Bowie and David Byrne (made “to their ‘blackest’ cuts”), a little defence of cultural theft.

Illuminating juxtapositions arrive by happenstance. Smith suddenly “gets” Joni Mitchell while standing inside Tintern Abbey, and Wordsworth’s listening to “the language of my former heart” makes her realise how little she understands her own (“How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably?”). She goes to see Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion puppet film Anomalisa during a long week of solo parenting in which she’d been carrying around a pocket edition of Schopenhauer’s On the Suffering of the World. Whether that’s highly pretentious or grimly appropriate depends on your feelings about looking after small children, but given that the German philosopher saw the human race as puppets, he is quite a useful companion for a film about “the erroneous belief that one is an individual at all”.

Occasionally the match is less fruitful, more forced. In “Meet Justin Bieber!” the pop star’s near-namesake, the 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, is summoned to observe the spectacle of Bieber meeting and greeting his fans. Buber’s distinction between two modes of human relationship (a superficial “I-it” and, very occasionally,  a genuine connection: “I-thou”) is intriguing but ultimately doesn’t reveal much about the enigmatic Bieber. And though I am not unaware of the circles that Smith moves in (I’ve read her email exchanges with Lena Dunham, I know she had lunch with Obama) an essay that revolves around dinner at the house of a famous art critic (they talk about Karl Ove Knausgaard “like groupies discussing their favourite band”) steers dangerously close to self-parody.

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Smith confesses to having an “ambivalent view of human selves” that is perhaps not well-suited to this political moment. But it’s the (mostly) unfixed nature of her mind that makes her a welcome writer on politics in a polarised age: like Paul Kingsnorth in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist she is neither polemicist nor devil’s advocate, but a thinker who shows her working (and feelings). Existing between black and white, council estate and Victorian town-house, Willesden and Cambridge, London and New York (and simultaneously being, as she wrote recently, “a feminist, a second-generation Jamaican, a member of the African diaspora, a Game of Thrones-er, an academic, a comedy-nerd, a theory-dork, a hip-hop-head”), Smith seeks what she calls “a mixed reality”, where you can be “both free and not free at the same time”. It’s a state she finds in Shakespeare’s problem plays and Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. Smith is frustrated when she is described as a “champion” of multiculturalism and then asked to admit that it has failed. But in a finely written essay on the Brexit vote she is clear-eyed about a London where “‘them’ and ‘us’ never actually meet anywhere but in symbol”.

In their handling of “impossible identities” (Muslim and gay, for example, or Jewish and obscene) Kureishi and Philip Roth give Smith the gift of freedom as a reader and writer. But it’s not always in her fiction that the freedom is best used. In 2016 Smith published her fifth novel (and the first to be written wholly in the first person), Swing Time, an absorbing story of female friendship that contains an issues-laden disquisition on celebrity, Western aid policies, cultural appropriation and slavery. At the time, she spoke on a 6 Music radio show about the pivotal role played by the rapper Kendrick Lamar’s song “King Kunta” in the writing of this section of Swing Time. Upon finishing Feel Free, it struck me that not only did I want to read Smith on Lamar but that such an essay could have nimbly traversed all those preoccupations, allowing the novel to drop its baggage and float back up to the surface – and its author to roam free at last. 

“Trump is a great opportunity for us writers”: Zadie Smith on fighting back

Feel Free: Essays
Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 452pp, £20

This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia