Changing My Mind is not the book Zadie Smith intended to write. She had been planning a novel and a critical work to be entitled, after Beckett, “Fail Better”. While failing to write these, she accepted invitations from various magazines to write on her favourite authors: George Eliot, Franz Kafka, E?M Forster. Alongside her miscellaneous film reviews, travel writing, memoir and a new piece on her friend David Foster Wallace, Smith found she had enough material to fill a book.
Smith likes this piecemeal approach: “Ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith,” she writes in her foreword. Inconsistency is also inevitable for an author who has done much of her growing up in public. In “That Crafty Feeling”, a lecture on how she writes fiction, she confesses that she cannot read White Teeth (2000), her garrulous first novel that became a bestseller soon after the author graduated from Cambridge, without being “overwhelmed with nausea”. The Autograph Man (2003), about a Chinese-Jewish Hollywood obsessive, is absolutely right only in “isolated pockets”. She still corrects her most accomplished novel, On Beauty (2005), before giving a reading.
This sensitivity to her own limitations, her weakness for showing weakness, shapes her literary judgments. Eliot, she argues in a fine essay, became a great novelist only when she “learnt to have sympathy for the stumbling errors of human beings” – including her own. She warms to Forster because he had “a little laziness, and some stupidity”. Her early passion for Roland Barthes and other theorists suspicious of authors’ claims to personally connect with their readers has given way to respectful attention to Nabokov and Kafka, whose works make her “feel less alone”.
But for writers, the closer you read such authors the more distant they can seem. Eliot’s Middlemarch and Forster’s Howards End set a dauntingly high standard. This has led, in Smith’s case, to a certain critical insecurity. In an essay entitled “Two Directions for the Novel”, published in 2008, she takes Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland to task for being squarely and unimaginatively in the lyrical-realist tradition. One line particularly irks her: a cricket ball arrives “like a gigantic meteoric cranberry”. “Everything must be made literary,” Smith complains. “Nothing escapes.” Yet in a film review from 2006, she enthused over the part in Lolita when Humbert Humbert’s eyes fall on “an old grey tennis ball that lay on an oak chest”. Maybe she has changed her mind about the value of such details; but I suspect she simply doesn’t like O’Neill’s writing, in which case she didn’t need to elevate that judgment into a dismissal of an entire tradition.
Smith seems embarrassed by her own talent for character and observation; in appreciations of the experimental novelists Tom McCarthy and David Foster Wallace, there are hints of regret that she cannot match their bold modernity.
But the true direction for Zadie Smith, novelist, is mapped out in the strongest pieces in this collection: three memoirs about her father. She has already fictionalised Harvey Smith as White Teeth’s Archie Jones, the English war hero who married a younger Jamaican woman. In that book his war years were turned into “idiotic comedy”; here, in six pages, she describes his role in D-Day with great sensitivity: “So much experience that should be parcelled out, tenderly, over years, came to my father that day, concertinaed into 24 hours.” An account of Smith family Christmases ends with her driving to his nursing home in Felixstowe, her divorced parents having called a ceasefire over the festive period. “Dead Man Laughing” finds Smith at Harvey’s feet, laughing with him at old episodes of Fawlty Towers because they have nothing to say to one another. He died shortly afterwards; this book is dedicated to him.
These pieces have their fictional analogue in two excellent short stories, published in The New Yorker, “Hanwell in Hell” and “Hanwell Snr”, which both draw on her father’s life. They show Smith’s transformation from a “comic novelist” with a “natural weakness for caricature” (her opinion of Forster) to one who recognises that “character occurs with the lightest of brushstrokes”. Changing My Mind tantalises us with what might be to come from Zadie Smith. Forster’s recommendation of a work by EF Benson (quoted here) feels right: “The book’s uneven – bits of it are perfunctory, but bits are awfully good.”
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
by Zadie Smith
308pp, Hamish Hamilton, £20 T £18 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) 0844 871 1515 or Telegraph Books
Rarely does a book that seems to promise so little deliver so much. Even the subtitle, Occasional Essays, of Zadie Smith’s nonfiction collection Changing My Mind, carries a whiff of modest ambitions. This isn’t, it seems to say, nearly as substantial as Smith’s novels.
Yet rather than the usual clean-out-the-closets collection—the miscellany of articles that fills the publication gap between big books—this volume, which includes previously published material, offers the sort of insight that will not only enlighten fans but should provide plenty of illumination for anyone who appreciates fiction and words and the interplay between writer and reader as much as Smith plainly does.
The best of these essays are as concerned with the essence of reading well as writing well. And they are written so incisively, and with so much empathy and warm-hearted humor, that they show how reading has made Smith the writer that she is. Rather than a critic advancing an argument or an academic analyzing in code, she’s a writer who understands the reader’s perspective, a reader who understands the writer’s.
When she praises the “broad sympathetic sensibility” of E.M. Forster (who provided the template for her novel On Beauty), she could well be describing her own. Much of her writing on literature doesn’t directly critique other writers, but critiques the critiques, as Smith sees Middlemarch through Henry James’s eyes while inviting the reader to read (or re-read) George Eliot’s classic through Smith’s.
Whether she’s describing how she initially resisted the seminal influence of Zora Neale Hurston, perhaps the first of the great authors about whom Smith has changed her mind, or celebrating the late David Foster Wallace (“he was my favorite living writer”) through a close reading of his Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Smith shows a universalist’s, omnivorous appetite for literature.
The book’s title implies more than arriving at a different verdict. As the author matures, becomes more educated and experienced, she reads with a mind that is different than it was. As reading fiction leads to writing it, she develops a more profound understanding of those different, symbiotic roles. “Reading has always been my passion, my pleasure, and I am constitutionally drawn to any thesis that gives power to readers…,” she writes. “But when I became a writer, writing became my discipline, my practice, and I felt the need to believe in it as an intentional, directional act, an expression of individual consciousness.”
These essays aren’t all about literature. The most moving one is pure memoir, linking the death of her father and her family’s appreciation for comedy. (The weakest are the film reviews, some little more than capsules.) But even when delving into politics, Smith brings a novelist’s attention to language, style and tone. <\b>If she’d never written a novel, this collection alone would make me eager to read more of her work.