Interviews October 2005

Zadie, Take Three

The author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man talks about her new comedy of manners-cum-campus novel and the pitfalls of literary celebrity.
book cover

On Beauty
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Zadie Smith
Penguin Press
464 pages

With a certain knack for evading a question she doesn't intend to answer, Zadie Smith is able to bulldoze through a Q&A session with the dexterity of a young (but experienced) movie star. At the age of thirty, she already has three well-received novels under her belt, and her celebrity—some might say notoriety—has taken up copious real estate in London's gossip columns.

She gave me an hour. I caught her on her cell phone outside a Starbucks in what she called a "really awful part of town," and we talked amidst the din and whoosh of passing traffic while she roamed the streets in search of a cigarette lighter.

Clearly, if it weren't for her publicists and for pesky interviewers like me, she wouldn't do any interviews at all. (She's already stopped doing them entirely in the U.K.) She'd much prefer to leave behind the media circus and allow her new novel, On Beauty, to speak for itself.

It could.

"One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father." The novel's first line, which almost exactly echoes the first line of Howard's End, is the first tip that we're in store for some wonderful plot twists à la E. M. Forster. Smith admits as much in her acknowledgments. On Beauty, she writes, is an "hommage" to Forster, "to whom all my fiction is indebted." She wanted to return to the fiction she'd been brought up on to see if it could reflect contemporary concerns. The result is a sprawling Edwardian novel set in a fictional Massachusetts college town, which casts a struggling marriage against the backdrop of the racial and cultural questions of today.

Twenty-year-old Jerome Belsey is sending those e-mails from the home of his father's intellectual nemesis. Both men are Rembrandt scholars, but Montague Kipps has published successfully while Howard Belsey's manuscript languishes unfinished, his tenure prospects dangling by a string. They stand at opposite ends of the cultural and political spectrum. Howard is white, British, and represents liberal intellectualism. Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian academic, is a reactionary who opposes affirmative action and wants to take the word "liberal" out of "Liberal Arts." The mere mention of Monty Kipps is enough to send Howard into a tailspin of apoplectic fits. But when faced with the possibility that his son might marry into the Kipps family, Howard is compelled to try to set things straight—though, as he is wont to do, he only manages to make matters worse.

The other, more important thing Howard is busy botching is his thirty-year marriage to Kiki, an American black woman. Kiki is an intuitive and wise figure, who has an enormous capacity for forgiveness. She and Howard have their differences, which have become more pronounced with time. "He was bookish, she was not; he was theoretical, she political," Smith writes. "She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice."

Not surprisingly, the Belsey children, like their parents, are strong individuals. Jerome becomes a Christian, inviting his agnostic father's scorn; Zora, who considers herself "the essential bridge between Wellington's popular culture and her parents' academic culture," muscles her way into the poetry class taught by Howard's mistress; and Levi, the youngest, adopts a "faux Brooklyn accent," tells friends he's from Roxbury, and when his boss calls him a nigger, quits and joins up with a group of Haitian immigrants fighting for political change. We meet this family at the moment of their unhinging.

With a nod to Aristotle, Zadie Smith believes that fiction is a "hypothetical area" in which to experiment with possible courses of action. On Beauty contemplates ways in which characters make or fail to make moral decisions. It is a meditation on the ideal of the university and the potential perversion of it; the fragility and strength of relationships; and the ways in which society influences perceptions of beauty.

Smith has had the charmed publishing career that most novelists only dream of. Her debut, White Teeth (2000), catapulted her onto the literary scene. Shortlisted for the Man Booker, it won the Whitbread First Novel Award and the BBC snatched up the rights to make it into a television movie. But Smith refuses to be defined by her past successes. She's been quoted calling White Teeth a "baggy monster" and "the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old." Her second novel, Autograph Man (2002), about a young man obsessed with obtaining the autograph of a famous woman, won the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction. On Beauty, a departure from Smith's previous postmodern stylings, has just been named a finalist for this year's Man Booker Prize.

Zadie Smith lives in London with her husband, the writer Nick Laird, and is currently at work on a book of essays titled Fail Better: The Morality of the Novel.

Jessica Murphy

Salman Rushdie
Zadie Smith (Photo by
Roderick Field).

What about E. M. Forster's work made you want to pay, as you say, hommage to him?

I suppose he's my first love fiction-wise. He seems to me a very humane novelist—and one who's actually much more interesting than he appears to be on the surface. He's extremely English. If you're born here, he naturally means a lot to you. Beyond that, I don't really know. I just really like him.

Presented by

Jessica Murphy Moo

Jessica Murphy, a former Atlantic staff editor, is working on a novel. She received an M.F.A. in fiction at Emerson College.

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