Last night was my monthly book club meeting. I led the discussion for the book On Beauty by Zadie Smith. What follows is the essentials of my presentation.
Zadie Smith was born in October 1975 in Brent, a mainly working class area of Northwest London. She was born Sadie but at 14 changed her name to Zadie. Her mother was Jamaican and emigrated to England in 1969. Her father is English. Her parents divorced when Zadie was a teenager.
She studied English literature at King’s College, Cambridge. While she was in college Smith published some short stories and a publisher offered her a contract for publishing her first novel. She decided to get an agent. After reviewing little more than the first chapter the Wylie agency took her on.
Her first novel, White Teeth was auctioned off to publishers even before it was completed. It became an immediate best seller when it was published in 2000. White Teeth sold more than 1.5 million copies to English language readers and was translated into almost 30 languages.
Her second novel, The Autograph Man was published in 2002. It was a success but was not as well received by reviewers as White Teeth.
After The Autograph Man was published Smith became a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard. She took a variety of literature courses and taught a class called “20th Century Reading for 21st Century Writers”. The class was “an examination of the formal mastery of a clutch of 20th century novelists concentrating on how their individual practices might assist aspiring 21st century writers”
On Beauty is Smith’s third novel. It was published in September of 2005.
Zadie Smith married the poet Nick Laird in 2004. They live in Kilburn, North London. The poems in On Beauty are from his collection To a Fault.
Her younger brother Ben is a youth group worker at a local school, working largely with the children of refugees and asylum seekers but he is also working on a career as the British rapper Doc Brown. He contributed some of Carl Thomas’s imaginary lyrics in On Beauty.
Most of the above information comes from the Wikipedia article on Zadie Smith.
The Booker Prize
On Beauty was short listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize.
The Booker is given for the best original full-length novel written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland in the English language. Other books on the 2005 short list included Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro , Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, and The Accidental by Ali Smith. The winner was The Sea by John Banville.
Interestingly enough the 2006 Booker Prize winner was announced last night. From the press release…
“Kiran Desai was tonight (Tuesday 10th October) named the winner of the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for The Inheritance of Loss, published by Hamish Hamilton.”
“The Indian-born writer has a strong family tie with the prize as her mother Anita Desai has been shortlisted three times since 1980 but has never won. This year, however, her daughter, Kiran, has won the acclaimed literary prize.”
“Author of the 1998 universally praised Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, Desai is the first woman to win the Man Booker since 2000 when Margaret Atwood scooped the prize with The Blind Assassin. Her winning book, The Inheritance of Loss, is a radiant, funny and moving family saga and has been described by reviewers as ‘the best, sweetest, most delightful novel’. ”
The other 2006 shortlisted titles were:
Kate Grenville – The Secret River
M.J. Hyland – Carry Me Down
Hisham Matar – In the Country of Men
Edward St Aubyn – Mother’s Milk
Sarah Waters – The Night Watch
Points for Discussion
The End of an Apprenticeship?
Smith wrote a review of her own first novel White Teeth for a literary magazine. In it she said “A twenty-three year old first time novelist is fortunate indeed if one out of every fifty sentences is truly their own. And by this I mean not only its subject but its rhythm, syntax, punctuation, and, should it aspire towards comedy; its punchline. To her credit, there are moments when Smith manages this… but often she doesn’t”
On Beauty was written almost 10 years after White Teeth during which time Smith did a lot of work to study the novel form. Reviewer Wyatt Mason in the October 2005 issue of Harpers Magazine says that “it would not be unreasonable to expect that … On Beauty, could prove to be the culmination of her ambition to write a novel “truly her own”… she shows new writerly confidence and poise. There is less of the showboating prose that too often marred White Teeth.”
Smith based the novel on E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howard’s End. I haven’t read Howard’s End but apparently it starts with Helen’s letters to her sister about her falling in love with someone from a different class and On Beauty starts with Jerome’s emails about falling in love with Victoria. Switched umbrellas become switched CD players and an inherited house becomes an inherited painting.
The reviewer Mason says that Smith “has yet to sit down to show what she can do. Instead she has shown who can do – pretty much anyone.”
In an interview on the Penguin web site Zadie Smith says “I suppose I still think of myself as an apprentice, and this was the end of one part of my apprenticeship – ‘learning to write an English novel’ I know many people think of me as too slavish to that tradition, but that’s because I grew up feeling so far from every tradition; I overcompensated. Working through my Forster habit has got me to a new place."
Another reviewer Andrew Hay, in the Spring 2006 Oxonian Review of Books says says “One suspects that Smith’s own narrative powers will truly bloom when she, unlike her sad characters, is able to write ‘as she really is,’ rather than as validated by her homage to Forster. If On Beauty is indicative of a novelist still in the process of realizing her own novelistic identity, the future looks promising and it will surely be worth the wait."
Too many characters? and too unbelievable an ending?
Reviewer Mason says that “Smith has put so many characters into the mix and made them dance through so many rooms that she succumbs – by way of trying to tidy her narrative tensions – to an ending in which her characters adopt attitudes so incongruous with what she has established for them, so emotionally unconvincing, that they instantly liquidate the steady deposits of belief Smith had earned early on.”
Examples of this include that when Howard sleeps with his son’s ex girl friend who is also a student there is no sign of the “ seriousness of his transgression.” His family “implausibly remain fundamentally supportive and nonjudgmental”. His wife attend his lecture, his children hate him but still live with him.
Human Relationships and a Sense of Self
Reviewer Andrew Hay says that “On Beauty offers the reader some remarkably subtle observations of human relationships at the individual and familial levels in the world.” He says that with the possible exception of Carlene Kipps, every character in this novel experiences a separation between immediate self and his or her idea of that self. Indeed Howard’s theory that the appeal of Rembrandt’s portraits lies in an innate human need for external reinforcements of one’s self and one’s place in the world is deeply entrenched in the relationships On Beauty presents.”
Zadie Smith says “The search for an identity is one of the most wholesale phony ideas we’ve ever been sold…… The Belsey children need to stop worrying about their identity and concern themselves with the people they care about, ideas that matter to them, beliefs they can stand by, tickets they can run on. Intelligent humans make these choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone.
What Could be Left Out?
Reviewer Hay also says “ the novel’s comedic tone is wonderfully preserved. That said, more forceful editorial intervention might have saved certain parts of the novel that seem tiresomely overlong and uneven intone.”
In her Interview on the Penguin web site Smith says “I think the biggest change in me and my writing is the realization that in the end my best work might be nonfiction. I’m writing criticism now and I feel so much more confident and happy about it. It allows me to express my passion, which is really other people’s fiction. I find it hard to express anything really personal to me in the fiction: I’m too self conscious. But maybe that will change."
Just as the house in Howard’s End is the key symbol in On Beauty the key symbol is the painting Maitresse Erzulie by the Haitian painter Hector Hyppolite.
The painting that Howard uses for the first class of the semester is Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.
My opinion of the On Beauty
Zadie Smith is certainly a very talented writer. Her dialog, her settings and her characters become very real as you read On Beauty. You can’t help liking these people most of the time.They become so real that I had to do the equivalent of what I do in embarrassing scenes in a movie when I cover my eyes. As I read On Beauty I had to skip over a couple of scenes in which Howard makes a complete ass of himself. By the end I really don’t like Howard.
I know the book intentionally leaves a lot of things unresolved but for me that makes the ending very unsatisfying. In spite of that I enjoyed On Beauty and agree with the reviewers that Zadie Smith is an amazing writer. It will be very interesting to see what she does next.