Zadie Smith’s On Beauty

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

– E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

I hate Zadie Smith. It just isn’t fair that any one person can be that young, that talented, that succesful AND that good-looking. She could at least have had the decency to be a suitably struggling writer, one that you have to ‘discover’ and try and convince your friends to read, instead of being someone the whole world and their multi-cultural step-aunt has already read.

So. In the true Howard Belsey spirit, let me say that On Beauty is not a work of genius. It is a very good book, and a thoroughly enjoyable one, but it falls just a little short of greatness, largely, I suspect, because I can’t help comparing it to Howard’s End, and it suffers in the comparison. Many of the more peripheral characters here seem incompletely worked out, so that their motives and personalities remain obscure and under-articulated. And for all the hype about how the book is a brilliant take on academic life, many of the gags about academia seemed too easy. Certainly, Smith is gloriously funny and spot-on accurate in parts, but her overall view of academia seems a little over-the-top to me, a little too other-worldly. Surely academics are capable of being a little more practical, a little more self-searching than Smith makes them out to be. (In all fairness, I have to say that I’m at least a little in denial here – novels about uptight academics who disapprove of everything on general principle hit a little too close to home for comfort).

Very briefly, On Beauty is a novel about Howard Belsey, a middle-aged academic whose life work is to demythologise Rembrandt, and whose guiding tenet in life is that nothing is great or sacred, his warm and loving wife, Kiki and their three children – Jerome, a sensitive and artistic young man, a born again Christian; Zora, an ambitious and driven young woman and Levi, a teenager stifled by his priviliged background and trying to find a new identity for himself by tapping into ghetto culture. Search for identity, is, in fact, the central theme of the novel – as each of the key protagonists try to define who they are and what they believe in / stand for. In one particularly brilliant moment of the book, Kiki Belsey’s new friend remarks: “I don’t ask myself what did I live for…that is a man’s question. I ask whom did I live for.” It’s this search for what / who one lives for that is at the heart of the book, much as it was in Howard’s End.

Smith tries to take the implications of this search up a notch by making the bulk of her characters African-American, thus bringing the question of racial identity into the forefront of the novel. It’s not clear to me that this adds much to the plot though, except that it serves to emphasise that people are pretty much the same whatever the pigmentation of their skin, and that to think racially is to miss an infinity of finer nuances hidden beneath the broad brush of colour. If there is a larger or more precise message about racial identity in the book, it is one that is lost on me.

Where Smith really comes into her own here is in portraying the interactions among the Belsey family. The dynamic between Kiki and Howard (who is cheating on her), the interaction between Kiki and her children, the one brilliant scene between Howard and his dad – these are for me, the best parts of the book, brimming with both a precision of expression and a profound intution about human relationships, creating scenes that are truly bitter-sweet in their comic intimacy. It is in these little tete-a-tetes that Smith really shines as a writer, and it’s this that makes On Beauty a book well worth reading.

The other big achievement of the book is one that Smith frankly borrows from Forster, though doing it full justice. Howard’s End is a book about the ways in which people cut themselves off from the reality of their feelings, using intellectual pursuits and social conventions to insulate themselves from the raw business of living, and ending up trapped in a growing sense of isolation. In Forster’s novel, the first glimmerings of this trend are only just beginning to being seen, in Smith these tendencies have ossified and isolation, rather than being a growing threat is now a reality to be taken for granted. Belsey’s tragedy is not that he chooses to use his intellectual pretensions to cover up his own insecurities, ridiculing the truths it would destroy him to acknowledge, Belsey’s tragedy is that he is almost smart enough to pull this off. Belsey’s way of asserting his own self is to deny everyone else’s, and as the novel progresses these defenses of his are proven weak, and he is forced to admit that there is, in fact, beauty in the world that cannot be rationalised or explained away. Cut through all the symbolism, all the academic commentary, all the critical clutter, and what you are left with is the pure, undeniable beauty of Rembrandt, and it is these deep truths that we must base our lives on. We do not have to invent being human, we have only to celebrate it.

This recognition is also Forster’s, except that Forster is careful to join the prose and the passion, the sense and the sensibility. The flip-side of Howard’s hyper-intellectualism is the unexamined life, a life where feeling becomes opinion, emotion becomes moral imperative and self-interest can always be justified. This is where the Kipps family should have come in – with Monty Kipps, Belsey’s opponent in all things becoming the embodiment of the man who is closed to reason except as a tool to justify his own acts – but Smith never quite manages to give the Kipps family the emphasis it deserves. Carlene Kipps puts in a brief but glorious cameo, but the other members of the Kipps family – Monty, Victoria – while playing a critical role in the plot, never quite come alive as characters in their own right, remaining mere agents in the Belsey’s journey to self-discovery. This leaves the book feeling fairly lop-sided. The fact that the Belsey’s are so overwhelmingly the focus of the book may reflect Smith’s own natural biases, as well as those of her readers, but it would be too easy, if one were to step outside the finely nuanced web that Smith weaves, to see this as the story of the come-uppance awaiting liberal intellectuals, and that, one hopes, is entirely not the point.

Bottomline: There is a point in On Beauty where Kiki observes that as the years pass their family stories become more stylised, more beautiful, but less true. As a re-telling of Howard’s End, On Beauty is elaborate and finely worked, rich in detail, much funnier and considerably more up-to-date. But it lacks, for me, the urgency of the original, the directness of its engagement, the classical elegance of its prose (just compare the description of Mozart’s Requiem in On Beauty to the corresponding concert scene in Howard’s End – Chapter 5 – and you’ll see what I mean). If you haven’t read Howard’s End, go read that first – it’s a much sublimer book; if you have read it, On Beauty is about the most pleasurable ways of re-discovering it that I can think of.

P.S. I should say that it’s been a while since I read Howard’s End – so that my memory of it is a little hazy, and much of what I say here may be little more than nostalgia.

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