Zadie Smith: Excerpts

Fiction

From White Teeth:

Book cover image for White Teeth
Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 0627 hours on January 1, 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate facedown on the steering wheel, hoping the judgment would not be too heavy upon him. He lay in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed on either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signaling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by the results. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact, it was a New Year’s resolution.

            But even as his breathing became spasmodic and his lights dimmed, Archie was aware that Cricklewood Broadway would seem a strange choice. Strange to the first person to notice his slumped figure through the windshield, strange to the policemen who would file the report, to the local journalist called upon to write fifty words, to the next of kin who would read them. Squeezed between an almighty concrete cinema complex at one end and a giant intersection at the other, Cricklewood was no kind of place. It was not a place a man came to die. It was a place a man came to in order to go other places via the A41. But Archie Jones didn’t want to die in some pleasant, distant woodland, or on a cliff edge fringed with delicate heather. The way Archie saw it, country people should die in the country and city people should die in the city. Only proper. In death as he was in life and all that. It made sense that Archibald should die on this nasty urban street he had ended up, living alone at the age of forty-seven, in a one-bedroom flat above a deserted chip shop. He wasn’t the type to make elaborate plans—suicide notes and funeral instructions—he wasn’t the type for anything fancy. All he asked for was a bit of silence, a bit of shush so he could concentrate. He wanted it to be perfectly quiet and still, like the inside of an empty confessional or the moment in the brain between thought and speech. He wanted to do it before the shops opened.

            Overhead, a gang of the local flying vermin took off from some unseen perch, swooped, and seemed to be zeroing in on Archie’s car roof—only to perform, at the last moment, an impressive U-turn, moving as one with the elegance of a curve ball and landing on the Hussein-Ishmael, a celebrated halal butchers. Arche was too far gone to make a big noise about it, but he watched them with a warm internal smile as they deposited their load, streaking white walls purple. He watched them stretch their peering bird heads over the Hussein-Ishmael gutter; he watched them watch the slow and steady draining of blood from the dead things—chickens, cows, sheep—hanging on their hooks like coats around the shop. The Unlucky. These pigeons had an instinct for the Unlucky, and so they passed Archie by. For, though he did not know it, and despite the Hoover tube that lay on the passenger seat pumping from the exhaust pipe into his lungs, luck was with him that morning. The thinnest covering of luck was on him like fresh dew. While he slipped in and out of consciousness, the position of the planets, the music of the spheres, the flap of a tiger moth’s diaphanous wings in Central Africa, and a whole bunch of other stuff that Makes Shit Happen had decided it was second-chance time for Archie. Somewhere, somehow, by somebody, it had been decided that he would live.

(pp. 3-4)


From On Beauty:

Book cover image for On Beauty

Mozart’s Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit. The pit is on the other side of precipice, which you cannot see over until you are right at its edge. Your death is awaiting you in that pit. You don’t know what it looks like or sounds like or smells like. You don’t know whether it will be good or bad. You just walk towards it. Your will is a clarinet and your footsteps are attended by all the violins. The closer you get to the pit, the more you begin to have the sense that what awaits you there will be terrifying. Yet you experience this terror as a kind of blessing, a gift. Your long walk would have had no meaning were it not for this pit at the end of it. You peer over the precipice; a burst of ethereal noise rashes over you. In the pit is a great choir, like the one you joined for two months in Wellington in which you were the only black woman. This choir is the heavenly host and simultaneously the devil’s army. It is also every person who has changed you during your time on this earth: your many lovers; your family; your enemies, the nameless, faceless woman who slept with your husband; the man you thought you were going to marry; the man you did. The job of this choir is judgement. The men sing first, and their judgement is very severe. And when the women join in there is no respite, the debate only grows louder and sterner. For it is a debate — you realize that now. The judgement is not yet decided. It is surprising how dramatic the fight for your measly soul turns out to be. Also surprising are the mermaids and the apes that persist on dancing around each other and sliding down an ornate staircase during the Kyrie, which, according to the programme notes, features no such action, even in the metaphorical sense.

Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

That is all that happens in the Kyrie. No apes, just Latin. But for Kiki it was apes and mermaids all the same. The experience of listening to an hour’s music you barely know in a dead language you do not understand is a strange falling and rising experience. For minutes at a time you are walking deep into it, you seem to understand. Then, without knowing how or when exactly, you discover you have wandered away, bored or tired from the effort, and now you are nowhere near the music. You refer to the programme notes. The notes reveal that the past fifteen minutes of wrangling over your soul have been merely the repetition of a single inconsequential line. Somewhere around the Confutatis, Kiki’s careful tracing of the live music with the literal programme broke down. She didn’t know where she was now. In the Lacrimosa or miles ahead? Stuck in the middle or nearing the end? She turned to ask Howard, but he was asleep. A glimpse to her right revealed Zora concentrating on her DIscman, through which a recording of the voice of a Professor N. R. A. Gould carefully guided her through each movement. Poor Zora — she lived through footnotes. It was the same in Paris: so intent was she upon reading the guide book to Sacré-Coeur that she walked directly into an altar, cutting her forehead open.

            Kiki tipped her head back on her deckchair and tried to let go of her curious anxiety. The moon was massive overhead, and mottled like the skin of old white people. Or maybe  it was that Kiki noted many older white people with their faces turned up towards the moon, their heads resting on the back of their deckchairs, their hands dancing gently in their lap in a way that suggested enviable musical knowledge. Yet surely no one among these white people could be more musical than Jerome, who, Kiki now noticed, was crying. She opened her mouth with genuine surprise and then, fearful of breaking some spell, closed it again. The tears were silent and plentiful. Kiki felt moved, and then another feeling interceded: pride. I don’t understand, she thought, but he does. A young black man of intelligence and sensibility, and I have raised him. After all, how many other young black men would even come to an event like this — I bet there isn’t one in the entire crowd, though Kiki, and then checked and was mildly annoyed to find that indeed there was one, a tall young man with an elegant neck, sitting next to her daughter. Undeterred, Kiki continued her imaginary speech to the imaginary guild of black American mothers: And there’s no big secret, not at all, you just need to have faith, I guess, and you need to counter the dismal self-image that black men receive as their birthright from America — that’s essential — and, I don’t know ... get involved in after-school activities, have books around the house, and sure, have a little money, and a house with outdoor... Kiki abandoned her parental reverie for a moment to tug at Zora’s sleeve and point out the marvel of Jerome, as if these tears were rolling down the cheek of a stone madonna. Zora glanced over, shrugged and returned to Professor Gould. Kiki returned her own gaze to the moon. So much more lovely than the sun and you can look at it without fear of harm. A few minutes later, she was preparing to make a final, concentrated effort to match the sung words with the text on the page when suddenly it was over. She was so surprised she came late to the clapping, although not as late as Howard, whom it had only just awoken.

(pp. 69-71)


From NW:

Book cover image for NW

Elsewhere in London, offices are open plan/floor-to-ceiling glass/sites of synergy/wireless/gleaming. There persists a belief in the importance of a ping-pong table. Here is not there. Here offices are boxy cramped Victorian damp. Five people share them, the carpet is threadbare, the hole-punch will never be found. [...]

            Here a nation’s bad bets morph into a semblance of the collective good: after-school play groups, translation services, garden clearance for the elderly, quilting for prisoners. Five women work here, their backs to each other. Further down the hall, the rumor of a man—Leah has never seen him. This work requires empathy and so attracts women, for women are the empathic sex. This is the opinion of Adina George, Team Leader, who speaks, who will not stop speaking. Adina’s mouth opens and closes.

Tooth gold tooth tooth gap tooth tooth tooth
TONGUE
Tooth tooth tooth tooth chipped tooth filling

Former prison guard, social worker, local councilor. How did she get anything done with those talons? Long and curved and painted with miniature renderings of the Jamaican flag. Clawed her way up through the system. Born and bred. Is wary of those, like Leah, whose degrees have thus installed them. To Adina a university degree is like a bungee cord, lowering in and pulling out with dangerous velocity. Of course, you won’t be here long. Look, I don’t want to give you projects you’re not going to be here to finish…

            Six years have gone by: such things aren’t said anymore. It occurred to Leah today, when Adina referred to her as “the graduate,” that no-one—not the institution that conferred it, not her peers, not the job market itself—has a higher estimation of the value of her degree than Adina. [...]

            Question: what happened to her classmates, those keen young graduates, most of them men? Bankers, lawyers. Meanwhile Leah, a state-school wild card, with no Latin, no Greek, no Maths, no foreign language, did badly—by the standards of the day—and now sits on a replacement chair borrowed six years ago from the break-room, just flooded with empathy. Right foot asleep. Computer screen frozen. IT nowhere to be seen. No air-conditioning. Adina going on and on, doing that thing to language that she does. [...]

            This too will pass. Four forty-five. Zig, zag. Tick. Tock. Sometimes bitterness makes a grab for Leah. Pulls her down, holds her. What was the point of it all? Three years of useless study. Out of pocket, out of her depth. It was only philosophy in the first place because she was scared of dying and thought it might help and because she could not add or draw or remember lists of facts or speak a language other than her own. In the university prospectus, an italic script over a picture of the Firth of Forth: Philosophy is learning how to die. Philosophy is listening to warbling posh boys, it is being more bored than you have ever been in your life, more bored than you thought it possible to be. It is wishing yourself anywhere else, in a different spot somewhere in the multiverse which is a concept you will never truly understand. In the end, only one idea reliably retained: time as a relative experience, different for the jogger, the lover, the tortured, the leisured. Like right now, when a minute seems to stretch itself into an hour. Otherwise useless. An unpaid, growing debt. Along with a feeling of resentment: what was the purpose of preparing for a life never intended for her? Years too disconnected from everything else to feel real. Edinburgh’s dour hill-climb and unexpected-alley, castle-shadow and fifty pence whisky chaser, WalterScottStone and student loan shopping. Out of her mouth: a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone. Never, never forgotten: the bastard in that first class, sniggering. I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY, Leah writes, and doodles passionately around it. Great fiery arcs, long pointed shadows.

(pp. 34-37)


From Swing Time:

Book cover image for Swing Time

If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand. There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same—as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both—and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height. But my face was ponderous and melancholy, with a long, serious nose, and my eyes turned down, as did my mouth. Tracey’s face was perky and round, she looked like a darker Shiley Temple, except her nose was as problematic as mind, I could see that much at once, a ridiculous nose—it went straight up in the air like a little piglet. Cute, but also obscene: her nostrils were on permanent display. On noses you could call it a draw. On hair she won comprehensively. She had spiral curls, they reached to her backside and were gathered into two long plaits, glossy with some kind of oil, tied at their ends with satin yellow bows. Satin yellow bows were a phenomenon unknown to my mother. She pulled my great frizz back in a single cloud, tied with a black band. My mother was a feminist. She was her hair in a half-inch Afro, her skull was perfectly shaped, she never wore make-up and dressed us both as plainly as possible. Hair is not essential when you look like Nefertiti. She’d no need of make-up or products or jewelry or expensive clothes, and in this way her financial circumstances, her politics and her aesthetic were all perfectly—conveniently—matched. Accessories only cramped her style, including, or so I felt at the time, the horse-faced seven-year-old by her side. Looking across at Tracey I diagnosed the opposite problem: her mother was white, obese, afflicted with acne. She wore her thin blond hair pulled back very tightly in what I knew my mother would call a “Kilburn facelift.” But Tracey’s personal glamour was the solution: she was her own mother’s most striking accessory. The family look, though not to my mother’s taste, I found captivating: logos, tin bangles and hoops, diamanté everything, expensive trainers of the kind my mother refused to recognize as a reality in the world— “Those aren’t shoes.” Despite appearances, though, there was not much to choose between our two families. We were both from the estates, neither of us received benefits. (A matter of pride for my mother, an outrage to Tracey’s: she had tried many times—and failed—to “get on the disability.”) In my mother’s view it was exactly these superficial similarities that lent so much weight to questions of taste. She dressed for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive.

(pp. 9-10)


Nonfiction

From “Fences: A Brexit Diary”:

Book cover image for Feel Free

For many people in London right now the supposedly multicultural and cross-class aspects of their lives are actually represented by their staff—nannies, cleaners—by the people who pour their coffees and drive their cabs, or else the handful of Nigerian princes you meet in the private schools. The painful truth is that fences are being raised everywhere in London. Around school districts, around neighborhoods, around lives. One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal and deep fracture in British society that has been thirty years in the making. The gaps between north and south, between the social classes, between Londoners and everyone else, between rich Londoners and poor Londoners, and between white and brown and black, are real and need to be confronted by all of us, not only those who voted Leave.

            Amid all the hysterical characterization of those Leavers in the immediate aftermath—not least my own—I paused and thought of a young woman I had noticed in the playground the year my daughter spent in that school in special measures. She was a mother, like the rest of us, but at least fifteen years younger. After walking behind her up the hill to my house a few times I figured out she lived in the same housing estate in which I myself grew up. The reason I noticed her at all was because my daughter happened to be deeply enamored of her son. A playdate was the natural next step.

            But I never took that next step and neither did she. I didn’t know how to penetrate what I felt was the fear and loathing she seemed to have for me, not because I was black—I saw her speaking happily with the other black mothers—but because I was middle class. She had seen me open the shiny black door to the house opposite her estate, just as I had seen enter the estate’s stairwell each day. I remembered these fraught episodes from childhood, when things were the other way around. Could I ask the girl in the big fine house on the park into our cramped council flat? And later, when we moved up to a perfectly nice flat on the right side of Willesden, could I then visit my friend in a rough one on the wrong side of Kilburn?

            The answer was, usually, yes. Not without tension, not without occasional mortifying moments of social comedy or glimpses of domestic situations bordering on tragedy—but still it was yes. Back then, we were all still willing to take the “risk,” is “risk” is the right word to describe entering into the lives of others, not merely in symbol but in reality. But in this new England it felt, to me at least, impossible. To her, too, I think. The gap between us has become too large.

In Feel Free: Essays, pp. 20-34; and
The New York Review of Books, 18 Aug. 2016


From “Alte Frau by Balthasar Denner”:

What interests me most about the channel between the Alte Frau and myself is how utterly indifferent she is to it. As far as eighteenth-century portraits of women are concerned this is unusual. In Ways of Seeing, Berger argues that portraits of women in the European tradition are constructed around the concept of availability. The Venus of Urbino, for example, offers eternal sexual receptiveness—to the viewer. Everything about her body is arranged in response to our erotic attention. You don’t need to be an art theorist to know this [...] She exists to be observed, and what consciousness she has is restricted to consciousness of this. I see you looking at me.

The Alte Frau, on the other hand, seems to me some way past such considerations. For one, she looks resolutely away. No matter how I angle her or move myself in relation to her, I will never catch her eye. Whether I look at her or not appears to be a matter of completely irrelevance, to her. Berger, on Woman: “From earliest childhood, she is told to survey herself continually. Behind every glance is a judgment … Those who are judged not beautiful are not beautiful—those who are, are given the prize. The prize is to be owned—that is to say: available.” But the Alte Frau is unavailable. Age has put her outside the bounds of that contest. And perhaps (this painting suggests, to me) it is not so awful to be, once and for all, placed outside of that contest. It is fascinating to learn that when Balthasar Denner showed the Alte Frau to a pair of respected Dutch painters and art critics—Adrien van der Werff and Karel van Mander—they were so stunned by it they could compare it only to the enigma of the Mona Lisa. Is it possible that what men consider to enigmatic in women is actually agency?

In Feel Free: Essays, pp. 173-180.


From “Joy”:

It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience. And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that I experience at least a little pleasure every day. I wonder if this is more than the usual amount? It was the same even in childhood when most people are miserable. I don’t think this is because so many wonderful things happen to me but rather that the small things go a long way. I seem to get more than the ordinary satisfaction out of food, for example—any old food. An egg sandwich from one of these grimy food vans on Washington Square has the genuine power to turn my day around. Whatever is put in front of me, foodwise, will usually get a five-star review.

You’d think that people would like to cook for, or eat with, me—in fact I’m told it’s boring. Where there is no discernment there can be no awareness of expertise or gratitude for special effort. “Don’t say that was delicious,” my husband warns, “you say everything’s delicious.” “But it was delicious.” It drives him crazy. All day long I can look forward to a popsicle. The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavor of something good in my mouth. And though it’s true that when the flavor is finished the anxiety returns, we do not have so many reliable sources of pleasure in this life as to turn our nose up at one that is so readily available, especially here in America. A pineapple popsicle. Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.

In Feel Free: Essays, pp. 427-435; and
The New York Review of Books, 10 Jan. 2013.


Selections by Laura Marostica.
Stanford Libraries, 2018.