However much you might tell yourself that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, first impressions count. So I have to admit that from the moment Zadie Smith walked into the room at the Free Word Centre, I was captivated. She is elegant, stylish, and beautiful: the cover design hinted at the class act within. During her introduction by Lisa Appignanesi, President of English PEN, it soon also became apparent that she is remarkably self-effacing – her modesty all the more endearing for its fierce honesty.
Smith began by noting that the essays collected in Changing My Mind were eclectic, and that different people in her life had responded to different pieces. Her little brother, for example, had only really appreciated the film reviews and the literary theory had left him cold. She then announced her intention to read from three of the essays in the collection, assuring the audience that, not to worry, if they didn’t like the current one, another one would be along in a minute.
Smith kicked off with an excerpt from ‘Rereading Barthes and Nabokov’. On first sight, this might appear deliberately or exclusively intellectual. Not so with Smith, as she effortlessly brought alive the debate engaging these two seemingly antagonistic characters. She concluded that whilst Nabokov saw the Author as representing the ultimate in individual Western freedom, “Barthes saw precisely the same thing but didn’t like it.” Whilst Barthes’ hands are bloodied with the death of the Author, the Nabokovian Author’s “sensibility, his sensations, his memories, and his mode for expressing it all – these had to be unique. So proud of his own genius, so particular about his interpretations, Nabokov refused to lie down and die.”
From a house strewn with both the dead and steadfastly surviving Authors, we moved seamlessly to a review of Brief Encounter. Smith opened with a eulogy for the films her late father was able to see at their opening weekends – Brief Encounter, Woman of the Year, Top Hat. “I have never seen a movie of the [1940s] in which there was not something to like,” Smith declared, “just as I have never come across a cheese I wouldn’t eat. Brief Encounter is a Wensleydale: a lovely slice of English fare, familiar, inadvertently comic.” Whilst I enjoyed the cheese metaphor and was interested in finding out how other films of the period would fare on the cheeseboard, Smith quickly drew us away from the fromagerie and any mistaken association of Brief Encounter with a sense of comedy or parody. “The film is really about the dream life of the English, those secret parts of us that are most important and to which we have least access Lean’s sad, buttoned-up account of unconsummated love is about all of us and our cautious natures [U]nlike our European cousins, we will not easily give up the real for the dream.”
Despite this analysis of our national psyche, Smith concludes that the film actually offers “a different hypothesis: that the possibility of two people’s pleasure cannot override the certainty of other people’s pain. Primum non nocere is the principle upon which the film operates. As a national motto we could do a lot worse.”
The third and final excerpt, from the book’s penultimate essay, ‘Dead man laughing’, prompted by far the most emotional response of the evening – both in humour and sadness. Dedicated to Smith’s father, Harvey, who passed away while this collection was being compiled, it explores his (and his family’s) relationship with British comedy: “My father had few enthusiasms, but he loved comedy. [ ] We knew the ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch by heart. We had the usual religious feeling for Monty Python’s Life of Brian. If we were notable in any way, it was not in kind but in extent. In our wood cabinet music centre, comedy records outnumbered The Beatles. The Goons’ ‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas’ got an airing all year long. We liked to think of ourselves as particular, on guard against slapstick’s easy laughs.”
The opening of the essay is filled with Smith’s reminiscences of her father’s comedy snobbery. They showcase her easy wit and charm – it’s entertaining writing. But then she pulls a fast one. By the mid point of the piece, we are with Zadie at her father’s nursing home in Felixstowe, where, stumped for conversation, they end up watching the entire boxed set of Fawlty Towers together “for the umpteenth time”. The pointlessness of Basil’s tree-branch attack of an Austin 1100 seeming “analogous to our own situation.” Smith turns what, on the face of it, could have been no more than a light and witty riff about watching funny telly with her Dad, into a painful and insightful exposition on life, death and the absurdity of it all.
Following the readings, there was brief discussion between Smith and the event’s host, Lisa Appignanesi. The conversation touched on the necessity of openness in literary criticism and ambivalence as positive authorial attribute; on the importance to Smith’s process of writing fiction of starting with a first line, and of when drafting a novel, of rereading the manuscript from start to finish every day before starting work – which, towards the end of White Teeth, was proving difficult.
Smith then graciously took questions from a keen English PEN audience, responding to queries about Englishness, particularly in E.M. Forster; her writing process and her many literary voices; the split that occurs between the theory and practical implications of multiculturalism and how this has affected Smith – or more particularly, depictions of Zadie Smith – throughout her career.
Smith finished by kindly answering my question, which was about book covers. I recently became aware of someone I know whose first novel, an excellent work of literary fiction, has recently come out in paperback. To my mind, last year’s hardback design fitted with the work; it was stylish and elegant and suggested an intelligent read. The paperback seems to have been launched with a design aimed to appeal at the reader of chick-lit. I asked if Smith had ever had to argue over a book design with a publisher. Her response was a typically humble one: she said that she was always so pleased when a publisher agreed to publish her work that she never felt the need to argue over what went on the dust jacket.
Report By Ruth Goldsmith
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/zadiesmith-changingmymind/