On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s third novel, is both a tribute to and a riff on English novelist E. M. Forster’s Howards End, updated as an exploration of the politics of contemporary life. In a book as bold and funny as it is precise and insightful, Smith applies her dazzling powers of description to a middle-class family in the United States. The Belseys are based at a fictional college called Wellington, where earthy African American Kiki, abstract—and English—Howard, and their three searching children seem the picture of modern liberal success. Yet in spite of their outward harmony and privilege, all are eagerly pursuing private agendas. Jerome, the eldest child, is alienated from his secular and liberal family by his conversion to Christianity and attraction to conservatism. Zora, the only daughter, aggressively follows her father’s path, attending Wellington where she adopts a veneer of sophistication and maturity that disguises her insecure heart. The youngest, Levi, longing for an authentic “blackness,” is absorbed into a countercultural identity that belies his class status.
The novel unfolds through a series of unexpected disruptions to the Belsey’s idyllic life. First comes the arrival in town of the Kippses, led by Monty, Howard’s bitter rival in theory and politics. Kipps and his family are, on paper, the Belseys’ opposites: the polished men epitomize a conservative ethic while the decorative women are expected to follow traditional gender roles. Yet the mothers, Carlene and Kiki, form a bond as wives of willful men and as lovers of beauty, a bond that disturbs the balance of distrust between the two families. Additional troubles add to the fray: Howard and Kiki’s marriage is in danger; Jerome falls deeply in love with Monty Kipps’s daughter Victoria; an educated young spoken-word artist enters the Wellington world and Zora’s life; recent immigrants from Haiti transform Levi; and at Wellington Monty Kipps and Howard are on a collision course that threatens Howard’s hard-won status. In these conflicts Smith considers the impact of lies, the humiliation of unrequited love, and the battle between the will of the mind and the desires of the body as each member of the Belsey family questions their previous assumptions about family, race, and morality.
On Beauty is a hilarious, scathing, and emotionally profound novel of human aspiration and failure, an unfailingly perceptive portrait of a struggling marriage, and an empathetic depiction of adolescent struggle. It is also an outsider’s witty look at American cultural life floundering under the weight of political and cultural divisions. Will Howard and Kiki’s marriage survive? How will the feud between Howard and Monty be resolved? Which of the Belsey children are poised to find a true and lasting identity, and which are teetering toward heartbreak? Who will find their true place, and will it be found in family or home, in nationality, abstract theory, or religion? This is Zadie Smith on beauty—exploring who possesses it and who longs for it, who embraces it and who denies it, who exploits it and who is destroyed by it—in a novel both entertaining and wise that consolidates her position as one of the most spellbinding writers of her generation.
Zadie Smith was born in Northwest London in 1975 and still lives in the area. She is the author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and On Beauty.
This is a novel based, both in plot and theme, on E. M. Forster’s Howards End. How did you come to the idea of writing such a book? What is it that appeals to you about Forster’s work?
Forster represents one of the earliest loves of my reading life and the first intimations I ever had of the power and beauty of this funny, artificial little construction, the novel. I wanted to pay tribute to the influence he had on me as a teenager, and as it was a book about Beauty, I wanted the novel also to be a record of beautiful things I’ve loved—novels, pieces of music, certain human faces, paintings, and so on. But I actually think the points where On Beauty meets Howards End are the least interesting bits of the book for me. It was simply a way of writing inside a certain genre: the literary update. I was thinking of things like Graham Swift’s As I lay Dying/Last Orders combo; Joyce using the structure of the Ulysses story; Helen Fielding using Pride and Prejudice—to mention three very disparate examples.
It was a kind of scaffolding for me, but in the end the books only meet properly at two or three points. 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. But now I feel “legitimate” in some way; writing this book helped me feel that. The predictable consequence is that it has freed me up and now I want to be illegitimate. I’ll never write a novel so engaged with tradition again, so linear, so—nineteenth century. I finally feel free to do my own thing. This is a long way of saying, working through my Forster habit has got me to a new place.
What was it like adapting Forster’s ideas about class and home to a modern setting? What were the most crucial differences, for you, between Forster’s context and the world of this novel?
Again, this is really not how I was thinking when I was writing. It was just a little hook to hang a novel on; the actual working out of character and plot is a much more intuitive thing than this question imagines. I didn’t even re-read Howards End. All the theories come after the fact.
To answer your question as a critic and not a novelist, the most obvious difference between England circa 1910 and England now is that the sudden drop in fortunes that Leonard Bast experiences—the free-fall from simply “working-class” to “economic and social oblivion”—is not quite as swift nor as absolute as it used to be. Leonard makes one mistake and is doomed. Carl would have many chances. Then again, the permanent dispossessed—the migrant class—Forster wouldn’t recognize that.
This is a complex novel with many major characters. What do you enjoy most about writing in so many voices? Do the many different points of view emerge organically or do you tend to “mastermind” them all from the beginning, so to speak?
I think the interesting thing is it never occurs to me to write in only one voice. That’s the thing about fiction writers: what seems alarming or particular or perverse about them is simply the shape of their brain—they cannot be otherwise. It’s so exotic to me to read, say, a Douglas Coupland novel and hear this one, mesmeric, first-person voice passing through the whole, but that’s the shape of his brain, and third-person refractions of large families with different voices is the shape of mine. I don’t mastermind it—I can’t help it. I suppose I must enjoy it, but I think the deeper motivation is that I find my strength there. Writing in the first person is completely alien to me—I wouldn’t know where to begin. I do notice that some writers ignore voice, or bring all voices to the same frequency, and this is because their emphasis—their understanding of the difference that makes all the difference—is different from mine. Ian McEwan, for example, clearly at some level feels the great difference between people is their capacity for cruelty. I think the beliefs that novelists hold about character are formed within them when they are very young, long before they actually start writing. For personal reasons to do with my upbringing, the questions of accents, of class-as-revealed-through-voice, weighed very heavily on me. It’s actually an aspect of my fiction, of myself, that I find a little depressing. There are deeper differences between people than the social, but I find it hard to express them without making some reference to the social.
All of the English characters—aside from Howard’s father—live some or most of their lives away from their native land, as you yourself have done. How has living in “exile” changed the way you write? Do you identify in particular with Howard, as an Englishman in America?
Living in “exile” sounds so romantic, but the truth is, I’ve never done it. I have the opposite experience: I live on the same street I was born on and have been in the same half-mile nest of streets for thirty years. I’m very attracted to exile literature—particularly Nabokov—exactly because the idea of being away from home for any serious length of time is so inconceivable to me. But what I saw when I was in America for a brief spell, teaching—and what I hope to see again when I visit Rome for a few months—is how sensuously nostalgic your writing becomes when you’re away. That incredible Nabokovian wistful lyricism, the kind you find in Speak, Memory—that’s what I associate with exile. Or the Joyce who wrote Dubliners while in Trieste. Basically, I only ever leave home so I can feel lonesome for it.
What was it like trying to capture the voices of Americans, especially in the younger characters? Are there characters in this book that you think would only be found in the United States?
I made many, many mistakes with the American dialogue. I knew I would. The same was true of the “Bengali” dialogue inWhite Teeth. If you write about people who aren’t you, that’s always going to happen. You have to ready yourself for the postbag of outraged people telling you no one speaks like that. But I suppose I rebel against that a little; it irritates me when people write to me and say, “A Black American Woman would never say that.” Really? How come? There must be one, somewhere, who just might. No one ever writes and says, “A white man would never say that,” because white men can say anything they like; they can sound like Philip Roth or David Foster Wallace or Marcel Proust. They apparently have the tongue of the world. So I try to listen and make things believable, but a part of me is resistant to the very idea of absolute “correctness” when it comes to human behavior, and I just don’t have that journalistic interest in veracity. People who do will always fling my books across the room, which they are completely free to do. But I guess I like my freedom of making up speech, of making it work in the world of the novel.
This work, as with your others, is at times laugh-out-loud funny. What role does humor play in your writing process? Is it something you try to interject or does it just emerge? Do you consider your work to be satirical?
I really love this quote that I heard George Saunders repeat recently: satire is the imperfect praise of perfection. That’s a very Socratic idea, weeding out the false to incrementally reveal the true, or the true-er. I don’t sit down to write “satire,” and I hate what is usually called “satire,” but you’re absolutely right that a tone of great solemnity is not available to me. When I think of the books I love, there’s always a little laughter in the dark. I love Jane Eyre; I don’t love Wuthering Heights. I love Tolstoy; I don’t love Dostoevsky. I love Joyce; I don’t love Proust. I love Nabokov; I don’t love Pasternak. I don’t think I’m a funny person, but the fiction I grew up on was leavened with humor—I understand the other tradition and I admire it, but I just don’t love it. It never occurs to me to write as, say, A. S. Byatt writes, as I’m sure she would never dream in a squillion years of writing like me. The ironic theme in English writing—and I don’t mean po-mo irony, I mean the irony of someone like Defoe or Dickens—is either in you or it isn’t. Those who find Austen arch and cold and ironical, lacking the kind of intimate and metaphysical commitment of a writer like Emily Brontë cannot be convinced otherwise and vice versa. I appreciate both schools, but I can’t get out of the side I’m on. I don’t think I’d want to, though occasionally I have wet dreams about turning into Iris Murdoch.
Is Wellington based on your own experiences—either as student or teacher—at universities? What aspects of the academic environment do you most like and dislike? How has it influenced you as a writer? Will you continue to teach?
Wellington is based on both—experiences as student and teacher. I think the larger part is based on my student experiences, because they were simply much longer and more substantial. My relationship with universities is very screwy. I wanted to be an academic and planned to be one, and then I started writing White Teeth—ten years of my life vanished into novels. I certainly think of it as the road less traveled, a road I would have liked to go down.
My main feeling is that my time as a student, especially my last year, was genuinely the happiest period of my life. But—BIG BUT—there were many things about academic life that I found unbearably oppressive and absurd. There’s so much of one’s real lived experiences that you have to leave at the gates. There’s something about English departments in particular—a kind of desperate need to be serious, to be professional, to police this very ambiguous and necessarily amorphous act, reading—that I find hard to deal with. English, as a subject, never really got over its upstart nature. It tries to bulk itself up with hopeless jargon and specious complexity, tries to imitate subjects it can never be. I always feel a disappointment coming out of English departments, as if all these brilliant people are gathered and poised to study something and all they have to study is . . . these things? Novels? But they’re so . . . smooshy. It’s as if, at some fundamental level, they consider the novel beneath them. They want something more macho, harder, with a more rigorous structure. It depresses me, how embarrassed some people seem to be about novels, how much they want them to be something else. The flip side of that experience is finding a professor here, a professor there, who is absolutely willing to engage with everything a novel is and face up to its strengths and failures as a human product and allow students to express their most intimate intellectual and emotional experiences of reading. When that happens, there’s no better place to be in a university than in an English department. But when someone is spending a semester explaining to you why Adam Bede is an example of the nineteenth-century pastoral fallacy, that’s a little demoralizing. To me, a university is one of the most precious of human institutions; that’s why when they fall short of their own ideals, you feel so cheated.
Howard and Kiki’s marriage is one of opposites, as you say: “He was bookish, she was not; he was theoretical, she political.” How fundamental are these oppositions? What do you think two such people provide for each other? Do you have an idea in your own mind of where their marriage is headed after the end of the book?
I used to think those differences made all the difference. They don’t mean anything. All that matters is kindness and the capacity to recognize the existence of people other than you. It’s a couple’s relative ability to do that—this is what really matters. Many of the things I was taught to believe were important—tastes, opinions, talents—I don’t believe in their importance any more. I grew up in a family that put all the emphasis on talents: what can you do? My adult life has pushed me toward the understanding that what I can do is neither here nor there, that these are the most superficial elements of a person’s character. The most intimate thing I can tell you about On Beauty is it was a book born out of that realization, and then after I finished it, I realized that writing something is not the same work as living it. The depth of the book comes from the realization, and the shallow parts of it come from me really not having the knowledge I pretend to have. That’s a long way of saying that writing about a thirty-five-year marriage is not the same as living one. The other big news of my adult life is that I can’t live my whole life on the page!
I have absolutely no idea where their marriage is headed. The book ends for me exactly where it ends for you. I have no imagination outside of my books.
9. On Beauty contains some amazing portraits of serious, ambitious women who are struggling with the competing demands of motherhood, sexuality, body issues, career, and ideology. What do you find to be the biggest struggle for contemporary women? What unique challenges, difficulties, or joys do you find in the process of writing about women?
First of all I have to show you an Iris Murdoch quote:
The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy, the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one. . . . This is not easy, and requires, in art or morals, a discipline. One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals.
For me, that project—not giving into personal fantasy, not being deluded, recognizing the inviolability of other people—is seriously complicated by being female. You look at life for women today, it is the very definition of personal fantasy, of self-delusion, and of a narcissism so acute that to read through your average issue of a glamorous women’s magazine is not that different from reading a porn mag—in fact, there are more adoring/self-hating naked female images in the women’s mag. We are fixated on our own image, utterly deluded about our own bodies, about the whole realm of the physical. It’s perfectly normal to open a magazine and hear from an eighty-five-pound woman that starvation is her personal choice, from a woman about to undergo breast augmentation that major unnecessary invasive surgery is a dream come true, or from a prostitute that she loves her job, that she wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world. It’s a pretty extraordinary situation. And these are just the cosmetic struggles—there are women all over the world who live like medieval slaves. So—how to lighten up this answer—well, I guess the really interesting and difficult thing about writing women characters is that you have to deal with the idea of people who lie about themselves constantly and lie to themselves constantly and are maybe so deeply invested in that lie that there really isn’t anything resembling truth left. So that’s tricky. Also, there’s some bleak humor in the gap between women’s ideas of themselves and the reality of their actions. So, for example, the ruling belief shared by men and women is that women aren’t really visually aroused in the same way as men, and that they value romance enormously and that they are frequently cheated on by their husbands. But in fact it’s been demonstrated that women cheat just as much as men, and it is often a purely sexual affair. I find that very interesting—the stories women tell themselves, and the enormous industry that exists to flatter and elaborate their fondest fantasies. But really I guess I’m talking about young women. Something changes when women are forced out of the beauty industry and the marital fantasy industry—I think they become their real selves. Women like Kiki, like Carlene, in their fifties, are a whole different ball game. They are humans, not refracted images of some insane feminine myth. When I was fourteen I thought I hated women, and then when I grew up I realized I just really didn’t like fourteen-year-old girls. I wanted Kiki to be a celebration of a free female consciousness. She’s completely idealized for that reason. But why not? Men get to have heroes—Kiki’s my kind of hero.
In writing about three mixed-race children, you are writing about what many people think is the inevitable future of the human race. Yet each of the Belsey children really seems to struggle to find an identity that works. How do you imagine their futures? What advantages or disadvantages do you see in this inheritance of multiple countries and multiple races?
The Belsey children don’t struggle to find an identity because they’re mixed race, they struggle because they are “of Modernity,” and the product of a twentieth century that invented and patented this piece of claptrap called “finding an identity,” and it drives everybody nuts, mixed race or no. The search for an identity is one of the most wholesale phony ideas we’ve ever been sold. In the twenty-first century it’s almost entirely subsumed in its purest form of “brand identity”—for Levi to be “more black” would simply involve the purchasing of items connected with the idea of blackness. How can anyone be more black? Or more female? It’s like saying “I want to be more nose-having, more leg possessing.” People can only be defined by their actions in a world that contains other people. Sitting on a hill alone screaming “I am a Muslim in the 24–29 age bracket who likes Pepsi and sitcoms about loose bands of interconnected young people in my age group; I am a person who is French and into the things of Frenchness; I am a basketball player; a flower picker . . .” What does it mean? 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 those choices with their brain and hearts and they make them alone. The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful. The Belseys need to weigh situations as they appear before them, and decide what they want and need and must do. It’s a tough, unimaginably lonely and complicated way to be in the world. But that’s the deal: you have to live; you can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.
This is your third novel and it seems, especially in its elaborate and masterful descriptions, your most accomplished. How has the actual practice of writing changed for you? Was On Beauty written in a similar manner to your previous works, or has your work style changed?
I’m glad if that’s true—I’d be disappointed if I thought I hadn’t made at least a little progress since I wrote White Teeth. I was twenty when I started that book—I’m thirty now. The practice of writing has defined me utterly; I never got a chance to do anything else with my life. The past ten years have been spent basically in my study. I’ve worked very hard at trying to make up for what I obviously lack—real lived experience. I’ve tried to rid myself of the belief that I don’t have a real life—a toxic idea. Everybody’s life has an equal reality. But I did feel that the writing in White Teeth is basically adolescent, a very good fake, and, after it’s success, I realized my writing would have to do its maturing and development in public. Most writers don’t have a White Teeth hanging around—they arrive a little more formed with an On Beauty. My juvenilia is on the shelf for anyone to look at. But there’s a lot in On Beauty that is still hamstrung and dutiful to an idea of the novel that I don’t really believe in, intellectually. I think when you say it’s the most accomplished you mean “It looks and smells just like a real novel.” But what’s the point of that really? This is what I have to figure out in the next ten years. 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.
Please talk to us a little about the title, On Beauty. Why did you choose it and what does it mean to you?
It’s not a very interesting answer. I felt a lot of my fiction to be very essayistic, very tick-all-the-boxes, so I wanted to give this one an essay title and do exactly the opposite; be free with it, let it go its own way. I can’t explain it any better than that. My titles always come immediately to me and are never changed. I never really have a very good reason for them apart from the fact that they seemed inevitable.