by zadie smith
penguin, 464 pages, $15 (paperback)
In On Beauty, British writer Zadie Smith has turned her attention to the post-September 11 United States and has been widely praised for the result, which is a big comic novel that builds a topical tale on a classic foundation. Cleverly paying homage to E.M. Forster, she has moved his Howards End—the archetypal story of liberals versus conservatives in an imperial democracy—from Edwardian England to George W. Bushean Boston and entered into our nation's “culture wars” by embodying them in the clash of two families in an American university town. Even better, Smith has added to Forster's old-fashioned tale some up-to-date racial material, making her conservative family black Caribbeans, while her liberal family is composed of mixed-race African Americans. Reviewers have declared that the resulting “delicious complications” are rendered in writing that has “stylistic flair,” with “leisured cadences and playful figuration” and “many beautiful descriptions.”
I'm sorry to say that I'm left unpersuaded by claims for the novel's virtues, beginning with the virtues of its prose. Lavish in quantity and radiating self-satisfaction, garrulous yet precious, it is a prose apparently indifferent to its actual effects, whether it is describing landscapes (“The sky had misted over slightly, allowing the sun to cast itself in a misleading godly role. It shone beneficence in thin rods of Renaissance light, thrusting through a landscaped cloud that seemed designed for the purpose”) or persons (“She was neatly made with the minimum of material. When she moved a finger, you could trace the motion through pulleys of veins that went all the way up her slender arms and shoulders to her neck, itself elegantly creased like the lungs of an accordion”). Forced images and near misses abound. There's this: “‘Monty Kipps?' repeated Kiki, each word encased in the double ripple of a dead laugh. She felt shock shudder through Jerome, radiating out.” And this: “Kiki turned to her husband with a thesis for a face, of which only Howard could know every line and reference.” And this: “Claire's tensile features pulled themselves tight with glee.”
My tensile features did not pull themselves tight with glee as I labored through 440 pages of this stuff, determined to read the book despite her repellent industriousness. She is an indefatigable writer who seems to lack the sense for audience that can make a writer into an author. Her output is generous, but she occupies each page so completely that she leaves no room for the reader. Virginia Woolf once observed that “a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes”—that is, into places where a reader may enter. Smith's book is made of sentences laid end to end, coupled together, and pulled along unstoppably, interminably. To read On Beauty is to be stuck at a level railroad crossing, watching boxcars of novelistic material go racketing through.
This noisy forwardness will remind no one of E.M. Forster, who not only wrote competently but in many places in Howards End exhibits precision, suggestiveness, and genuine lyricism. More important than this difference in style is a difference in substance, however. Forster's novel explores a fundamental and perennial problem in democratic societies: the relation between the business class and the intellectual class, and it does so with passion and a surprising degree of fairness. (D.H. Lawrence scolded Forster for “glorifying those business people.”)
Instead of following Forster's lead and creating some serious comedy for our time, Smith chooses to toy with stale stereotypes—hypocritical Christians, inhumane academics—in which even she, to judge by her careless handling of them, is not much interested.
Forster's novel of 1910 depicts some attractive liberals (two orphaned sisters who live by a code of “personal relations” above all) in confrontation with some unattractive conservatives (a powerful mercantile family that trusts in “telegrams and anger”). The liberals, though badly overmatched, emerge as the moral victors, and the prize is theirs by virtue of their virtue, the prize being a country estate called Howards End (which, of course, represents England, or, more precisely, the soul of England).
Liberal readers of the book have generally been pleased with this outcome. But Forster also sets a deeper problem: He makes clear that both the commercial-imperialist crowd and the intellectual-cosmopolitan crowd, antagonists though they be, are fellow members of the stockholding crowd. In a word, they all have money. His liberal heroine stands out because she faces liberalism's need for money to sustain itself. “More and more,” says Margaret, “I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.” This opens her to fateful intercourse with the capitalists, one of whom she eventually marries. The novel teaches, furthermore, that classes without money are not merely disabled but are fatally impaired. The moneyless character, a lowly clerk who presumes to ask the commercial crowd for some modest employment and the literary crowd for a modicum of culture, is given neither. He drops dead of his penury—the diagnosis is a “diseased heart”—on the very doorstep of Howards End.
This was a great theme for a novel set in England then, and it's even better for one set in America today. In 1910, plausible dreams of replacing capitalism were still more or less innocently incubating, but, in the years since, they have all run their nightmare course. Yet even as capitalism has proven itself, contempt for it among its beneficiaries has grown. Among American liberals, Margaret's sneer has metastasized into a permanent rictus that its wearers regard not as a deformity but as a mark of distinction. The relation between our intellectual class and our business class is so poisonous as to be toxic to the whole body politic. Meanwhile, globalization makes its growing demands on both classes. We have a worried middle class and an angry underclass, and we find ourselves engaged in a confusing worldwide war in which our main activity on the home front has been to bicker about whom the foreign aggressors hate more, us secular liberals or us religious conservatives.
What does Smith do with all this rich material in her Howards End Redux? Not a thing. The war gets ten lines, Jihadism gets none, September 11 is ignored, the suffering body politic doesn't get a glance, and the business class never shows its face. Instead of Forster's contention between intellectuals and businessmen, Smith features an intramural squabble among the intellectuals. On the right, she puts a conservative Christian professor of art history and his family, and on the left she puts another art historian, also en famille, who is an atheist, materialist, and deconstructionist to his soul, as it were.
This might still have been a fight worth watching, except that Smith has taken care to obviate any possibility of genuine confrontation. She shows in detail that the left-wing prof is a mediocre intellectual and a lying adulterer. She then claims that the right-wing prof is also a fraud and poseur. (I say “she claims” because she doesn't give him the courtesy of a portrayal; she just administers a perfunctory slander or two.) These two men are purportedly set to tangle in their university over some proposed lectures by the right-winger. But we never hear the lectures and the intellectual tussle never comes off. The left-wing prof is found to be sleeping with a student, the right-wing prof ditto, and we fade out on some old news about male sexual hypocrisy.
Coming to this from Forster is a letdown. Forster wrote a deft fable about passionate disputants struggling over the soul of a nation and the course of an empire, and always tantalizingly in prospect between the warring camps was that most daring and fruitful of ceasefires: a marriage. Smith gives us instead a factitious academic quarrel between two men who are hacks as intellectuals, frauds as moralists, and failures as husbands. The relations between the professors' families are equally unfruitful. The one humane connection between them is a trope that Smith has lifted from Forster but has altered tendentiously. In Howards End, the dying wife of the right-winger secretly bequeaths her home, and by implication her husband, to the left-wing heroine, Margaret, who, unbeknownst to herself and despite her persona as an emancipated woman, is deeply in need of a husband and a hearth to call her own. In On Beauty, by contrast, the bequest of the dying wife to the left-wing heroine, Kiki, is a valuable oil painting from her collection.
The import is clear. In Howards End, the dying wife had nothing to offer except her domestic accomplishments, and Forster (yes, he was a notorious mama's boy, but that's neither here nor there) allows this to be a genuine gift: “She was not intellectual, nor even alert, and it was odd that, all the same, she should give the idea of greatness. Margaret, zigzagging with her friends over Thought and Art, was conscious of a personality that transcended their own and dwarfed their activities.” Smith, however, can spare no praise for the woman's domestic achievements. In her book, the dying wife is pitiable for having wasted her life on home and husband and children—and yet not wholly pitiable, for she has ever so slightly redeemed her existence by means of art, and this art may also redeem the rotten domestic life of the woman to whom she bequeaths it.
In Smith's reworking, then, most of what makes Howards End a compelling, organic whole has been altered or ignored, so that her homage falls somewhere between otiose and presumptuous, and in her transatlantic crossing she has simply left behind Forster's most urgent question: To whom does England belong? “Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world's fleet accompanying her towards eternity?” Smith has not even raised the same question about America, and in the huge cast of characters she so energetically deploys there are none who have “molded America and made her feared” nor any who have “somehow seen her whole.” For an avowed disciple of Forster, it is an opportunity missed.
So if On Beauty is not really a political novel, maybe it's an academic novel. It has been called a “satire” of academia, but it is not so much a comic skewering as a sour dismissal. Smith shows no affection for the left-wing professoriate (or students) and no respect for the right, and her contempt for the academy as institution seems complete. Her title, On Beauty, has many referents in the novel, and among them is the university's willed achievement of aesthetic idiocy: It has made itself a place that can no longer honor or even recognize beauty and certainly cannot teach anyone how to create it. Smith doesn't suggest how to fix this. The best she can do is to send to campus a fantasy figure. Are we to regard him as the vanguard of a rescue? Carl is a black kid from the local ghetto who is auditing an English class. In addition to being handsome, athletic, virile, sincere, and chivalrous, he is a better poet and critic, in his untutored street talk, than anyone the college has to offer. In short, he comes to the university not to receive education but to give it.
Which brings us to the racial matters. Smith has piled a load of them onto the slender template of Howards End, and though they spill over the edges of the form, they provide the liveliest scenes in her book. She has well-off black kids striving to act ghetto, ghetto kids striving to come up, black professionals with Haitian housekeepers, black professors and black cab drivers, and lots more interesting stuff. These often draw out a sweetness in Smith's writing, but in her treatments of American racial dynamics I couldn't find much satisfaction or instruction. To most of it there is a synthetic quality (for example, Carl), and at its best it's earnest, Bill Cosby-level sitcom material. The heft, the weight of a novel, that dense yet somehow dancing thing, is not here.
In sum, Smith's big, messy, ambitious book is a lesser work than the smaller, tidier, and doubtless more innocent one with which she has invited comparison. This can't be wholly her fault. Look around at the materials available to her. How does a good sincere liberal write a good sincere liberal novel in a post-liberal world? Her conjuration of Howards End, a successful liberal novel, points up the problem. In Forster's day, the materials from which liberal values could be made were lying ready to hand in the fairly fresh ruins of the Christian edifice; one had simply to extract the human goods from the broken, discardable Christian husks.
Thus, in Howards End (whatever may have been Forster's conscious intention), pieces of the old moral code provide the novel's structure, the need of humans to fulfill that code provides the novel's energy, and over the plotting there lingers, ghostly but still potent, the old theological virtue of hope. A property goes to its true spiritual owner, a bequest is fulfilled despite the world's machinations, a widower conservative is redeemed by marriage to a liberal, a spinster liberal learns to be a wife. Nature and wisdom overcome fear and deceit. There occurs, in a word, that thing that is the core of the liberal faith: progress.
When On Beauty at last clanks to a close, however, there is no redemption for the conservative, no wisdom for the liberal. No good thing has been secured, and the regnant discipline is not love but negotiation. Whereas Margaret ended in happy possession of the home bequeathed to her, Kiki is left filing a lawsuit against the right-wing widower for title to her painting. In Forster, the bequest found its way to its true owner by sheer force of spiritual truth. In Smith, possession will be awarded not by nature but by a judge. Is this what the liberal imagination must content itself with imagining these days?
J. A. Gray, formerly Associate Editor of First Things, is director of communications for the De La Salle Christian Brothers in Napa, California.