15 December, 2005Issue 5.1FictionLiterature

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A Thing of Beauty?

Andrew Hay

Zadie Smith
On Beauty
Hamish Hamilton, 2005
464 pages
ISBN 0241142938

When Virginia Woolf quoted Pericles’ observation that ‘the chief glory of a woman is not to be talked of’ in her 1929 A Room of One’s Own, she highlighted a long-standing attitude amongst women writers; namely, ‘that publicity in women is detestable.’ It is hard to imagine any contemporary British novelist who attracts this detestable publicity more than Zadie Smith. The 2005 Man Booker prize nomination of her latest novel, On Beauty, has—unsurprisingly—increased media fascination with the thirty-year-old author. Yet, as if to support Woolf’s evaluation of women of literary accomplishment, this attention has been unwelcome by Smith, who tends to shun publicity generally.

If Smith seems reluctant to connect with people through non-literary media, On Beauty is a novel that reflects her delight in forming connections to and between books. In the preface to On Beauty, she acknowledges that Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes provided inspiration for the academic speciality of her protagonist, Howard Belsey, a middle-aged Rembrandt scholar. Indeed, the title of the novel is taken from On Beauty and Being Just, an essay on psychology and aesthetics by Harvard English professor Elaine Scarry. Since Scarry’s essay emphasises the generative, self-begetting nature of beauty throughout Western art and literature, it is wholly in keeping with Smith’s titular choice that her novel has a significant conceptual debt. On Beauty is, in Smith’s own words, a homage to E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howards End.

It would be tedious to list all the parallels between Howards End and On Beauty. For the purpose of narrative enjoyment it would also be patently unnecessary; the reader requires no knowledge of Howards End to savour Smith’s descriptive acuity and sinuous—albeit, at times, overlong—prose. And yet the parallels between the two novels point to Smith’s greatest novelistic strengths—and, on occasion, her less noticeable weaknesses.

Like Howards End, On Beauty centres on the conections between two families: the Belseys, which includes Howard Belsey, a 57-year-old academic at the fictional Ivy League Wellington College; Kiki, his black Floridian wife, and their mixed-race children, Jerome, Zora and Levi. The Belsey family dynamic is less than harmonius as a result of Howard’s affair with one of Howard and Kiki’s oldest friends, Claire Malcolm.

Howard’s adversary, Montgomery Kipps, heads the second family, which includes his wife Carlene, and their children Michael and Victoria. As a foil to Howard, Montgomery is a particularly well-drawn character. Although a Rembrandt scholar like Belsey, Kipps is otherwise his opposite: right-wing, Trinidadian, anti-affirmative action, anti-gay, anti-liberal and forcefully religious. Incidentally, he is far more academically successful than Howard.

It might be tempting to read the opposition of Howard and Montgomery, their respective families, and their positions on morality and society as a convenient way of delineating the social and racial issues that Smith wishes to explore. But On Beauty is far from a straightforward character study or a polemical novel. In actuality it offers the reader some remarkably subtle observations of human relationships at the individual and familial levels in the world. In one of her more contemplative moments, Smith has a character reflect on ‘The daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and blooms into the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people.’ Accordingly, the purview of Smith’s narrative concerns is consistently situated in the realm of human interconnection, such as that between parent-child, husband-wife-mistress, teacher-student, employer-employee, man-society-nation, friendships and peer groups. And yet being ‘with other people’ in On Beauty is far from idealised.

Whatever ideological and cultural differences separate Howard and Montgomery they are both negative exemplars of emotionally weak men. Although Smith never quite rises to the level of promulgating some overt gendered point, the gap between male and female standards of conduct in On Beauty are consistent and considerable. Howard’s immaturity and inadequacy are in stark contrast to Kiki’s necessary strength in the face of a very one-sided marriage, as exemplified when Kipps’s wife, Carlene, realises that both she and Kiki enable their husbands to live the lives that they think they have chosen for themselves by providing continual domestic structure and unrelenting devotion to reinforcing their spouses’ egos and careers.

This delicate sense of things revealed and concealed in human relationships seems to be Smith’s most positive Forsterian influence. Like Forster, Smith is attentive to the not wholly well-intentioned ways in which people strive to connect. All the members of the two families at the center of the novel are, despite the posture of family unity, alienated from one another, whether this takes the form of parental, sibling or marital alienation. This familial alienation is indicative of a wider sense of disconnection that operates across levels of class, race, culture and gender in On Beauty. Structures such as these might reasonably be expected to provide community but end up alienating characters from one another. Howard’s son Levi, for example, goes in search of an authentic black identity and falls in with a crowd of politically enraged immigrants. Kiki develops an unlikely friendship with Kipps’s invalid wife, Carlene, who bequeaths her an immensely valuable piece of art (just as Ruth Wilcox leaves Howards End to Margaret Schlegel in Forster’s novel), a legacy the rest of the Kipps family tries to prevent.

This sense of familial and societal dislocation also operates on an individual level. Smith is particularly adept at representing those thoughts and social circumstances that prevent and frustrate meaningful self-examination in instances such as when Claire Malcolm asserts that ‘she was a stranger to herself.’ Levi, for example, straddles two cultures but is at home in neither and, with the possible exception of Carlene Kipps, every character in this novel—from the rounded Kiki Belsey to the more sketchy types such as the Haitian teacher-turned-street-hawker Choo—experiences a separation between immediate self and his or her idea of that self.

Indeed, Howard’s theory that the appeal of Rembrandt’s portraits lies in an innate human need for external reinforcement of one’s self and one’s place in the world is deeply entrenched in the relationships On Beauty presents. Following a debate between Carlene and Kiki on individual freedom in life and relationships Carlene comments ‘I don’t ask myself what did I live for […] I ask myself whom did I live for.’ In this case the answer is her husband, and the obligation to provide reinforcement for another takes precedence over any sense of self-fulfillment.

In terms of the success of Smith’s own realisation of a twenty-first century update of Howards End, there is a telling moment in chapter ten when Kiki mistakes lines from The Tempest—‘Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change, Into something rich and strange’—for a Sylvia Plath poem, upon which she is informed ‘Plath stripped it for parts.’ The quotation is illuminating in light of Smith’s method of homage in On Beauty. While she has lifted a plot, her achievement is more than mechanical appropriation. Her characterisation is sharply realised and throughout On Beauty’s failing relationships, the novel’s comedic tone is wonderfully preserved. That said, more forceful editorial intervention might have saved certain parts of the novel that seem tiresomely overlong and uneven in tone.

Some of the uneveness of the novel is simply a failure of control, due to the sheer number of characters Smith presents. When coupled with the novel’s abstract title, academic setting and general scope, a certain amount of extended description might seem unavoidable. But at times Smith’s narrative technique falters, such as when the use of first person narration fails to convey the sharpness of her observatory power, which is certainly evident in other areas of the novel, such as in the dialogues between Kiki and Carlene. The result is an occassional sense of portentous generality reminiscent of a heavy-handed Victorian novel; a character is described as ‘Obviously disappointed, as we sometimes are when the things we profess to dislike don’t happen.’ Such general observation was still possible in the Edwardian world of Forster’s fiction, but in the twenty-first century world of On Beauty, it seems contrived and anachronistic.

However, the novel’s flaws are dwarfed by its many strengths. On Beauty, although imperfect, is teaming with energy, insight and ambition. Indeed, in many places it achieves an accomplished balance between the brilliantly comic and the more negative implications arising from characters that live solely for others. One suspects that Smith’s own narrative powers will truly bloom when she, unlike her sad characters, is able to write ‘as she really is,’ rather than as validated by her homage to Forster. If On Beauty is indicative of a novelist still in the process of realising her own novelistic identity, the future looks promising and it will surely be worth the wait.

Andrew Hay is a DPhil student in English Literature at Balliol College, Oxford. He works on issues of modernity in literary Modernism, and ideas of postmodern aesthetic/phenomenal experience.