Rare is the occasion one has to read about Martin Buber and Justin Bieber in the same sentence and rare is the author who can write compellingly of both. In Feel Free, her second collection of long-form non-fiction, Zadie Smith proves yet again that she is one of those few.
Not every piece in this collection is equally successful. The opening essays, ‘North-West London Blues’, a plea for government funding of public libraries, and ‘Elegy for a Country’s Seasons’, about the need to find a way to explain the consequences of the climate emergency to one’s grandchildren, lack originality and are best seen as a warm-up to the rest of this delectable collection. In ‘Fences: A Brexit Diary’, which laments the building of a fence around her children’s school, Smith treads the well-worn paths of the underlying motives for the Brexit vote and the jeopardising of the Northern Irish peace process. Yet it is her personal experience which is the source of her most interesting reflections on politics. Having crossed the class divide, Smith alludes without sentimentality to the widening gap between London’s rich and poor, between the experience of her own family living in the house “worth an obscene amount of money” and that of the family living across the street in the same “cramped council flat” in which Smith grew up before finding fame as an author. Smith considers the absurdity of a world in which London’s unhappy super-rich can spend £5,000 on a cocktail while Grenfell burns. She uses these reflections as a basis for contemplation of the motivation of the Leave vote, asking: “In this atmosphere of hypocrisy and deceit, should the working-class poor have shown themselves to be the ‘better man’ when all around them is corruption and venality?”
In the same essay, Smith makes a convincing case for not mapping the personal onto the ideological, or holding certain pieces of art such as her own debut novel White Teeth as representative of a sociological “experiment” such as 1980s multiculturalism. Of her father, she writes: “He was, I realize now, one of the least ideological people I ever met: everything that happened to him he took as a particular case, unable or unwilling to generalize from it. He lost his livelihood but did not lose faith in his country. The education system failed him but he still revered it and placed all his hopes for children in it.”
Smith is engaging on digital technology, convincing about hip-hop, often insightful on politics. She excels at knitting together two different forms of art, and reflecting on the illuminations lent to one by the other. In a piece by a less talented writer, an essay which mentions both Joni Mitchell and Kierkegaard, Tom Hanks and Schopenhauer, or Jay-Z and Oulipo may become superficial or gimmicky, but Smith’s intelligent treatment of her subjects means they never feel shoehorned together. For example, she draws comparisons between the dancing styles of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire which develop into an elegant analogy between dancing and writing and an original reflection on what words can learn from movement, as writer and reader are led to wonder: “What can the art of words take from the art that needs none?” Of Gene Kelly, Smith writes:
He is the incarnation of our bodies in their youth, at their most fluid and powerful, or whenever our natural talents combine ideally with our hard-earned skills. He is a demonstration of how the prosaic can turn poetic, if we work hard enough. But Astaire, when he dances, has nothing to do with hard work (although we know, from biographies, that he worked very hard, behind the scenes). He is “poetry in motion”. His movements are so removed from ours that he sets a limit on our own ambitions. Nobody hopes or expects to dance like Astaire, just as nobody really expects to write like Nabokov.
Smith’s idiosyncratic conflation of the two styles, poetry made manifest in footwork, is a fitting tribute to the inimitable.
In ‘Some Notes on Attunement’, Smith uses her sudden conversion to Joni Mitchell to ponder how the connoisseurship of one form of art can sit alongside philistinism and innocent adoration of another:
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of my progressive changes in taste tend to have occurred in my sole area of expertise: reading novels. In this one, extremely narrow arena I can call myself more or less a “connoisseur”. […] But I didn’t come to love Joni Mitchell by knowing anything more about her, or understanding what an open-tuned guitar is, or even by sitting down and forcing myself to listen and re-listen to her songs. I hated Joni Mitchell—and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me—until the day it undid me completely.
Smith is compelling on the connection between different forms of artistic expression. In an essay entitled ‘A Bird of Few Words: Narrative Mysteries in the Paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’, Smith compares the subjects of Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits to literary characters: “They are character studies of people who don’t exist”. Smith then segues into more erudite reflections on the figurative and the abstract in art and literature and the fallacy of: “Falsely separating the two—and then insisting on the elevation of one over the other”.
Smith may be an amateur art critic (“Who am I to speak of this painting?”) but her gaze is always illuminating. In an essay on Balthasar Denner’s Alte Frau (and by extension the criticism of John Berger) Smith sends the reader back to look again and again at the old woman in the painting, to consider Smith’s words afresh: “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 complete irrelevance, to her.” The contemplation of the ultimate irrelevance of one’s existence, in the face of high art or of death, is extended in Smith’s essay on an accidental discovery of a Renaissance drawing, Luc Signorelli’s Nude Man from the Back Carrying a Corpse on His Shoulders,which adds an elegiac tone to the collection.
Smith the writer captivates as Smith the reader. She notes of Edward St Aubyn’s novels, for example, that: “what ultimately lingers is a defence of the humble English sentence, its twists and turns, its subtlety and comedy, itscontrol above all.” Again, the reader is tempted back to the essay’s source to consider St Aubyn’s prose in the light of Smith’s appreciation of it: “It’s like fingering a beautiful swatch of brocade.”
The writer as writer also emerges in “Notes on NW” in which she provides an insight into her own creative process, explaining her idiosyncratic strengths thus: “If I have any gift at all it’s for dialogue—that trick of breathing what-looks-like-life into a collection of written sentences.” In ‘The I Who Is Not Me’ she considers the role of the first-person voice in her 2005 novel On Beauty and the autobiographical element in her own work and others’, turning the essay into a meditation on the nature of freedom and identity in Philip Roth’s novels and the novel in general. She ponders the limitations of fictional representation (echoing some of her earlier comments on portraiture): “Philip Roth is not and never can be Portnoy because it is not possible to render a real human being even partially in sentences.”
While the contemplation of different art forms is the dominant theme of this collection, musings on the notions of freedom and joy set the tone. According to Smith, there is joy to be found in Jamaica, in the novels of St Aubyn, in the music of Joni Mitchell; the final essay in this collection takes the noun as its title and explores the experience of joy in the presence of art and in the presence of one’s children. And yet the abiding sense when reading this collection is the feeling of constraint, the feeling of joy which melts into anxiety. The author’s meditations on time passing, time constrained, hover in the background of this portrait of artist as young connoisseur. This feeling of constraint is first explicitly mentioned in ‘Attunement’, where Smith writes of acquaintances who are free to indulge in devouring literature and arts in all its forms: “Sometimes, in a sour spirit, I am tempted to feel that my connoisseur friends have the time for all this liberal study because they have no children.” Despite Smith’s dismissing this in the next sentence as lazy thinking, the feeling of being inherently unfree never quite vanishes from the collection, belying the title. Musings about the presence of freedom in literature are frequent, and one is left wondering whether Smith sees herself in her description of the protagonist of Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia (who “is both free and not free at the same time”) or whether her preoccupation with Kafka stems from the fact that, for him, “freedom is illusory” as she states in this collection. Discussing St Aubyn, Smith asks: “Is it possible to be free?”
In ‘Killing Orson Welles at Midnight’ a compelling essay about the experimental film The Clock (2010), Smith explores the role of fiction in film: “what I love about The Clock is that while appearing to pass ‘beyond’ fiction it also honors and celebrates it. Fiction is Marclay’s material; after all, he recycles it.” Yet this critical essay on an informed spectator’s “joyful art experience” also ends on a note of despondency as Smith records the lack of time she now has to enjoy such forms of art: “I looked around the gallery where all the young people sat, hipsters, childless, with a sandwich in their bags and the will to stay till three in morning. I envied them; hated them, even. They looked like they had all the time in the world.”
This discordance between joy and constraint is in evidence throughout. In ‘The Bathroom’, ostensibly about the social mobility of her parents but in actuality a portrait of the artist as young parent, Smith’s frustration is keenly felt, both in the prosaic experience of child-rearing (“the continual demands and unnecessary meltdowns, and the sense that you do not have even a second to yourself”) and in the more existential ones: the mother whose homesickness goes unnoticed by her children, the father who gave up his hobby of photography to raise a family, only to be secretly resented by his artistic children for being too unambitious, too ordinary. Smith’s reflection on the inherent imprisonment of family life, and by extension the conflict between art and parenthood, concluding that the triumph of one entails the neglect of the other: “My parents were fully immersed in the contested space in which adults live with children, each trying to realize their own ambitions, each trying to ‘live their lives’ and ‘have time’—tropical plants here, contact sheets there—and no one ever getting all of what they want.” Thus Smith indirectly lends her voice to a growing body of prose focused on the opportunity cost of motherhood, Rachel’s Cusk’s 1997 non-fiction account A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Sheila Heti’s 2008 novel Motherhood about the decision not to become a parent, being two notable examples. Smith quotes Yeats’ ‘The Choice’ about “the perfection of the life or the work” which could be used to summarise the tension at the heart of this collection.
‘The Bathroom’ provides another possibility for Smith to explore the interaction between word and image; in her attempt to carve out her own freedom, she discovers the photographs taken and developed in secret by her father, Harvey Smith, a talented artist who allowed his own dreams to die at the expense of devoting time to his children. A photo of a domestic scene is included at the end of the essay; the photo infuses Smith’s words about the violence of family life with a new poignancy, which in turn bring to mind Faulker’s oft-quoted reference to Shakespeare’s children:
And my own children, well they have to live around and about and within the art-making of their parents; they have to listen to us talk about the books we’re writing or reading, of films we’ve seen or films we want to write, and they have always known, from the start, that they are not the only things being created, cared for and raised up in this many-roomed house. Whether it’s good or bad for them—or us—I don’t know. But it’s my sense that no matter how many rooms you have, and however many books and movies and songs declaim the wholesome beauty of family life, the truth is “the family” is always an event of some violence. It’s only years later, in that retrospective swirl, that you work out who was hurt, in what way, and how badly.
While the photograph closes the essay, word is ultimately imposed on image, as the daughter captions her father’s untitled image ‘The Family is a Violent Event’. The previously unpublished photograph is brought to the reader through words and thanks to words, which ultimately have the final say.
In ‘The Shadow of Ideas’, Smith writes, “It was 2007, or thereabouts. It was probably ten thirty in the morning. The day lay wide open before us. We would be almost fifty before we saw many more days like that one—but how were we to know that? We lived in pure possibility […] We were free! In memory, freedom is obvious. In the present moment it’s harder to appreciate, or recognize as a form of responsibility.” As the collection draws to a close, the artist’s plea for freedom creeps in with greater frequency, be it in essays about the public space of Italian squares and gardens or in an essay on contemporary American advertising; the burden of freedom, the vertiginous feeling of having to decide how to use it, the frustration at its loss or temporary suspension underpin Smith’s essays. Ultimately, then, this collection is about how to live with freedom, how to live with joy, how to live when one cancels out or gives way to the other, as Smith writes in the closing essay to this collection: “Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.”
Rebecca Loxton  graduated from Oxford in 2013 and now works in Paris.