Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On Beauty, Zadie Smith's novel

On Beauty
Zadie Smith The Penguin Press, New York, 2005

This is a sprawling novel not about redemption or fate.
There is no deliverance for any of the characters; whereas it could be a motif one always longs for in chaotic lives, there is a glorious freedom in the workings not of fate or divine judgment but of sheer accidentality, of meetings, of thought processes, of themes butting against each other.
Life as it seems as it is lived!
The story is not entirely about class. It is essentially about love and hate. About the incomprehensible love in marriage, between man and wife, parents and children and parent and child. The children are results of but marvelously independent of their parents, just as real parents in their middle age are a bundle of evolving histories. About the comprehensible love of man, woman and child driven hither and thither by lust. About the unexpected love and respect between friends. It is also about hate, the comic, petty, and obsessive feuding between academics, and the almost tragic hate when lust or greed noses into the established loves and cause disruption – but do not necessarily destroy or resolve, only indicate new directions.
As such it is a novel that could hardly be about characters in their old age. There are no ultimate workings out, no despair, no melodrama, and the pages are filled with quirky, keenly observed and heard comic scenes. It is like the beauty which cannot be itemized, as in the poem On Beauty written by the author’s husband and included for us like a commentary or a clue. It is like a painting – and one theme throughout is the precious yet revealing subject of art appreciation, notably Rembrandt portraits – that is framed within whatever the artist has given us to see yet which hides a world of mysterious unknowns, including that of the painter, and into which entrances are murky but exits are actually open to the future.

The open-ended story centers as with White Teeth, Zadie Smith’s first novel, on a family, here the Belseys, of mixed race and backgrounds. It takes place mainly in the small university town of Wellington, a tedious hour outside Boston, a journey away from Harvard and even more from the occasionally mentioned Oxford, where Howard Belsey, born to a butcher in the deep white working class of Cricklewood, London, was educated, thrust into the world of academe and evolved amazingly into the semi-successful, fairly disconnected, intellectually stagnating and flawed teacher of Art History. Thirty years earlier he had met Kiki, a woman not intellectual but of great natural intelligence, a once stunning black American of Floridean descent, now of enormous girth and immense charisma, and after several years in London moved to the second-rate university, nearest town Roxbury, Mass, where the events mostly take place. The two still love eachother just because, and their three very different children who squabble and disparage their parents also find sudden joy when they converge serendipitously on Boston Common, each there for their separate reasons. You know that come what may in the lives of their parents and their own vastly different futures, that love will always be present, a legacy from their very odd father and mother who on the final page have gone their separate ways but, as with a painting hiding other views from our eyes, may still have hope as a couple, just because.

Interestingly, the novel, giving us a very clear resonance from the very first line of E.M. Forster's Howard’s End, starts with emails from the older son, Jerome. He is staying in London with the upper class black Kitts family, derived loosely, as is the plot and clash of class, from the Wilcox family in Forster’s novel, in a seemingly perfectly rational, calming ambience that seduces him with its apparent comprehensibility. Monty Kitts is sonorous, impressive, and believes in high standards of education and behaviour. Carlene, his ailing wife, is a fount of gentleness, and if there is any redemption in this story, it is hers, but only after her neglected death, when it is found that she has bequeathed her favourite painting to her new friend Kiki who in her ebullient way is also full of kindness and generosity. Jerome falls hard for Victoria Kitts, the drop-dead gorgeous daughter newly returned home, who spurns him, causes Howard to visit London quite unnecessarily, triggering off if not the events such as the Kitts returning to Wellington, subsequent disruptions in various forms. We witness Monty Kitt’s infuriating elitist right wing views clashing with the stultifying left-wing idealism of Howard’s and the attempted furor, so dull compared with that of the 60’s, spreading through the campus over Affirmative Action -- interesting not only to the Black Studies Department but the Liberal Arts faculty as well. Claire, an intellectual, slim, sexy fifty-ish teacher of Poetry who adopts needy outsiders to attend her classes, clashes with Monty over entitlement and having had an uncomfortable three-week fling with the basically loyal Howard, causes the initial separation between him and his wife Kiki. At the opening of the story, we have no sooner believed that the Kitts are going to be the protagonists we are going to follow and root for, than we are plunged into the mess and joy of the Besley family and become swept up in its comings and goings and misunderstandings and realizations, experiencing the connection – E.M Forster long since forgotten within this 21st Century framework at least – with finding that Victoria has relentlessly seduced Howard, who is her professor, her father Monty’s nememis and Jerome’s father, causing the possibly last break up of Howard and Kiki – the situation on the last page and one we cannot accept.

The current lover of slutty Victoria, Carl, who has been dragged off the street by Claire for his poetic rap abilities and brought into Wellington like a prize mascot to work as the Rap lyrics expert in the Black Studies Music Archives Department, is blamed and leaves the white town for good. Zora, Jerome’s highly organizational and sharp sister, whose unrequited desire for Carl is shattered by Victoria, frees herself from trying to look sexy like other girls and one senses the beginnings of her future looks and career.

The other siblings and their colleagues and friends all play their parts in this evolving story. The younger brother, Levi, is a hip hopping, determined philistine who loves street with its rap, body movements, dress, language and superficial yet moving politics, namely the social glimpses into discrimination and exploitation, this being in his easily influenced eyes by capitalists preying on starving Haitians. It is, oddly, through his misguided efforts to save the Haitians who have been robbed of their artistic heritage, so he thinks, by cold collectors such as Monty Kitts who, abetted by his children, burns a note he finds bequeathing a Haitian primitive to Kiki, that he steals the valuable painting (all the art mentioned in the book exists in reality) and hides it under his bed. Kiki finds and recognizes it as the beloved possession of her deceased friend Carlene and threatens her son with the police. But it is the careful Jerome, scraping off a note pasted onto the back of the canvas, that releases the redemptive moment recalling the scene of the differently acquired but beloved house of Howard’s End… Carlene had dedicated the painting, which was in fact given to her with love by the artist, to the suddenly single and enrichened Kiki. All other connections, and the term is never once used as far as I remember, may cause hilarity and catastrophe, but it is the warmth of human love that remains, for Kiki and thus, we hope for her children, her family and maybe one day, for the riven classes around them.

Linda Hepner


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