Tuesday, 5 January 2016

On Beauty / Zadie Smith

4 out of 5 stars
Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an African-American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore.

Then Jerome, Howard's older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it?

 I requested this book from our public library because I have obtained a ticket to her Zadie Smith speak at our University in February 2016. I think it will be a lively evening!

Zadie Smith is a shrewd observer of the human condition. And she takes a good hard poke at the idea that knowledge and art can be somehow value-neutral, that we can ignore the purpose of the person who created a piece of art (I think that’s post-modernism?).

One of her main characters, Howard Belsey, is a college professor who teaches art history. But Howard is completely unnerved by expressions of firm belief and strong emotion. His lectures are virtually incomprehensible in their refusal to discuss the beauty of the works, the purpose of the artist, or response of the viewer. The students of the college describe the various college courses in terms of tomatoes—a history course becomes Tomatoes 1867-1967, for example. Howard’s student, Victoria, nails his reluctance to grant value to love, beauty, or truth when she describes his art history class to him:

But your class—your class is a cult classic. Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato…Because tomatoes are not there to be liked…Your tomatoes have nothing to do with love or truth. They’re not fallacies. They’re just these pretty pointless tomatoes that people for totally selfish reasons of their own, have attached cultural—I should say nutritional--weight to.

The irony is that an art history professor is completely unable to recognize or appreciate the beauty in art or in his own life. He is disconnected from his family and out of touch with other college faculty. He has had an affair with a woman about whom he cares nothing (and she, if possible, cares even less about him) out of sheer thoughtlessness. Because he has espoused this value-free existence (absolutely no religion, no Christmas, etc.) he is seemingly unable to resist doing the wrong thing, frequently. (Mind you, the religious characters fare no better in Smith’s tale).

Howard’s part of the story is just that—only a part. Smith also gives us a window into his wife, Kiki’s, world as well as their children, Jerome, Zora and Levi. All of them have to find what they will and will not live with, what they will do with their lives. Kiki must decide whither her marriage will go, Zora whether she will follow in her father’s academic footsteps, Levi whether he identifies with the middle class or with Haitian immigrants. Of all of the family, Jerome seems to be the clearest of purpose, although things certainly don’t begin that way.

Smith writes gorgeously. Her insights into our interpersonal communication difficulties are right on the money. Because the Belsey family are mixed-race and middle-class, she is able to explore race and class issues effectively as well. An excellent novel and I am very much looking forward to hearing Ms. Smith speak in February.

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