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Issue No. 86 (April 1, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Every political tendency needs its great political novels. There’s no better way of getting at the essence of things than through novels, and beware the political movement that’s unaware of the range of its motives and possibilities.
Liberalism, conservatism, and socialism have all had their great political novels (see, e.g., our article “Ten Best American Political Novels 1945-2000”). So it was only a matter of time before the emerging radical middle began putting some up.
The first -- and it will be hard to top -- is surely Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (Penguin Press, 2005).
Plague on both their houses
On Beauty doesn’t need its literary virtues sung here. It’s already garnered rave reviews from major literary critics in England and the U.S. (see RE:SOURCES section below), and was recently chosen one of the “10 Best Books of 2005” by the New York Times.
The critics will tell you -- though a quick look at any page can tell you as much -- that the prose is gorgeous (think Philip Roth), the dialogue not just authentic but electric, and the principal characters wonderfully drawn. If like most literary critics you want your novels to provide breathless bulletins on The Way We Live Now, you’ll have a field day here.
What’s largely missing from the reviews, though, is any notion that the book embodies a political analysis and vision.
In fact, it declares a plague on both your houses (to the far left and far right), and gives a preview of some of the forces and perspectives that might provide something better, something more inclusive and -- dare I say it? -- beautiful.
Ms. Smith comes to Boston
Zadie Smith, a charter member of Gen-Y (b. 1975), was perfectly positioned to write this book.
She knows the depth and breadth of the world. She grew up working class in a multiethnic London neighborhood. She’s multiethnic herself (father white Briton, mother black Jamaican), which doesn’t begin to describe her complex and many-relatived upbringing, and she managed to get into Cambridge University despite atrocious math scores, not the easiest feat in the world. She’s equally at home with Mozart and Tupac, Harold Bloom and Antonio Gramsci.
Her first novel, White Teeth, published in the year 2000 (when she was all of 24!), was an international literary sensation. It illuminated London’s ethnic subcultures, and it emphasized their many-sided aliveness, not their oppression.
On Beauty is set in greater Boston (a visiting lectureship at Harvard introduced her to the area) and boasts an arguably even broader class, racial, and ethnic canvas than White Teeth -- prefiguring the near future of 21st century America.
Plot that sparks
The plot centers around two families, the Belseys and the Kippses.
Howard Belsey is a 57-year-old professor of art history at an elite liberal arts college just outside Boston (think Brandeis or Tufts). A passionate if bumbling leftist, anti-elitist, and postmodernist, he's been working seemingly forever on his magnum opus, Against Rembrandt. He appears to be “against” aesthetic beauty in general, for the usual po-mo reasons (it’s elitist and a cover for power and privilege).
As the novel opens, Howard is trying to limit the damage a brief sexual affair he conducted (with the campus poet) has done to his family, whom he genuinely adores. And who wouldn’t adore them? Kiki, his African-American wife of 30 years, is as giving and as grown-up as can be. Jerome, age 20, is a bit of a wuss but principled, principled, principled. Zora, 19, is brilliant and headstrong. And Levi, 16, is caught up in the hip-hop scene and trying his level best to act, talk, and live “street.”
Monty Kipps is a dapper, conservative, Caribbean-born black professor and outspoken Christian who’s written an international bestseller celebrating Rembrandt. But he seems less interested in the beauty of art than in collecting it for profit and using his knowledge of it for his own professional advancement. His two college-age kids, the entrepreneurial Michael and the drop-dead-gorgeous Victoria, come across as equally cold & calculating, though his long-suffering wife, Carlene, is sensitive and giving to a fault.
Bring these families together (especially after Monty is given a one-year “celebrity appointment” to Howard’s college) and you’ll have reason to see sparks fly. And they do. Low, simmering sparks and huge crimson flares. You’ll be haplessly engrossed, for over 400 pages.
Declining significance of race
The first “political” message of this book isn’t necessarily the first you’ll pick up, but it’s super important.
It is this: once you begin paying attention to characteristics other than race, race rapidly diminishes in importance.
Time and again as you’re reading this novel, you’ll forget that race or nationality is even in play. So let me memorialize for you the racial identities of the 12 leading characters:
Bankruptcy of far left and far right
Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps are precisely drawn characters -- by no means caricatures. But they can fairly be said to represent the conventional far left and far right as the 21st century begins. And on the evidence of this novel, both of them have had their day.
Neither one of them deserves their power. Howard hates, resents, and fears greatness and beauty -- he routinely destroys the love of art in his students (read pp. 249-55 on dear Katie Armstrong’s experience in his class and weep). Meanwhile, Monty is ripping off art from the Caribbean for his personal financial enrichment.
Both of them are pompous and preening in their different ways. Behind their worldly status (young people tremble in their presence), both are slightly laughable.
And both are hypocrites. Howard, champion of secularism and rationality, sleeps not only with Claire Malcolm but with the Kippses’ 18-year-old daughter, Victoria, to devastating effect on his wife and all his kids (his son Jerome had had a brief affair with her earlier). In the closing pages, his wife moves out and his three kids -- rarely in synch -- all give him the finger.
But Monty, tireless champion of “beauty” and Christian virtue, represents no viable personal (or political) alternative in the end, even though Jerome dearly tried to set him up as one. At the end of the novel we discover he’d been having a very one-sided affair with one of his students, which had apparently begun while his wife was dying of cancer.
Hope for the future
One reason this novel is not demoralizing is that there’s clearly hope for the future, and it resides in the Belseys' mixed-race kids, who have decisively rejected both their father's path and Monty's:
-- Jerome is turning into a smart, sensitive Christian. Not that he’s perfect: he can be prissy and self-absorbed. But his admirable spiritual direction gives the lie to all those books lumping traditional Christianity in with unreason or the far right (three are discussed in an e-mail to us d. April 1, 2006; see HERE). Count Jerome among the progenitors of the emerging radical middle.
-- Levi is moving beyond rebelling against his middle-class upbringing and is actually beginning to help -- personally and politically -- the Haitian immigrants he’d earlier romanticized. You can see what he’ll bring to the table when all his changes are through: a life-giving insistence on authenticity and an abiding passion for justice. Call him the conscience of the emerging radical middle.
-- Zora is turning into a Howard (knowledgeable, sardonic, insightful) without the left-wing resentment of greatness, the po-mo resentment of beauty, or the self-indulgent, if-it-feels-good-do-it non-morality. In other words, she is turning into a person who might actually deserve whatever power she gets. Count her among the future leaders of the radical middle.
Women hold up two-thirds of the sky
It is no accident that Zora, the female among the three Belsey siblings, may have the boldest role to play in the future.
Nor is it an accident that the surprising friendship that develops between Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps is the most genuine sustained human encounter in the novel.
Nor is it an accident that we are made to realize that -- without Kiki’s and Carlene’s heroic and self-denying efforts over the years, over the decades -- Howard and Monty wouldn’t be the elite-university professors, noble family men, and celebrated exemplars of left- and right-wing principle they turned out to be.
They’d just be fatuous Sixties leftovers at third-tier colleges somewhere.
Zadie Smith isn’t an outspoken feminist. (One of the funniest lines in the book is a put-down of Gloria Steinem.) I suppose you could call her a post-feminist. But there's no backsliding here.
Empathy is all
The most remarkable single quality of On Beauty is not the dead-on dialogue or the brilliantly illuminating plot. It’s the effect her sensibility has on you after a while.
Zadie Smith’s empathy, for everyone -- young or old, rich or penniless, suave or naive, selfish or giving -- is amazing. And catching.
It is a balm. It is an awakening.
We can’t do politics any more, she seems to be saying, in the absence of that empathy. It is too dangerous.
And she’s right. If she printed up message T-shirts, they might read,
If I can’t have empathy for materialistic black conservatives and philandering left-wing academics (not to mention manipulative teen-age sex goddesses and obnoxious Tupac wannabees), then I don’t want to be part of your revolution.
Meaning of the phrase “on beauty”
Smith’s choice of title has been called precious and confusing. But it has its uses. You can take the title in at least three ways, depending on your politics.
If you’re a conservative, it can mean that beauty (aka truth and Godliness) has carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land. Nearly every adult in the text appears to be a bloody mess! We should look away from all that and take Rembrandt and Mozart as our lodestars.
If you’re a liberal, you can take the title to mean that beauty (arguably a goad to justice and equality) is still accessible to us, if we don’t resent it or fear it, and if we’re willing to look for it wherever we can personally find it -- whether in the classics or in the likes of Haitian folk art and rap music.
I prefer a third reading. It makes sense of a poem in the text called “On Beauty,” which repeats such lines as “The beautiful don’t lack the wound.” And it makes sense of the very end of the novel, where Howard, the anti-Rembrandt art historian, projects a stupendously beautiful Rembrandt onto a wall during a public lecture and -- finally exhausted by years of put-down criticism (and his own foolish life errors) -- simply begins projecting it bigger and bigger, struck mute by what he finally sees there.
In this third reading, it is life, itself, that is shown to be beautiful -- including all the foolish, all the even devastating public and private choices we manage to more or less inexorably make along the way.
The political moral here is that you can’t change the world for the better without keeping that understanding (of the beauty of it all) forever by your side. Even when people appear to be impossibly mean and the world appears to lack all justice.
For there can be no better world without a proper sense of gratitude and awe.
For some influential mainstream reviews of On Beauty, see Jennifer Frey, “Zadie Smith, Putting Herself Into Her Work,” Washington Post, Nov. 14, 2005; Michiko Kakutani, “On Beauty,” New York Times, Sept. 17, 2005; James Lasdun, “Howard’s Folly,” Guardian (London), Sept. 10, 2005; and Stephanie Merritt, “A Thing of Beauty,” Observer (London), Sept. 4, 2005.
To better understand where Zadie Smith is coming from in On Beauty, see her essay “Love, Actually,” Guardian (London), Nov. 1, 2003, on the early 20th century British novelist E.M. Forster. Forster’s novel Howard’s End provided a model for Smith’s plot, and for much else, apparently.
To better understand Smith’s appreciation of Rembrandt and her arguments against his detractors, she herself recommends former Cambridge University professor Simon Schama’s book Rembrandt’s Eyes (1999). It will not disappoint. See especially pp. 342-53, 389-92, 557-61, 620-21, and 646-50 (covering the five Rembrandts most central to Smith’s novel).
Another way into the novel’s philosophy is through Harvard professor Elaine Scarry’s short book On Beauty and Being Just (1999). My preferred interpretation of the phrase “On Beauty” is enhanced, I think, by the fact that Smith calls the third and final part of her novel “On Beauty and Being Wrong.”
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