This 2005 novel, On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s third, is mostly very funny and entertaining – but it’s also annoying. I enjoyed the campus comedy aspect: stuffy, over-dogmatic rival Rembrandt scholars flinging invective at each other and anyone else who cares to listen (or doesn’t; they don’t have enough empathy with other human beings to need an attentive audience). They are so entrenched in their antithetical views of art and culture (ie Beauty) that they wouldn’t notice something of real beauty if it came up and hit them in the head.
This is all great fun, as illustrated by a passage in which Howard Belsey, the white, late-fifties English lecturer at a second-tier university in greater Boston, is dragged to an open-air performance of Mozart’s Requiem. His son Jerome has committed the ultimate betrayal as far as Howard’s liberal-PC family is concerned: he’s become a fervent Christian. It’s Jerome’s intention with this concert trip to restore ‘familial’ harmony, broken down by recent events I won’t go into now.
Howard’s wife of 30 years, Kiki, a large black woman from Florida whose youthful beauty hasn’t entirely gone, struggles to concentrate or interpret (another scene – the Beethoven concert – inspired by EM Forster’s Howard’s End, a novel to which On Beauty is a homage):
The experience of listening to an hour’s music you barely know in a dead language you do not understand is a strange falling and rising experience. For minutes at a time you are walking deep into it, you seem to understand. Then, without knowing how or when exactly, you discover you have wandered away, bored or tired from the effort.
Zadie Smith’s engaging free indirect style and warm empathy with her character are clear here. We feel we are inside this character’s self – but not entirely. I find that second person pronoun intrusive, it strikes a false note. Is this meant to be a universal experience for the uninitiated in classical music, or are we eavesdropping on Kiki’s contending thoughts?
The scene shifts to Kiki’s earnest, fiercely ambitious daughter Zora, about to enrol at her father’s university (she’s a chip off his block: zealously studious but lacking in true conviction or moral sense). She’s listening to audio notes on the music on her Discman (this IS 2005) recorded by a learned professor: ‘she lived through footnotes’ the narrator confides.
This is one of the author’s alternative comic approaches: no attempt here at interior monologue. The narrator tells us what to think, and expects us to share the snide joke. So intent was Zora when younger on a trip in France, the voice continues, on her Paris guidebook to Sacré Coeur ‘that she walked directly into an altar, cutting her forehead open.’ Get it? She didn’t truly perceive Beauty even when it hit her over the head.
This too is funny – at first. Then another awareness kicks in. As a visiting Fellow at Harvard, Smith would have seen many such footnote-addicted, over-earnest students desperate for prestigious internships or careers in fashionable colleges or literary magazines, and prepared to do anything to get them. But this humour is too broad to be ultimately satisfying or taken seriously.
The plot enables Smith to take many more pot-shots at perceived hypocrisy among the liberal Left (the Belseys) and an implausible Trinidadian black neo-con art historian (Monty Kipps). Howard Belsey is anti-aesthetic, insisting Rembrandt was an jobbing artisan turning out low-brow dross for boorish aristocratic patrons, spouting Foucauld to support his half-baked theories; Kipps is just as dogmatically wrong-headed in adopting an antithetical position.
Both generate a lot of funny narrative, but both are cartoons. In this respect Zadie Smith’s characters have more in common with many of Dickens’s than with Forster’s. They verge on being types, mouthpieces for particular theoretical or class or racial groups.
The plotting similarly shows more of a debt to the worst aspects of Dickens: coincidence-laden, over-plotted and programmatic, rather than arising organically out of its characters. The difference is that Dickens more often makes us believe in his characters, or enables us to see depths beyond the obvious surface features.
But there are some brilliant, moving scenes among this less appealing material. I found the section when Howard cravenly ducks out of a funeral service to revisit the locality of his working-class youth in London painfully moving. He calls at his aging father’s grim little house in the ‘ignominy’ of Cricklewood, that part of it which is deprecated as ‘beyond salvation’ by smooth estate agents.
Howard as inverted snob though is able to convince himself that this zone has ‘more charm’ than ‘all the double-fronted Georgian houses in Primrose Hill.’ The narrative veers in and out of Howard’s mind here:
The African women in their colourful kenti cloths, the whippet blonde with three phones tucked into the waistband of her tracksuit, the unmistakeable Poles and Russians introducing the bone structure of Soviet Realism to an island of chinless, browless potato-faces, the Irish men resting on the gates of housing estates like farmers at a pig-fair in Kerry…At this distance, walking past them all, thus itemizing them, not having to talk to any of them, flâneur Howard was able to love them and, more than this, to feel himself, in his own romantic fashion, to be one of them. We scum, we happy scum! [ellipsis and italics in the text]
This is good stuff: the shifting voices and perspectives of Howard and author are deftly handled and make a complex, subtle, unpreachy – and funny – point in ways that I’ve suggested earlier in this post she doesn’t always succeed in doing. Howard believes he belongs among these people:
It was an ancestry he referred to proudly at Marxist conferences and in print…for the most part, however, Howard liked to keep his ‘working-class roots’ where they flourished best: in his imagination.
OK, so here the narrative dips into the slightly sneering critique that I pointed out in the image of Zora at the concert. But then follows a long passage where Howard has a toe-curlingly awful encounter with his father that is one of the most vivid portrayals of the generation gap and father-son friction that I’ve ever read – except perhaps in some Russians like Turgenev, or in Dickens.
It takes just eight minutes for Howard to become incensed by his father’s intellectual crassness – the casual racism, homophobia and sexism of his generation and class.
It’s too long to quote and do it justice here, but this one section alone makes the otherwise uneven, intermittently brilliant novel, worth reading. What raises it above most of the rest of so-so campus comedy in the novel is this chapter’s genuine sense of felt humanity: we can feel with Howard his frustration and annoyance with his bumbling, bigoted father, while simultaneously empathising with the father’s ill-fated attempts to reach out to the son he clearly, deep down, loves. Howard’s petulance and impatience, for once, enable us to warm to him, those of us who’ve had difficult experiences with parents, while recoiling from his snobbery. We don’t condone his anger, but we understand it because we’ve been shown its causes. He wants to be able to love his father, but his intellect prevents him from doing so. His inability to feel is matched by his father’s inability to think.
Perhaps this one passage at the chapter’s end best sums up Smith’s achievement here; the narrator has just pointed out that his father just wants them to share ‘quality time’ watching banal TV shows. This is his way of showing Howard ‘We’re family.’
But Howard couldn’t do this when he was sixteen and he couldn’t do it now. He just did not believe, as his father did, that time is how you spend your love.
Like most of the best comedy in fiction, it’s deepened or enriched by accompanying pathos. This is where Zadie Smith’s literary debt to the great strengths of Dickens becomes glowingly apparent. There’s a good joke about EM Forster near the end of this scene, too. Howard can’t stand him.