Sunday, November 19, 2006

Zadie Smith – ‘On Beauty’

You’ve got to be careful, modelling a new work on an old one. Who liked Gus Van Sant’s Psycho? Who liked Brian Wilson’s re-made Smile? There’s Ulysses, of course, but surely Greek myths are a special case (so old, so well known)? And perhaps that only proves the point: to compete with something which has already endured, you’ve got to create something on a par with the original. You put yourself at an immediate disadvantage attempting it: the first cubist still life was nothing to the first still life (think Brian Sewell said that). As I remarked the other week, Zadie Smith was always going to have a hell of a job keeping step with E. M. Forster’s Howards End. Which is far and away the best book I’ve read since starting this blog, so it’s really no surprise that she doesn’t manage it. What she does manage is a lively, insightful account of the life of academic Howard Belsey and his family. The life, and how it falls apart. The way his wife and kids’ lives intermingle with (or stray from) his own; the way academia prolongs adolescence in its worst sense as well as its best; the way it fails to really connect with anyone outside its own scope (and by scope I mean payroll).

The main problem here is: academia doesn’t equal an artistic sensibility, even if you’re a professor of Art. On Beauty (which shares with Howards End a narrator whose presence is perceptible but who rarely intervenes) is quite aware of this. Again and again Howard is accused of being anti-everything, of having argued himself into a position wherein he can’t like any art (anything representational is right out, yet his research area is Rembrandt). Victoria, the daughter of his rival Monty Kipps (the transplanted Henry Wilcox), characterises the classes at Wellington:

It’s our shorthand for when we say, like, Professor Simeon’s class is ‘the tomato’s nature versus the tomato’s nurture’, and Jane Colman’s class is ‘To properly understand the tomato you must first uncover the tomato’s suppressed Herstory’ – she’s such a silly bitch that woman – [...] But your class – your class is a cult classic. I love your class. Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato. (p. 312)

This may be a valid point about academia, but it has little to do with the kind of sensibility needed to appreciate art. Which is what Howards End is all about, and any book which picks up this dialogue really has to take it on: how do life and art work together? And, what does money have to do with this? This tension is what makes it great: the contrast between the Schlegels (who have money and sensibility), the Wilcoxes (money only) and Leonard Bast (sensibility crippled by poverty). The question, so rarely asked, ‘What does it mean to have art in one’s life?’ On Beauty is good on life, but largely forgets about art. It mentions enough of it (an author’s note at the end lists all the paintings and poems mentioned in the text), but never really engages, substituting a soap opera involving academics, which isn’t quite the same thing. Howards End mentions almost no art by name (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony being the exception), and never goes near a university, but captures exactly the importance of an inquisitiveness about art, and the disconnect this can bring about with more practical minds (or just other minds – it can be an isolating thing).

The two actual artists featured in On Beauty – Carl Thomas (the Leonard Bast character), a rapper, and Claire Thomas, a poet who also teaches creative writing at Wellington – are both given a short opportunity to strut their stuff, on stage and on the page respectively, but again this skirts around the issue: how did they get to the point of performing / writing? How did they live their lives and bring about the song and the poem? We get a little background on Claire, given as she rushes to a lecture, and learn that her early poems (the ones which brought her recognition) were raunchy, and that, now in her 50s, she prefers to write about nature. Carl’s background is murky to say the least, and he lacks Leonard’s crucial lacks: there is no culturally unsympathetic woman holding him back, and although he is poor, this is not a disadvantage for a rapper in the same way that it is for someone who sees culture as something inextricably tied to upper class money. On the contrary, it gives him something to write about: his Mrs Bast appears only in his lyrics, from which we gather that (without Carl’s consent) she had an abortion, and moved on. Up in literary purgatory, Leonard must be kicking himself.

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