Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith
As an essay reader, and writer, I always hope to make a discovery, about the topic under discussion, but also the speaker who’s sharing their investigation. With Zadie Smith, whether the subject is Nabokov or Forster, her personal investment is an intrinsic part of her many brilliant investigations.
The book is divided into sections: Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling, Remembering. Smith dips into culture and modernity, the writing life, personal history, and current and classic literature, including Kafka, Foster Wallace, and Zora Neale Hurston. In “Middlemarch and Everybody,” Smith provides a thorough and elegant case for George Eliot’s empathic treatment of her characters by way of Henry James (who thought the novel “too copious a dose of pure fiction”), and Spinoza’s concept of conatus, or self-striving. That quality of doing good for society by doing good for the self, Smith shows us, can be found in the novel’s many characters, more than a few of which James deemed insufficiently complex. Eliot was nothing if not an empathic, an all-inclusive writer, and Smith shows us how radical a thing it was in 1873 to take that stance—a stance that would lay the groundwork for the contemporary novel.
Many of the essays here were commissioned: “I replied to the requests that came in now and then. Two thousand words about Christmas? About Katharine Hepburn? Kafka? Liberia? A hundred thousand words piled up that way.” Included here is an essay Forster, of whom Smith has a strong and longstanding affinity; as well as a moving personal history, “Smith Family Christmas”; and a selection of essays on film, including a dispatch from the Oscars, “Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend.” The piece is effacing yet razor sharp, and what writer but Smith could narrate such a spectacle?
Hollywood has many tiers. Sitting by the pool are hot girls in bikinis and their jock guys, ordering twenty-dollar cocktails and lobster maki rolls, watching the dreamy water of the Hockney pool lap at the edges of the terra-cotta tile surround. Nobody swims. A young black couple, dressed in the Versace knockoffs they believe appropriate to this scene, pose in a lounger and get a waitress to photograph them, living the dream. This is repeated several times that afternoon, by Italians, English, Australians. Everybody speaks of the Oscars, loudly. It’s the only conversation in town.
Also here is a 2010 lecture delivered at Columbia University, to the students of the MFA program there. “That Crafty Feeling” features Smith’s perceptive yet intimate point of view, and she covers topics from starting and finishing, to influences, writing routines, and literary tropes—all in digestible nuggets of common sense and good humor.
That interrogation of the world and the person yields a beautiful example in “That Crafty Feeling,” as Smith turns her attention to finishing a work of writing. These lines show the author at her most incisive, an intimate account of the relief, happiness, and desperation that accompany a novel’s completion:
Who can find anything bad to say about the last day of a novel? It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word. The last time it happened to me, I uncorked a good Sancerre I’d been keeping and drank it standing up with the bottle in my hand, and then I lay down in my backyard on the paving stones and stayed there for a long time, crying. It was sunny, late autumn, and there were apples everywhere, overripe and stinky.
What writer wouldn’t savor that moment? The Sancerre straight from the bottle, the sun, the apples. You can almost see Smith’s tears of happiness graying the rock of the paving stones beneath her. This collection came about by accident, she tells us early on, and was a discovery itself, and the curiosity that drives each of these essays makes Changing My Mind a seamless and satisfying read.