Hamish Hamilton £20
Changing My Mind, By Zadie Smith
Skip the clever-clever lit crit, and Zadie Smith's collection of musings is artfully engaging
Sunday 03 January 2010
Since the colossal success of her debut novel White Teeth in 2000, Zadie Smith has shown a refreshing reluctance to be pigeonholed as merely a novelist, producing articles and essays, teaching courses and giving speeches, publishing everything from memoirs to literary criticism. This collection of "occasional essays" groups together a disparate array of such pieces into a whole which, although demonstrating considerable writerly skill and an undeniably fierce intellect, remains something of a hotchpotch of miscellaneous musings. Split up into five sections – Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling and Remembering – it is the first of these which is arguably most problematic for mass consumption.
Taking up the first third of the book are half a dozen pieces of serious literary criticism, tackling some of her favourite writers, such as EM Forster, Kafka and Nabokov. These pieces are nicely constructed and well thought out, but there is an academic dryness to them that will be completely unfamiliar to fans of her fiction. At times, it is almost as though Smith is desperately trying to impress the reader with her intellect, unable to quite shake off the ghost of the precocious Cambridge student of English literature she was when first noticed by the publishing industry.
Despite displaying obvious passion for her subject matter, Smith's endless minuscule dissection of her topics tends to turn the reader off, and the result is like being stuck next to the show-off academic at a dinner party and being unable to shut them up.
But then, past this section, Changing My Mind really takes off. As if a switch has been flicked, life pours into the prose, as Smith takes on everything from the craft of writing to reportage to film reviewing and memories of her father.
"That Crafty Feeling" is a funny and self-deprecating lecture originally given at Columbia University, detailing the travails of novel-writing and pulling back the curtain to reveal personal details of the process for Smith, and how she stays sane through the whole maddening experience.
More serious but equally impressive is "Speaking In Tongues", a lecture that looks at the way we interact with the spoken word, and which manages to tie in the oratory of Barack Obama, the work of Shakespeare and Smith's own multi-cultural and multi-voiced background to scintillating effect.
Sandwiched between these two is another fine piece of writing, an account of a week in Liberia, written with such a clear eye and discerning spirit that it suggests Smith could easily have had a successful career as a journalist. The other piece of reportage here, "Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend", is also beautifully observed and piercingly perceptive, Smith's outsider's eye dissecting the madness of Hollywood with pinpoint accuracy.
Much of the rest of Changing My Mind is taken up with musings on the world of cinema and more personal examinations of Smith's family. The film stuff is fun, and written with a knockabout enthusiasm missing from the literary discussions, as Smith covers everything from Katherine Hepburn to 50 Cent, from Italian arthouse cinema to Date Movie.
But it's the memoir pieces that stick in the mind. Smith's account of trying to uncover her father's wartime exploits is touching and funny in equal measure, as is her recounting of his eventual death, which she manages to come at obliquely through their shared love of comedy, making the account all the more poignant.
Reading these pieces, along with the other personal stuff and the reportage, it's impossible not to admire Smith's marriage of humanity, humour and intellect. If only all the writing here were as well-balanced.
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