I have never been much of a reader of essays, and yet in 2018 I have already read eight essay collections and anthologies. Most recently, I finished Zadie Smith’s Feel Free, which collects a wide variety of previously published and unpublished essays from the last decade or so.
The range of subjects she explores is truly dizzying: from the personal to the political, the philosophical to the physical, Brexit to Justin Bieber, Phillip Roth to Karl Ove Knausgard. Here are essays about her neighborhood library, traveling through Italy with her father, social media, music from rap to Billie Holiday to Joni Mitchell, and films of all persuasions, from arthouse to mainstream. She writes about art that has mattered to her at various times in her life, from contemporary painters and sculptors to Italian Renaissance artists. But the landscape of these essays is not purely material. Throughout and among her examination of art, music, and dance, she explores motherhood, race and its intersection with art, criticism and culture, philosophy, the practice of journaling, the nature of joy and memory, the role of an artist.
There was no central thread tying these essays together–this was not a book about art, or writing, or politics alone. “Look at the world,” each essay seemed to say. “Everything on this earth is worth examining.” What made these disparate essays such a joy to read was the thoughtfulness and creativity with which she handled each subject, the equal care she gave to the physical and the philosophical. Nothing is too small or too vast–all of our strange, contradictory, varied human existence is worth her exploration.
Her voracious curiosity, her desire to examine the world, her hunger to understand the complex, her interest in wrestling with contradiction and nuance–these things leap from the page. Though I did not love each individual essay–the Harper’s book reviews especially felt a bit insular, at times–the overall feeling I was left with with a sense of awe and openness. In these pages, Zadie Smith is fully engaged and deeply connected, constantly questioning and excavating. At times, the openness, curiosity and humility with which she wrote about the world left me almost breathless.
My favorite essays, and where this book truly rose above the ordinary for me, were those instances in which she seamlessly interwove a specific bit of the physical world with a broader, more philosophical or emotional truth.
“Late Frau by Balthasar Denner”, an exploration of the painting of same name, haunted me. Smith writes beautifully about the painting, about the mysterious relationship between portrait and viewer, and about the lens through which women have been viewed in art. I have never seen this painting and now I can’t stop thinking about it, nor can I stop thinking about the bigger questions: how do we see? How is what we look upon changed by our gaze, and how are we, in turn, changed by the gaze of what we see–be it a painting, another person, or a reflection of ourselves?
In the beautiful essay “Dance Lessons for Writers”, Smith writes about dancers as diverse as Fred Astaire, Beyonce, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Rudolf Nureyev, among others. It’s both a portrait of these different dancers and a larger treatise on the role of art in culture, and the various ways and places that art and artists meet and blur. She writes, “Dance lessons for writers: lessons of position, attitude, rhythm and style, some of them obvious, some indirect.” I’m so used to looking at things one a time–this book, that piece of music, this sculpture. The brilliance of this essay, for me, is that she mixes it all up: everything overlaps, everything is relational, including art, including our lives.
In my favorite essay, “The I Who Is Not Me”, she delves into the complicated relationship between writers, characters, and readers. Spurred by writing her first novel in the first person, she attempts to get to the bottom of the strange phenomenon of “autobiographical writing”. This is a topic I am somewhat obsessed with. I can’t stand the notion that fiction is inherently autobiographical–it gets me so riled up that I have difficulty discussing it articulately. Smith has no such difficulty, and this felt like an essay I’ve been waiting to read my whole life, ever since I first conceived of myself as a writer. I want to give this essay to everyone who reads, not only because it is so smart, but because it includes the truest definition of fiction that I have ever read.
Forgive me now while I quote at length:
“For me fiction is a way of asking: what if things were other than they are? And a central component of that is to ask: what if I was different than I am? I have always found the practice of writing fiction far more an escape from self than an exploration of it. Yet when I read other people’s novels I make the same mistake as most civilian readers: I confuse Portnoy with Roth, and Humbert with Nabokov and Janie with Zora Neale Hurston…I want to try to find a place to reconcile the “I-who-is-not-me” of the writer with the “I-whom-I-presume-is-you” that the readers feel they can see.
I think to appreciate fiction fully it helps to conceive of a space that allows for the writer’s experience and the reader’s simultaneously, a world in with Portnoy is at once entirely Phillip Roth and not Philly Roth at all. That sounds like an impossible identity, but literature, for me, is precisely that ambivalent space in which impossible identities are made possible, both for authors and their characters.”
She goes on at length about this question of identity in fiction, and how deeply embedded, in the instinct to write novels, is the instinct to understand and empathize with other humans:
“For what is impossible about any real-life identity is its narrowness. In my case, I understood myself, as a child, to be a third, impossible option in an otherwise binary culture: neither black nor white but both. There are many negative responses a child can have to this feeling of impossibility: anger, sadness, despair, confusion. But there is another more interesting response that I think of as inherently creative, and I believe it is at the root of the reason so many writers will tell you that they felt in some way alienated as children. When you are not at home in your self, as a child, you don’t experience your self as “natural” or “inevitable”–as so many other people seem to do–and this, though melencholoy at the time, can come with certain distinct advantages. Not to take yourself as a natural, unquestionable entity can lead you in turn to become aware of the radical contingency of life in general, its supremely accidental nature. I am Phillip, I am Colson, I am Jonathan, I am Rivka, I am Virgina, I am Sylvia, I am Zora, I am Chinua, I am Saul, I am Toni, I am Nathan, I am Vladamir, I am Leo, I am Albert, I am Chimamanda–but how easily I might have been somebody else, with their feelings and preoccupations, with their obsessions and flaws and virtues. This to me is the primary novlesitc impulse: this leap into the possibility of another life. And from this position comes the ability to see the self you happen to be from a certain, often ironic, distance.”
She goes on:
“In the real world we often want our judgments and moral decisions to be swift and singular and decisive. Fiction messes with our sense of what it is possible to do with our judgments. It usefully suspends our great and violent desire to be in the right on every question, and creates an unholy and ungovernable mix of the true and the false. It’s the place where things are true and not true simultaneously: the ultimate impossibility. I think great novels free us into an understanding that the tension between true/not true might in fact be livable, might not have to be judged and immediately neutralized in the court of public opinion or in the oppressive conservatism of our social lives.”
What perfection: This to me is the primary novlesitc impulse: this leap into the possibility of another life. And: It’s the place where things are true and not true simultaneously: the ultimate impossibility. I’m getting shivers just copying out these lines. Isn’t this what makes fiction worthwhile, meaningful, powerful? It’s one of the few experiences we allow ourselves in which we willingly enter “another life”. It’s an impossibility, an opening experience that only exists in the realm of the true/not true.
Every essay in this book didn’t speak to me as powerfully as “The I Who Is Not Me.” But the book as a whole left me wanting to dive into the world. I am not a traveler; I rarely seek out art forms that aren’t books; I listen to the same music over and over again. Feel Free reminded me of the beautiful vastness of what’s out there. I was left bursting with desire: to explore, to connect, to immerse myself in as many different lives and mediums and places and ideas as possible. That’s the extraordinary power of a book.