Zadie Smith on George Eliot: the “Secular Laureate of Revelation”

In The Guardian this weekend, there’s a nice long piece by Zadie Smith on George Eliot. (Thanks to Nigel Beale for making sure I didn’t miss this.) Though I would quibble over some details (I don’t agree, for instance, with the characterization of Middlemarch as “messy”), I am impressed at the level of detail and thoughtfulness in Smith’s discussion. She starts with Henry James’s assessment of the novel–well-travelled territory, but she finds her own way through his specific obtuseness about the significance of Fred Vincy. “[Y]ou can see why Henry didn’t have much time for Fred,” she says, but she offers a compelling analysis of Fred’s significance to both the philosophy of the novel (which she carefully addresses in terms of Eliot’s affinities to Spinoza) and to its form, in which there are of necessity many centers, not just one. A sample:

Fred is in love with a good girl; a girl who does not love him because he is not worthy; Fred agrees with her. Maybe the point is this: of all the people striving in Middlemarch, only Fred is striving for a thing worth striving for. Dorothea mistakes Casaubon terribly, as Lydgate mistakes Rosamund, but Fred thinks Mary is worth having, that she is probably a good in the world, or at least, good for him (“She is the best girl I know!”) – and he’s right. Of all of them Fred has neither chosen a chimerical good, nor radically mistaken his own nature. He’s not as dim as he seems. He doesn’t idealise his good as Dorothea does when she imagines Casaubon a second Milton, and he doesn’t settle on a good a priori, like Lydgate, who has long believed that a doting, mindless girl is just what a man of science needs. What Fred surmises of the good he stumbles upon almost by accident, and only as a consequence of being fully in life and around life, by being open to its vagaries simply because he is in possession of no theory to impose upon it.

A bit later on,

If Fred didn’t love Mary, he would have no reason to exercise his imagination on her family. It’s love that makes him realise that two women without their savings are a real thing in the world and not merely incidental to his own sense of dishonour. It’s love that enables him to feel another’s pain as if it were his own. For Eliot, in the absence of God, all our moral tests must take place on this earth and have their rewards and punishments here. We are each other’s lesson, each other’s duty. This turns out to be a doctrine peculiarly suited to a certain kind of novel writing. Middlemarch is a dazzling dramatisation of earthly human striving.

I don’t feel Smith is as smart about the form of Middlemarch as she is about some of its themes and philosophical interests. Near the end she remarks that the novel “seems to hint at those doubts in the efficacy of narrative that were to follow in the next century. Why always Dorothea, why heroes, why the centrality of a certain character in a narrative, why narrative at all? Eliot, being a Victorian, did not go all the way down that road.” I don’t see “why narrative at all?” as one of Eliot’s questions–which may, perhaps, have something to do with being Victorian, but Smith’s phrasing has the patronizing undertones of modernism. Eliot was not trying to get away from narrative (is that even possible?) but to revise it, and particularly to get away from linearity (which may, in fact, be what Smith means by “narrative”). She tackles the problem Carlyle identified (a century before the “next century” Smith refers to) about the “efficacy of narrative”–“narrative is linear, action is solid”–with a construction full of complex returns, repetitions, and doubling back, as well as the famous shifts in point of view epitomized, as Smith notes, in the question “But why always Dorothea?”

I also think Smith is not being careful enough when she moves, at the end of her piece, to make Middlemarch a stand-in for a totalizing category of the “19th-century English novel.” Middlemarch does things no other novel did in the 19th century. But so, in a very different way, did Vanity Fair or Bleak House or Barchester Towers. She wants to lump them all in together for her own polemical purposes, to reject what she sees as a lingering Victorianism and call for something new:

That 19th-century English novels continue to be written today with troubling frequency is a tribute to the strength of Eliot’s example and to the nostalgia we feel for that noble form. Eliot would be proud. But should we be? For where is our fiction, our 21st-century fiction?

These objections seem a bit odd coming from someone who has often been labelled “Dickensian,” though (as I’ve briefly discussed before) this label seems only loosely applicable in her case. What exactly does she mean by it? Presumably she means that many novelists today use techniques and conventions also used in the 19th century–but surely this does not a 19th-century novel make. Victorian novelists have been understood as writing historical novels about their own present–this investigative impulse may also continue in the work of contemporary novelists. But the world itself has changed; isn’t there novelty in that alone? Eliot talks about the effects of a “microscope directed on a water drop”–but changing the slide, while keeping the equipment, is not necessarily a conservative or nostalgic choice. You use the tools you need to get the job done. Can’t novelists read their world and craft their insights into narrative without losing credibility? To me, this call to ‘make it new’ is an unnecessary polemical flourish at the end of a good piece, the most important talking point of which should really be,

It’s a mistake to hate Middlemarch because the pollsters love it. That would be to denude oneself of one of those good things of the world that Spinoza advised we cling to.

Zadie Smith, On Beauty: Disconnected

I did not ‘connect’ with this novel at all. After I finished it, I went back and read through the two or three pages of quotations from reviewers, all full of enthusiasm and praise (“wonderfully engaging, wonderfully observed”; “accomplished, substantive, and penetrating”; “an ambitious, warm and bending [bending??] portrayal”; “hilarious”; “ironic, acerbic and intelligent”…). Say what? The characters never came to life for me; each of them seemed like an embodied idea or function. It’s true that Smith has a virtuosic ability to render different voices, dialects, cadences of speech–but the conversations lacked naturalness. The prose seemed stilted and full of details that didn’t add anything to either its sound or its meaning. Here’s one small example of the kind of thing that annoyed me: during what is actually one of the most important encounters in the novel (the ‘bonding’ between Kiki and Carlene Kipps), Kiki “felt in her purse for her lip balm” and then applies “a layer of colourless gloop to her mouth” (172). There’s some motivation for her to put on the lip balm (awkward conversational moment) but “colourless gloop” is a phrase that doesn’t belong to Kiki or the narrating voice–who would describe lip balm that way? Is there some reason we should look at lip balm problematically? Is it the lack of colour? Is there some implied anti-consumerism sub-text? Or is it just a sloppy intrusion of, maybe, Smith’s own dislike of such products? (Why? What’s wrong with them?) I realize this is a small detail, but overall much of the book had this effect on me: why is this happening? why are they saying or doing this now? why does this part belong with the other parts of the book?

I also found the whole depiction of the academic context wholly unbelievable. OK, it’s meant satirically; it’s a ‘campus novel’ (among other things) but not necessarily bound to capture the realities of professional life at universities today. But in this area too I was endlessly distracted and annoyed. How is it that Howard has been at Wellington for so long and neither received tenure nor reached the end of a tenure-track contract? Even at the most elite colleges, aren’t there procedures and time-tables for these things? Part of the novel’s denouement is his acceptance of a sabbatical, conveniently, to defuse the problems that have arisen–but sabbatical leaves are not just handed out anyplace I know about; again, there are procedures and regulations. His supposedly climactic PowerPoint presentation can’t mean anything in relation to his tenure chances–does a public lecture ever? Am I missing the point of all these breaches of academic protocol in the plot? Are they confusions about the academy, versions of the academy that those of us in less privileged institutions don’t share, adaptations of academic life to suit Smith’s thematic purposes? (What exactly are these, by the way? They never coalesced for me in any striking moment or image in the novel.)

Some of the ways she worked up the ‘culture wars’ were sort of funny, but not particularly deep and, in their overall leanings, predictably left-liberal. Though she brought Kiki around to some kind of interest in Monty’s “conservative” take on issues such as affirmative action, none of the characters that might have been used for a really probing case study were used that way after all, and the politics got sidelined, I thought, by the cliched sexual escapades of both Howard and Monty. Nothing really came of Levi’s attempt to discard his actual class identity and the white part of his family background; Jerome’s relationship with Victoria also goes nowhere in particular, simply getting diffused among the other miscellaneous plot twists. I could go on with complaints and questions, it turns out, but that’s probably enough for now.

Now, given the praise heaped on the book by the reviewers, I’m open to ideas about how I might have read it better and enjoyed it more. I did find it mildly entertaining and readable, in the sense that I kept reading along happily enough waiting and hoping for it to come together in some stirring way. It just didn’t, and while some novels leave me feeling I underestimated them on a first reading and would like to go back more thoughtfully (The Night Watch, most recently), On Beauty just left me disappointed.

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

White Teeth

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, which seemed as generous and humane as I expected from its reviews, and from the comments of other readers I had talked to about it. On the other hand, though I have heard the term ‘Dickensian’ applied to it–perhaps because of its length, and the diversity and eccentricity of its cast of characters–White Teeth struck me as more worthy of the ‘loose baggy monster’ epithet than such genuine Dickensian candidates as Bleak House or Little Dorrit. Where was the unifying pattern, whether of plot, imagery, or idea? Compare the climactic (?) shooting incident near the end of White Teeth with Krook’s spontaneous combustion in Bleak House, for example. While the former was high in drama and yet somehow comic, and while it brought elements of the story around to a kind of neat circularity, the latter (despite being entirely outrageous in realist terms, despite Dickens’s famous defense of it) is much more richly emblematic of the social and moral crises of its novel. Though I would not have expected to say quite this about Dickens, his is by far the more compelling moment aesthetically as well as intellectually.