“On Beauty”: a novel by Zadie Smith, Penguin Books, London, 2005. 446 pages, paperback.
The best writer I know at the moment is Zadie Smith, a Jamaican Englishwoman and Cambridge graduate now teaching fiction writing at New York University. I have read articles of hers and three novels: “White Teeth” (2000), “On Beauty” (2005) and “NW” (2012). I admired the first, was a bit mystified by the experimental styles in “NW,” but adore “On Beauty.”
Zadie Smith, a woman of color who has succeeded at the highest levels of intellectual life in England and the United States, writes about what she knows and has lived: poor and lower middle class neighborhoods in northwest London, Jamaican culture in London, what it feels like to be of mixed race, the clash of ethnicities, university politics and the lives of comfortably well-off intellectuals. In “On Beauty,” she includes all of these in telling the story of Howard Belsey, an Englishman, and his black wife, Kiki, and their three children, Zora, Jerome and Levi. They live in a nice home in Boston, where Howard teaches at Wellington, an exclusive private college (fictional).
This is a liberal family, and they are set off against an upper-class English Christian black family, the Kipps, with very conservative politics. Smith, who writes about varied sexual encounters with sensuality and élan, also has a deep interest in morality in modern life. She presents Howard as a Rembrandt expert who doesn’t believe in anything much, including most of the accepted knowledge about Rembrandt. She shows how this is just as demeaning and self-defeating as being radically conservative. As an example of their contrasting values, Howard believes low-income students should be permitted to audit classes at Wellington even if it is occasionally disruptive, while Monty Kipps, a snob, wants to prevent anyone except admitted (wealthy and privileged) students from using the college campus. This leads to a vociferous debate in a specially called faculty meeting, where the language of academics is hilariously displayed. For example, this is Jack French, chair of the meeting, who is seemingly incapable of speaking a short, clear sentence:
“‘There are,’ said Jack, bringing his hands together, ‘a dyad of reasons why last month’s meeting was delayed, rescheduled … maybe in fact it would be more accurate to say repositioned, for this date, for January tenth, and I feel that before we can proceed with this meeting, to which, by the way, I warmly welcome you all after what I sincerely hope was a pleasurable — and most importantly, a restful Christmas break — yes, and as I say, before we do proceed with what promises to be a really rather packed meeting as far as the printed agenda is concerned — before starting I just wanted to speak briefly about the reasons for this repositioning, for it was, in itself, as many of you know, not entirely without controversy. Yes. Now ...’”
And so on in this vein. To anyone who has ever attended a meeting like this, this is masterful high humor.
For me, the supreme value of this novel is that the characters are presented with such empathy that you forget about race and ethnicity and enjoy the characters as fully characterized people whose lives you enter with full intensity.