There are probably going to be a lot of lockdown books. Or maybe not: maybe as the new world becomes the new normal we’ll want to hurry forward, away from our first intuitions of change, shedding them behind us because nothing’s so stale as the news from last week. But whichever way it turns out, I think this collection of little pieces by Zadie Smith will endure as a beautiful thing. Although it’s born out of the pandemic and the lockdown, it feels like a doorway into a new space for thought.
Smith is a wonderful essayist; she’s a natural. She writes as she thinks, and she thinks crisply and exactly, not in abstractions, but through the thick specificity of people and places, fragments of story. She doesn’t lay down the law, she argues with herself, so that the movement of her writing feels like the zigzag passage of perception inside a quick mind, not in love with its own opinions, uneasy with certainty. “Talking to yourself can be useful,” she says in her foreword. In her other essay collections – Changing My Mind and Feel Free – she’s a brilliantly assured cultural critic: we need to know what she has to say about books and art and music, and all the politics and life mixed up with those. She’s glamorously immersed in contemporary culture as well as richly intellectual and well read, her inner landscape encompassing “Kafka and Prince … Malcolm X and Aneurin Bevan”. But Intimations feels more intimate than those earlier collections. The book that came to mind sometimes as I read was Doris Lessing’s London Observed, which I loved 30 years ago. That, too, was a compendium of city-fragments, gathered up inside the same humane, keen curiosity, the same writerly close attention, the same empathetic flare of response to other lives.
There isn’t all that much explicitly about the pandemic, or Black Lives Matter, and yet everything feels conceived under the pressure of those things
Intimations is a slim volume – just six essays, most of them only six or seven pages long, the penultimate one is an assembly of smaller sketches, “screengrabs”, portraits of individuals encountered on the street or in the park. The book’s leanness feels like part of its aesthetic; its thought-space is uncluttered and unfussy, and everything is lightly, delicately done. Most of the pieces are from New York, where Smith teaches at New York University, but some are from London. Some of the encounters and observations are pre-lockdown; then there’s the scramble to get out of the city to a friend’s place upstate, with a plan to return home to London. There isn’t all that much explicitly about the pandemic, or the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and yet everything feels conceived under the pressure of those things happening, pushing out new meanings from old subjects. A legless, homeless man in a wheelchair holds forth on his phone on the craziness of white folks: “I ain’t running from no cold. I survived worse. I survived WAY worse shit than this.” A geeky, sweet young IT guy at the university floats beside Smith on a hoverboard. A Jamaican friend of “Sadie” and her family back in Willesden, London, is insisting that her doctor bring on her menopause, at 58. “I’m walking right in there and DEMANDING he brings it on, right now, because this is just silly business at this point.”
Smith doesn’t presume to speak for these other lives – she’s uncomfortable, in fact, about having used “Myron”, the homeless man, for her purposes in a short story once. But she listens to them and watches them, alert to how others speak, how their lives speak, how they make their living. At one wincing moment, going out to get cash for their escape from the city, she crosses paths with an elderly female neighbour. Under normal circumstances Barbara is an “ideal, rent-controlled city dweller who appears to experience no self-pity, who knows exactly how long to talk to someone in the street, who creates community without overly sentimentalising the concept – or ever saying aloud the word ‘community’”. But everything is different now, and the woman’s voice has changed:
Thing is, we’re a community, and we got each other’s back. You’ll be there for me, and I’ll be there for you, and we’ll all be there for each other, the whole building. Nothing to be afraid of – we’ll get through this, all of us, together.” “Yes, we will,” I whispered, hardly audible, even to myself …
One of the endearing characteristics of Intimations is how much time Smith spends feeling uncomfortable, or confessing her own timidity or passivity, even treachery. She won’t make any special claim for herself because she’s a writer. “I write because … well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have.” She can’t really believe – can she, this hungry reader? – that there’s “no great difference between novels and banana bread”. And yet this self-doubt is the core of her moral intelligence – and seems like a significant source, too, for her fiction-making. It is by not being certain we are right that we come closest to truth.
Her essay “Suffering” begins with how the misery of lockdown is “very precisely designed, and different for each person”:
The writer learns how not to write. The actor not to act. The painter how never to see her studio and so on. The artists without children are delighted by all the free time, for a time, until time itself begins to take on an accusatory look, a judgemental cast, because the fact is it is hard to fill all this time sufficiently, given the sufferings of others … Older people, surrounded by generations of family, dream of exactly the same empty couch that is, elsewhere, right now, at this very moment, the purest torture for some lucky, desperate, fortunate, lonely, selfish, enviable, self-indulgent, privileged, bereft student.
Everybody learns to deplore the irrelevance of what hurts them, “next to ‘real’ suffering”. But who is to adjudicate which suffering is most “real”? A 17-year-old kills herself because she can’t see her friends. How absurd: how could she? She isn’t “a nurse with inadequate PPE and a long commute, arriving at a ward of terrified people, bracing herself for a long day of death”. But nonetheless she felt it, and she killed herself. Suffering “has an absolute relation to the suffering individual – it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like ‘privilege’”.
In “Debts and Lessons” Smith identifies the qualities she’s learned from, in her parents and family and friends and teachers. From Tracy Chapman: “‘All that you have is your soul.’ Therefore: liberty.” From a school drama teacher: “A task is in front of you … The more absurd and tiny it is, the more care and dedication it deserves.” Novels, banana bread. She thanks contingency: the accident of birth that meant, among other things, “that my school still sang the Anglican hymns, at least for a little while, so that the ancient diction of my country came to me while very young, and fruitfully mixed with the sounds of my heritage”. This is a generously grateful book. And all of her royalties, incidentally, go to charity.
• Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day is published by Vintage. Intimations by Zadie Smith is out from Penguin (£5.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.