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Zadie Smith’s ‘Intimations’: Novels, banana bread and moments of certainty

Poorna Swami | Updated on October 01, 2020 Published on October 01, 2020

Her word: Writing, observes Smith, is all resistance   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

It is the kind of book we need right now — considerate, yet blunt and cautiously hopeful

Uncertainty has perhaps become the most popular descriptor of our new pandemic lives. Obviously, the future has no proper blueprint at the moment, so we are urged to be patient, pliant. But while we brace ourselves for that imperceptible future, we fail to follow the advice. Even as they tell us to be open to undefined days, endless articles and Instagram posts speculate about what those days will look like. The contradiction is strange, of course, but also perhaps a necessary crutch. We can only find our way about a world whose dimensions we can articulate.

Intimations: Six Essays, Zadie Smith’s latest book, rests on this conundrum. Written in the early weeks of the pandemic (until May), it offers no conclusive take on how to deal with the strangeness of these times or how to remake the future. Instead, it’s a wading through the uncertainty that accompanies crisis. Slender in appearance and small in ambition, it is the kind of book we need right now — considerate, yet blunt, yet cautiously hopeful.

Intimations: Six Essays / Zadie Smith / Non-fiction / Penguin Random House / ₹299

 

Those who have followed her work over the years will already know that Smith is a no-bullshit essayist. Rather than wrestling with big ideas, she wrestles with herself. Early in the book, she wonders, “Is it possible to be flexible on the page — as shameless self-forgiving and ever-changing — as we are in life?” Her book seems to be an attempt at exactly this. To hold, for a moment, the truth that we are in a time beyond axioms. All that we have is the running water of experience.

Each of Smith’s essays is an inconclusive reflection on her own life, which, like ours, was suddenly thrown off course. But Smith is a writer, so her essays invariably tackle the particularities of her profession. For a writer, isolated days are not unfamiliar, and yet these ones seem — and are — different. As Smith tries to unpack this change, she reflects on the purpose of a writer. After all, fiction, she says, gives us nothing that can actually be implemented in the real world. In searching for the efficacy of her craft, she settles on the idea that writing has a definite shape. She says: “Writing is control... Experience — mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious — rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mould of their own devising. Writing is all resistance.”

Writing, Smith suggests, is an insurance against the slipperiness of everyday life. And yet, there’s no aggrandising here. Because Smith also knows that the virus has “made nonsense of every line”.

“There is no great difference between novels and banana bread,” she writes. “They are both just something to do.” She might be more articulate and insightful than many of us, but she makes no attempt to hide that we share common ground. For so many of us, the last few months have unleashed a persistent existential crisis. She doesn’t give us a way out, but the reassurance that none of us “is the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.”

While Smith’s strength lies in how she writes of the mundane and the personal without caving into feel-good tropes and frilly truisms, she isn’t cynical either. She honours the personal realm as a space that is both sacred in its intimacy, and yet answerable to those around us.

She acknowledges how her life is formed and coloured by structures of power. But, most powerfully, she doesn’t toss “privilege” like some hollow defence against her own guilt of being both fortunate and dispensable. In the essay The American Exception about healthcare and Trump-era politics, she takes stock of generations of inequity. “Death comes to all,” she says, “but in America it has long been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder.” She spares no words in calling out the truly privileged, who only a few months ago were disparaging “essential” workers for demanding a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

But perhaps what makes Smith’s essays seem so urgent is that she doesn’t argue for hope by handing us a treatise. In the essay A Man with Strong Hands, she talks about her weekly interactions with her masseuse, who thinks she is completely weird because she never relaxes; she reads books through every massage. And as Smith reckons with how the pandemic will affect her, and the masseuse’s income and childcare in profoundly different ways, she is able to arrive here without pity or self-flagellation. It is the kind of moral thinking that reminds us that process is what truly matters.

The title Intimations implies an indirectness, a communication that is the opposite of a declaration. And yet the clarity of this book betrays its title for there’s an alluring sureness to Smith’s thoughts. But, of course, as she herself shows us, that is simply the illusion she can gift us as a writer. So we clutch these pages for a few moments, have someone else confess to our own precarity. And then we let go, back into the uncertain days, knowing so clearly that there is more to live beyond the page.

Poorna Swami is a writer and poet based in Bengaluru

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Published on October 01, 2020
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