Zadie Smith is a British novelist who made quite a splash with her debut novel White Teeth, published in 2000 when she was 25. This one (2005) is her third, and a fourth, NW was published in 2012. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005, losing out to John Banville’s The Sea, and won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2006.
On Beauty is a campus novel, set mostly in the fictional town of Wellington, located near Boston. Howard Belsey lectures at Wellington College, which we are told is not Ivy League, but apparently sounds rather like Harvard, which is where Smith wrote the book. Howard is English and white; he is married to Kiki, who is American and black. Their children, Jerome, Levi and Zora are ‘several shades lighter’ than black, but this still makes them unusual in white, middle class, academic Wellington. Howard is writing an as yet unfinished book about Rembrandt; his great rival, Monty Kipps, born in Trinidad but now an academic and cultural pundit in London, has recently published his lavish book on Rembrandt, a ‘brick designed to sit heavily atop the New York Times bestseller list for half a year, crushing every book beneath it.’ Monty has recently caught Howard out in an error relating to one of Rembrandt’s paintings, and used the occasion to belittle the ‘extreme poverty’ of his ideas. To say there is no love lost between them is putting it mildly. Then Kipps takes up a visiting lectureship at Wellington, bringing his family with him. All sorts of complications ensue.
One of the themes of the novel is the culture wars exemplified by Belsey and Kipps. Belsey is an academic radical. His view of Rembrandt is that he is a competent artisan who painted whatever his wealthy patrons wanted; for him ‘prettiness’ is ‘the mask that power wears’. He argues against the ‘redemptive humanity’ of Art. Kipps, on the other hand, sees Rembrandt as a painter whose genius is God given, making him one of the elite of the artistic cannon. As neither Belsey nor Kipps is portrayed sympathetically, we can assume that Smith is satirising both views. She takes the title of her book from an essay by Elaine Scarry entitled ‘On Beauty and Being Just’, which argues that appreciation of beauty makes people want greater justice in the world, and the story does go some way to demonstrating this.
The novel is also about the various relationships that develop among all the members of the two feuding families. Howard and Monty have very different views of life, and these at least initially, condition the outlooks and reactions of their families, sometimes in conformity with them, and sometimes as a reaction. At the beginning of the story, Jerome is actually staying with the Kipps family in London, and enjoying their ordered, conservative, Christian home life as a contrast to his own chaotic one in Wellington. Levi has adopted a Brooklyn accent, and tries to act more ’black’ than he is. Zora has absorbed the feud, as have the Kipps’s children, Michael and Victoria. Only the wives, Kiki and Carlene, are friends. Carl Thomas, the young black street poet, is the outsider who provides the necessary contrast to the middle class Belseys and Kipps, and his role is partly as the truth teller. (The black Haitians, who work in menial jobs like cleaners and drivers in Wellington are also an instructive contrast.) But no one, except perhaps Kiki and Carlene, comes out of it very well.
Smith greatly admires E.M. Forster, and says this book is homage to him. Indeed it has many references to Howard’s End. For example, the first sentence of that book is ‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.’ The first line of this book is ‘One may as well begin with Jerome’s emails to his father.’ The stories are quite different, but there are resemblances; Carl Thomas plays something of the role of the aspiring lower middle class clerk Leonard Bast, and there is a valuable and unexpected gift in both. Both books are about how – or if – very different people can get on together. ‘But sometimes it’s like you just meet someone and you know that you’re totally connected,’ Levi says. ‘Only connect’ is Forster’s famous epigraph to Howard’s End. Someone is reading A Room with a View. Howard smiles sadly. ‘Can’t stand Forster,’ he says.
Most critics consider this book a comedy. The series of set piece incidents that make it up nearly all seem designed to show the participants at their human worst. That phrase ‘one may as well begin’ illustrates nicely the detached, ironic attitude with which Smith pins her characters, with their foibles and weaknesses, down like the specimens in a display case. Personally, I don’t find this funny; I cringe with embarrassment. This is not to deny the power of the writing; indeed it’s probably a testament to it.
You can read more about Zadie Smith here.