Tuesday, June 26, 2018

FEEL FREE: Essays By Zadie Smith (A Review)

About the Book

Zadie Smith
Published on February 6, 2018 by Penguin Press
Hardcover, 452 pages
Essays, Non-fiction

My Review

    "...you can't fight for a freedom you've forgotten how to identify. To the reader still curious about freedom I offer these essays—to be used, changed, dismantled, destroyed or ignored as necessary!"—Zadie Smith

    I enjoyed this collection of essays: Smith weaves all kinds of themes into its fabric (from the wry and yet poignant portrait of a generation, Generation Why?, lost in the hedonistic values of the social network to the elegiac tones of Love In The Gardens), but my favorite moments are the diaristic ones (The Shadows Of Ideas, Find Your Beach, Joy) and those where she narrows her scope down to a more autobiographical and self-revealing narrative.
    Above all others, I loved the retrospective lucidity, emotional intelligence, and lyricism of "The Bathroom", a touching family portrait reminiscent of that time of her childhood when her family raised from an impoverished background to the British "lower middle class", a change of social status that brought a great sense of liberation to the Smith family, but came also at the high price of self-sacrifice and nearly self-obliteration of at least one of her parents. Echoes of her signature themes (family, multiculturalism, race, social displacement, search for identity) reverberate across the essay with that exquisite harmony of social satire and compassionate remembrance that is so typical of her writing. The acquisition of a larger home (not quite a mansion, and yet a maisonette with four bedrooms and two bathrooms) was, in the 80s, one of the points of pride of the "unlovable lower middle class", and a spare room or an extra toilet represented for the Smiths the passage to a higher social status, a notion somewhat bemusing nowadays to some, but a milestone sort of achievement for a family that was not exactly enjoying the contentment and freedoms of the British bourgeoisie.

    "When I think of my parents it's often with some guilt: that I did the things they never got to do, and I did them on their watch, using their time, as if they were themselves just that—timekeepers—and not separate people living out the evershortening time of their own existence. [...] no matter how many rooms you have, and however many books and movies and songs declaim the wholesome beauty of family life, the truth is "the family" is always an event of some violence. It's only years later, in that retrospective swirl, that you work out who was hurt, in what way, and how badly."

    As the author herself claims in her forward, essays about one person's experience have, by their very nature, not a leg to stand on. In Feel Free, though, the intimate tone of Zadie Smith's memoires and the insightfulness of her social commentaries imbue this collection (earnest musings on matter of culture and politics) with erudite authority and soulful humanity: "I'm a sentimental humanist. I believe art is here to help, even if the help is painful—especially then." 
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From the Cover...

From Zadie Smith, one of the most beloved authors of her generation, a new collection of essays 

Since she burst spectacularly into view with her debut novel almost two decades ago, Zadie Smith has established herself not just as one of the world's preeminent fiction writers, but also a brilliant and singular essayist. She contributes regularly to The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books on a range of subjects, and each piece of hers is a literary event in its own right.

Arranged into five sections--In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free--this new collection poses questions we immediately recognize. What is The Social Network--and Facebook itself--really about? "It's a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore." Why do we love libraries? "Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay." What will we tell our granddaughters about our collective failure to address global warming? "So I might say to her, look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we'd just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes--and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat."

Gathering in one place for the first time previously unpublished work, as well as already classic essays, such as, "Joy," and, "Find Your Beach," Feel Free offers a survey of important recent events in culture and politics, as well as Smith's own life. Equally at home in the world of good books and bad politics, Brooklyn-born rappers and the work of Swiss novelists, she is by turns wry, heartfelt, indignant, and incisive--and never any less than perfect company. This is literary journalism at its zenith.