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On Beauty by Zadie Smith
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On Beauty (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Zadie Smith

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7,295183485 (3.63)1 / 477
Member:melydia
Title:On Beauty
Authors:Zadie Smith
Info:Penguin Books (2006), Paperback, 464 pages
Collections:Read and Released
Rating:***
Tags:fiction, audio, family drama

Work details

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)

  1. 51
    Howards End by E. M. Forster (GCPLreader)
    GCPLreader: Read the novel that On Beauty pays homage to.
  2. 00
    Foreign Affairs: A Novel by Alison Lurie (withwill)
  3. 01
    Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (charl08)
    charl08: One a more 'traditional' campus novel, perhaps, but similar themes re English literature as taught at US colleges.
  4. 02
    The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (BookshelfMonstrosity)
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English (174)  Dutch (4)  Hebrew (2)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (183)
Showing 1-5 of 174 (next | show all)
What is brilliant dialogue? For some years sharply written direct narration (reported speech), using quotation marks and minimal contexts, has been associated with publications like McSweeney's and the New Yorker, and also with writers who also work for television, like Richard Price. I don't know if there's been a study of this style, but it is taught in hundreds of MFA programs. Zadie Smith excels at it.

Her dialogue is honed and alert. She's always listening to what's happening around her characters--they might be interrupted at any moment by an alarm, or a dog barking, or a neighbor. She's attentive to what doesn't need to be said. She describes contexts as minimally, telegraphically, evocatively, unexpectedly.

Much of this book, and also the novel "NW," is dialogue, and it seldom flags. There are vanishingly few false notes. Every sentence has to be read, nothing can be skimmed. The writing is taut, scintillating, resourceful, articulate, consistently engaging. Sentences ring true to the characters who speak them, their times, ages, places, desires.

I dislike all of that. Why try so hard to keep your reader's interest, page after page? Why demonstrate brilliance, line after line? Why keep the energy fizzing, the quality topped up, the language razor-sharp? Why not let things go at different paces, go slack, run off track, wander? Why not rant for a few dozen pages, like Bernhard? Or mull indecisively, like Beckett? Or pause to describe, like Flaubert? There's a desire, in writing like Smith's, to keep the reader's admiration and attention at all costs. As if writing is a high-wire act and the crowd is incipiently bored: there has to be a high wind at all times or the reader spectators will yawn.

I find myself both entertained and exhausted by Smith. As the books go on, it becomes increasingly difficult to care about her skill: I take note only when she does something especially spectacular, as in the scene in this book in which the narrator's infidelity is revealed to his wife with an exceptionally subtle expression, exceptionally subtly described. The philosopher Karsten Harries called this the "kitsch economy": the necessity to continuously up the voltage, to outdo previous effects, because audiences have become numb. After fifty pages, I begin to feel I have been devalued as a reader: the author apparently thinks I need to be entertained at every moment, that I have no way of taking in longueurs, no interest in diversions, little capacity for meditation. It's as if brilliance is style, rather than an ornament or strategy within a style.

Smith has said, in an interview with the Paris Review, that she thinks there are more ways to be an innovative writer than carrying on the modernist experiment in writing, which she associates mainly with Joyce. She remarked that it's also innovative to bring new social configurations into novels, like the poor Londoners in "NW" or the mixed, transatlantic Afro-Caribbean characters in "On Beauty." Much of her appeal to reviewers and readers is her explorations of identity and ethnicity, and it is true that she finds subjects that have not yet been part of the discourse of novels. But she is wrong, I think, to equate that kind of innovation with the modernist experimentation with language. It's a category error: Joyce also had unusual ethnic content, and Smith's new content still has to be expressed using the languages of the novel. The two sources of innovation are entwined, but one does not lead to the other. If you pretend that linguistic innovation is a thing of the past, you become oblivious to the indebtedness, possibilities, and obligations of your own linguistic practices.

And there is a blind spot in her sense of her own project as a novelist, because her writing is deeply indebted to Joyce, especially the Joyce of "Ulysses." She uses a number of his innovations, for instance the device of having a character speak before he or she has been introduced, compelling the reader to keep going a while before the speaker's context and meaning become clear. She is, in fact, in the line that leads from Joyce to more recent writing, but she chooses, or needs, not to see her work in that way.

Personally, I am not interested in Afro-Caribbean identities, or in campus novels (and I'm especially not interested in depictions of my own field, art history), and so much of this book's content isn't engaging. That leaves the writing. It is breathless in its desire to capture my attention at every moment, and I find that it shrinks my sense of myself as a reader, giving me less scope to imagine or experience as I might hope. And I am baffled by the author's own idea that she isn't in the modernist tradition, that she isn't engaging possibilities of writing that began, for her, with Joyce. Surely it doesn't make sense to imagine the kind of dialogue in this book as being simply true to life, or merely beautiful, brilliant, or articulate dialogue: her style of writing has a specific history, and it echoes with the achievements of novelists of the past. But she does not imagine her work that way: apparently she thinks her skills as a writer serve her interests in politics, race, class, and identity, the way faceless servants once attended to Europeans who remained unconscious of their presence. ( )
2 vote JimElkins | Apr 12, 2016 |
The self-absorbed middle-aged white male academic who spends his time cheating on his wife and gazing into his navel is possibly the single oldest, most widespread, most tedious subject in literary fiction. But Zadie Smith does something really interesting with it: she puts that guy at the center of her novel, but then, instead of following him into his self-absorption, she opens up the world around him to us, showing us perspectives you don't usually get in that sort of story. We see what life looks like from many other points of view, including those of his down-to-earth black wife, Kiki, and their mixed-race children, each of whom is struggling to define their identity in their own very different ways. And Smith tackles a dizzying array of themes, from race relations to post-modernism to free speech, some of them directly, some subtly.

Her characters are great, too. (I have a particular fondness for Kiki.) Admittedly, some of them are better-developed than others... All of them feel real, but we spend more time getting to know and understand some of them, and it's often not the ones I expected the novel to focus on. It had something of a tendency to jump around from person to person, sidelining situations I expected to be more important only to develop others tangential to them, in ways that sometimes left me feeling a little-off balance, but ultimately I think it all worked surpriaingly well. ( )
1 vote bragan | Mar 11, 2016 |
I selected this for my bookclub. I was a bit bored with it. Characters were semi-interesting, however, just didn't grab me. ( )
  anglophile65 | Mar 8, 2016 |
I slowly came to like this book. The characters gradually grew on me, at least those I felt sympathy for. An interesting story of a family in an almost critical state and how they deal with themselves and their outside influences. I could not tune in to Howard or Victoria at all however. An interesting book, looking at different types of beauty. Glad I've read it. ( )
  Laurochka | Feb 6, 2016 |
another reviewer said it best "was not invested in any of these characters or their various crises" I'm 80% finished and ready to be done. Interesting and OK, but not a classic. Trails off at the end ( )
  deldevries | Jan 31, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 174 (next | show all)
On Beauty" is that rare comic novel about the divisive cultural politics of the new century likely to amuse readers on the right as much as those on the left. (Not that they'll necessarily be laughing in the same places.) Yet Smith is up to more as well: she wants to rise above the fray even as she wallows in it, to hit a high note of idealism rather than sink into the general despair. How radical can you be? Blame it on her youth.
 
Beautifully observed details of clothing, weather, cityscapes and the bustling human background of drivers, shoppers and passers-by are constantly being folded into the central flow of thought, feeling and action, giving even the most mundane moments - Levi riding a bus into Boston, Howard setting up a projector - a dense, pulsing life.
 
On Beauty is quieter. There is a complicated story making up by richness of implication what it lacks in exuberance. The culture of the Boston campus is set among the other cultures such a city harbours. Carl, the outsider who enters the story because of the muddle at the concert, is far from being a replica of Leonard Bast. He’s an exponent of rap culture – and it is a culture, unlike Bast’s pathetic aspirations. The power of his rap has to be explained, and indeed the author intervenes personally to endorse it: ‘the present-day American poets, the rappers’. The mufflered pink-cheeked charm of a New England campus in winter is very agreeably rendered. The row between Professor Belsey and Kiki when she finds out he’s been cheating is as deft as anybody could make it, he with his stumbling, evasive academic dialect and she with her ‘personal’ language and naturally inflexible notions of fidelity and honour.

In a late scene Kiki is sorting out her children’s accumulated belongings. As she is carrying two bags of her elder son’s ‘pre-growth-spurt clothes’, we are told:

Last year, she had not thought she would still be in this house, in this marriage, come spring. But here she was, here she was. A tear in the garbage bag freed three pairs of pants and a sweater. Kiki crouched to pick these up and, as she did so, the second bag split too. She had packed them too heavy. The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.

What makes this passage brilliant is that the sententia at the end, though it may be true, is somehow made ironical because it is Kiki, there among all the random evidence of her love, who is uttering it, and not some cheat, some intellectual, some person of recognised authority. She is the measure of Zadie Smith’s powers at 30, Forster’s age when he published Howards End.
 

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Epigraph
We refuse to b each other. H.J.Blackham
Dedication
For my dear Laird.
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One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father.
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Book description
En grotesk og morsom beretning om fjendskabet mellem to kunsthistorikere. Om universitetsliv, om kærlighed og sex og om at blive voksen.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0143037749, Paperback)

In an author's note at the end of On Beauty, Zadie Smith writes: "My largest structural debt should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan; suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could." If it is true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Forster, perched on a cloud somewhere, should be all puffed up with pride. His disciple has taken Howards End, that marvelous tale of class difference, and upped the ante by adding race, politics, and gender. The end result is a story for the 21st century, told with a perfect ear for everything: gangsta street talk; academic posturing, both British and American; down-home black Floridian straight talk; and sassy, profane kids, both black and white.

Howard Belsey is a middle-class white liberal Englishman teaching abroad at Wellington, a thinly disguised version of one of the Ivies. He is a Rembrandt scholar who can't finish his book and a recent adulterer whose marriage is now on the slippery slope to disaster. His wife, Kiki, a black Floridian, is a warm, generous, competent wife, mother, and medical worker. Their children are Jerome, disgusted by his father's behavior, Zora, Wellington sophomore firebrand feminist and Levi, eager to be taken for a "homey," complete with baggy pants, hoodies and the ever-present iPod. This family has no secrets--at least not for long. They talk about everything, appropriate to the occasion or not. And, there is plenty to talk about.

The other half of the story is that of the Kipps family: Monty, stiff, wealthy ultra-conservative vocal Christian and Rembrandt scholar, whose book has been published. His wife Carlene is always slightly out of focus, and that's the way she wants it. She wafts over all proceedings, never really connecting with anyone. That seems to be endemic in the Kipps household. Son Michael is a bit of a Monty clone and daughter Victoria is not at all what Daddy thinks she is. Indeed, Forster's advice, "Only connect," is lost on this group.

The two academics have long been rivals, detesting each other's politics and disagreeing about Rembrandt. They are thrown into further conflict when Jerome leaves Wellington to get away from the discovery of his father's affair, lands on the Kipps' doorstep, falls for Victoria and mistakes what he has going with her for love. Howard makes it worse by trying to fix it. Then, Kipps is granted a visiting professorship at Wellington and the whole family arrives in Massachusetts.

From this raw material, Smith has fashioned a superb book, her best to date. She has interwoven class, race, and gender and taken everyone prisoner. Her even-handed renditions of liberal and/or conservative mouthings are insightful, often hilarious, and damning to all. She has a great time exposing everyone's clay feet. This author is a young woman cynical beyond her years, and we are all richer for it. --Valerie Ryan

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:49 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering Professor at Wellington College in New England. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths, and faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Then Jerome, Howard's oldest son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps. Increasingly, the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register...… (more)

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