Zadie Smith, Intimations: Six Essays (Penguin 2020)
This tiny book was written in the first half of 2020, when Covid-19 was running wild in New York City, where Zadie Smith teaches creative writing. It comprises six personal essays, which their author describes in her foreword as ‘small by definition, short by necessity’. They are written in the spirit of what she learned from the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: ‘Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.’
It’s a tiny book, but it’s not slight. As I read it, I could feel my personal understanding of the word ‘intimations’ changing to include an element of intimacy. These essays ruminate intimately on life, art and relationships in the middle of a pandemic. The first essay, ‘Peonies’, sets the tone:
Just before I left New York, I found myself in an unexpected position: clinging to the bars of the Jefferson Market Garden looking in. A moment before I’d been on the run as usual, intending to exploit two minutes of time I’d carved out of the forty-five-minute increments into which, back then, I divided my days.
She was transfixed by the sight of a bed of garish tulips, wishing they were peonies. That moment leads into reflections on the concept of a ‘natural woman’, the nature of creativity (‘Planting tulips is creative. … Writing is control’), the ‘global humbling’ that was to happen a few days later, on creativity and submission. She quotes a parable from Kierkegaard about the difference between how we actually are in the world and the stories we tell about ourselves in the world. You can make them peonies in a story, but they are still tulips in the real world. With the lightest of touches, the essay takes us into the deep challenge that April 2020 – ‘an unprecedented April’ – presents to our sense of ourselves.
The second essay ‘The American Exception’, also has a brilliantly enticing first line: ‘He speaks truth so rarely that when you hear it from his own mouth – 29 March 2020 – it has the force of revelation.’ We know exactly who she means. Paradoxically, the truth he spoke is that before that date ‘we didn’t have death’. The essay goes on to justify the paradox beautifully.
All the essays tackle big themes, and do it lightly. The longest, ‘Screengrabs (After Berger, before the virus)’ is the one where the author brings her gifts as a novelist most strongly to bear. I think the Berger in brackets is John Berger, and there may be a reference to his famous quote, in Understanding a Photograph: ‘I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.” The essay offers six portraits, mostly of people peripheral to Smith’s New York life, though one, subtitled ‘An Elder at the 98 Bus Stop’, is someone who has known her since childhood back in London. Each of the portraits has a twist at the end, as the pandemic leads the person to reveal something unexpected about themselves. After the portraits, there’s ‘Postscript: Contempt as a Virus’:
‘The virus doesn’t care about you.’ And likewise with contempt: in the eyes of contempt you don’t even truly rise to the level of the hated object – that would involve a full recognition for your existence.
The brief essay-within-an-essay ranges over racist micro-aggressions, Dominic Cummings’s cavalier violations of Covid restrictions, and, most compellingly, the look on Derek Chauvin’s face as he murdered George Floyd.
I haven’t read anything by Zadie Smith before this. I haven’t even seen White Teeth on TV. I’ve enjoyed her brother Ben Bailey Smith’s occasional stints on the Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, but that’s as close as I’ve got. I brought this book home from the Book(-swapping) Club, and Im very glad to be introduced to this fine writer.