Changing My Mind Read online





  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  Dedication

  Foreword

  READING

  One - THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD : WHAT DOES SOULFUL MEAN?

  Two - E . M. FORSTER, MIDDLE MANAGER

  Three - MIDDLEMARCH AND EVERYBODY

  Four - REREADING BARTHES AND NABOKOV

  Five - F. KAFKA, EVERYMAN

  Six - TWO DIRECTIONS FO R TH E NOVEL

  BEING

  Seven - THAT CRAFTY FEELING

  Eight - ONE WEEK IN LIBERIA

  Nine - SPEAKING IN TONGUES

  SEEING

  Ten - HEPBURN AND GARBO

  Eleven - NOTES ON VISCONTI’S BELLISSIMA

  Twelve - AT THE MULTIPLEX, 2006

  Thirteen - TEN NOTES ON OSCAR WEEKEND

  FEELING

  Fourteen - SMITH FAMILY CHRISTMAS

  Fifteen - ACCIDENTAL HERO

  Sixteen - DEAD MAN LAUGHING

  REMEMBERING

  Seventeen - BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN: THE DIFFICULT GIFTS OF DAVID ...

  Acknowledgements

  INDEX

  ALSO BY ZADIE SMITH

  The Book of Other People (editor)

  On Beauty

  The Autograph Man

  White Teeth

  THE PENGUIN PRESS

  Published by the Penguin Group

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  First published in 2009 by The Penguin Press,

  a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  Copyright © Zadie Smith, 2009

  All rights reserved

  “Smith Family Christmas” was published as “Scenes from the Smith Family Christmas”

  in The New York Times, December 24, 2003. Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company.

  Excerpts from “High Windows,” “The Literary World,” “Self’s the Man,” and “Water”

  from Collected Poems by Philip Larkin. Copyright © 1988, 2003 by the Estate of Philip Larkin.

  Excerpt from “The End and the Beginning” from Miracle Fair by Wislawa Szymborska,

  translated by Joanna Trzeciak. Copyright © 2001 by Joanna Trzeciak. Used by permission of

  W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

  Pages 298-99 constitute an extension of this copyright page.

  LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA

  Smith, Zadie.

  Changing my mind : occasional essays / Zadie Smith.

  p. cm.

  Includes bibliographical references and index.

  eISBN : 978-1-101-15146-4

  I. Title. PR6069.M59C’.914—dc22 2009023419

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

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  In Memory of My Father

  The time to make your mind up about people is never!

  —TRACY LORD, The Philadelphia Story

  You get to decide what to worship.

  —DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

  FOREWORD

  This book was written without my knowledge. That is, I didn’t realize I’d written it until someone pointed it out to me. I had thought I was writing a novel. Then a solemn, theoretical book about writing: Fail Better. The deadlines for these came and went. In the meantime, I replied to the requests that came in now and then. Two thousand words about Christmas? About Katharine Hepburn? Kafka? Liberia? A hundred thousand words piled up that way.

  These are “occasional essays” in that they were written for particular occasions, particular editors. I am especially grateful to Bob Silvers, David Rem nick, Deborah Treisman, Cressida Leyshon, Lisa Allardice and Sarah Sands for suggesting I stray into film reviewing, obituaries, cub reporting, literary criticism and memoir. “Without whom this book would not have been written.” In this case the cliché is empirically true.

  When you are first published at a young age, your writing grows with you—and in public. Changing My Mind seemed an apt, confessional title to describe this process. Reading through these pieces, though, I’m forced to recognize that ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith. As is a cautious, optimistic creed, best expressed by Saul Bellow: “There may be truths on the side of life.” I keep on waiting, but I don’t think I’m going to grow out of it.

  —Zadie Smith

  New York, 2009

  READING

  One

  THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD : WHAT DOES SOULFUL MEAN?

  When I was fourteen I was given Their Eyes Were Watching God by my mother. I was reluctant to read it. I knew what she meant by giving it to me, and I resented the inference. In the same spirit she had introduced me to Wide Sargasso Sea and The Bluest Eye, and I had not liked either of them (better to say, I had not allowed myself to like either of them). I preferred my own freely chosen, heterogeneous reading list. I flattered myself I ranged widely in my reading, never choosing books for genetic or sociocultural reasons. Spotting Their Eyes Were Watching God unopened on my bedside table, my mother persisted:

  “But you’ll like it.”

  “Why, because she’s black?”

  “No—because it’s really good writing.”

  I had my own ideas of “good writing.” It was a category that did not include aphoristic or overtly “lyrical” language, mythic imagery, accurately rendered “folk speech” or the love tribulations of women. My literary defenses were up in preparation for Their Eyes Were Watching God. Then I read the first page:Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

  Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

  It was an aphorism, yet it had me pinned to the ground, unable to deny its strength. It capitalized Time (I was against the capitalization of abstract nouns), but still I found myself melancholy for these nameless men and their inevitable losses. The second part