Feel Free: Essays Read online





  BY THE SAME AUTHOR

  White Teeth

  The Autograph Man

  On Beauty

  NW

  The Embassy of Cambodia

  Swing Time

  NONFICTION

  The Book of Other People (editor)

  Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

  PENGUIN PRESS

  An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

  375 Hudson Street

  New York, New York 10014

  penguin.com

  Copyright © 2018 by Zadie Smith

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  Here and here constitute an extension of this copyright page.

  LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA AVAILABLE

  ISBN: 9781594206252 (hc)

  9780698178885 (e-book)

  Version_1

  For Kit and Hal

  and

  For Robert B. Silvers, in memoriam

  “People can be slave-ships in shoes.”

  —Zora Neale Hurston

  “The eyes are not windows. There are nerve impulses, but no one reads them, counts them, translates them, and ruminates about them. Hunt for as long as you want, there’s nobody home. The world is contained within you, and you’re not there.”

  —Daniel Kehlmann

  CONTENTS

  By the Same Author

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Foreword

  PART I: IN THE WORLD

  Northwest London Blues

  Elegy for a Country’s Seasons

  Fences: A Brexit Diary

  On Optimism and Despair

  PART II: IN THE AUDIENCE

  Generation Why?

  The House That Hova Built

  Brother from Another Mother

  Some Notes on Attunement

  Windows on the Will: Anomalisa

  Dance Lessons for Writers

  PART III: IN THE GALLERY

  Killing Orson Welles at Midnight

  Flaming June

  “Crazy They Call Me”: On Looking at Jerry Dantzic’s Photos of Billie Holiday

  Alte Frau by Balthasar Denner

  Mark Bradford’s Niagara

  A Bird of Few Words: Narrative Mysteries in the Paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

  The Tattered Ruins of the Map: On Sarah Sze’s Centrifuge

  Getting In and Out

  PART IV: ON THE BOOKSHELF

  Crash by J. G. Ballard

  The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

  Notes on NW

  The Harper’s Columns

  The I Who Is Not Me

  PART V: FEEL FREE

  Life-Writing

  The Bathroom

  Man Versus Corpse

  Meet Justin Bieber!

  Love in the Gardens

  The Shadow of Ideas

  Find Your Beach

  Joy

  Afterword

  Picture Credits

  Acknowledgments

  Index

  About the Author

  FOREWORD

  I was having dinner with old friends in Rome when one of them turned to me and said: “But of course your writing so far has been a fifteen-year psychodrama.” Everybody laughed—so did I—but I was a little stung by it, and worried at the idea for a few weeks. Now here I am bringing it up in this foreword. It’s true that for years I’ve been thinking aloud—and often wondering if I’ve made myself ludicrous in one way or another. I think the anxiety comes from knowing I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist. I’m employed in an MFA program, but have no MFA myself, and no PhD. My evidence—such as it is—is almost always intimate. I feel this—do you? I’m struck by this thought—are you? Essays about one person’s affective experience have, by their very nature, not a leg to stand on. All they have is their freedom. And the reader is likewise unusually free, because I have absolutely nothing over her, no authority. She can reject my feelings at every point, she can say: “No, I have never felt that” or “Dear Lord, the thought never crossed my mind!”

  Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two. If my writing is a psychodrama I don’t think it is because I have, as the internet would have it, so many feels, but because the correct balance and weight to be given to each of these three elements is never self-evident to me. It’s this self—whose boundaries are uncertain, whose language is never pure, whose world is in no way “self-evident”—that I try to write from and to. My hope is for a reader who, like the author, often wonders how free she really is, and who takes it for granted that reading involves all the same liberties and exigencies as writing.

  • • •

  A note: I realize my somewhat ambivalent view of human selves is wholly out of fashion. These essays you have in your hands were written in England and America during the eight years of the Obama presidency and so are the product of a bygone world. It is of course hardly possible to retain any feelings of ambivalence—on either side of the Atlantic—in the face of what we now confront. Millions of more or less amorphous selves will now necessarily find themselves solidifying into protesters, activists, marchers, voters, firebrands, impeachers, lobbyists, soldiers, champions, defenders, historians, experts, critics. You can’t fight fire with air. But equally 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

  New York

  January 18, 2017

  IN THE WORLD

  NORTHWEST LONDON BLUES

  Last time I was in Willesden Green I took my daughter to visit my mother. The sun was out. We wandered down Brondesbury Park toward the high road. The “French Market” was on, which is a slightly improbable market of French things sold in the concrete space between the pretty turreted remnants of Willesden Library (1894) and the brutal red-brick beached cruise ship known as Willesden Green Library Centre (1989), a substantial local landmark that racks up nearly five hundred thousand visits a year. We walked in the sun down the urban street to the concrete space—to market. This wasn’t like walking a shady country lane in a quaint market town ending up in a perfectly preserved eighteenth-century square. It was not even like going to one of these farmers’ markets that have sprung up all over London at the crossroads where personal wealth meets a strong interest in artisanal cheeses.

  But it was still very nice. Willesden French Market sells cheap bags. It sells CDs of old-time jazz and rock and roll. It sells umbrellas and artificial flowers. It sells ornaments and knickknacks and doodahs, which are not always obviously French in theme or nature. It sells water pistols. It sells French breads and pastries for not much more than you’d pay for the baked goods in Greggs down Kilburn High Road. It sells cheese, but of the