Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays Read online
Table of Contents
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
Seven - THAT CRAFTY FEELING
Eight - ONE WEEK IN LIBERIA
Nine - SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Ten - HEPBURN AND GARBO
Eleven - NOTES ON VISCONTI’S BELLISSIMA
Twelve - AT THE MULTIPLEX, 2006
Thirteen - TEN NOTES ON OSCAR WEEKEND
Fourteen - SMITH FAMILY CHRISTMAS
Fifteen - ACCIDENTAL HERO
Sixteen - DEAD MAN LAUGHING
Seventeen - BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN: THE DIFFICULT GIFTS OF DAVID ...
ALSO BY ZADIE SMITH
The Book of Other People (editor)
The Autograph Man
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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
Changing my mind : occasional essays / Zadie Smith.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-101-15146-4
I. Title. PR6069.M59C’.914—dc22 2009023419
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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
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.
New York, 2009
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 f