Writing by Eilish Newmark. Illustration by Polly Burnay.
2020 is a year that has and will continue to inspire an abundance of musings and introspections, both personal and published, that reflect upon what it is to experience such a momentous shift in our mutual understanding of the world, caused by the pandemic. Zadie Smith describes her collection of short essays, Intimations, as a product of her need to fill the gaping hole of time that the pandemic and isolation provided her with. In her third essay in the collection, ‘Something to Do’, Smith writes that this seemingly endless and unmarked time has exposed a necessity to place artificial limitations on our days, to ensure that they aren’t wasted. ‘There’s no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do.’ In this new environment of such freedom and limitation, despite every attempt to construct a fabricated definition to our days, a feeling of emptiness and a sense that there is always an indeterminable and never-ending amount of time to fill prevails. With reference to a line about love (‘Without it, life is just doing time’) in an essay by Ottessa Moshfegh, an author famous for writing about isolation, Smith resolves that what this period requires is not ‘something to do’ but a love to be experienced, ‘something to go through’. In our isolation, it is only the company of others that can give meaning to time and what we do with it.
While the collection may appear to be whimsical and abstract, that is far from the truth. Each of the essays are grounded in radical thought, intertextual references, candid observations and perceptive personal arguments. Smith writes in the Foreword that ‘writing means being overheard’ and it is with that stance that she appears to approach her reflection. The essays are rooted in a social consciousness and a desire to state (and to be overheard in stating) her political standpoint, which Intimations shows to be undeniably radical. The topics of Black Lives Matter, worker’s rights, living rent, misogyny, systemic inequality and political incompetence do not take centre stage in all of the essays but are consistently woven into them, often in the context of a stream of personal musings on writing and sometimes inserted in brackets - not as an afterthought but as a vital and remarkable addition to the particular story Smith is telling. In a review of Intimations for The Guardian, Tessa Hadley draws attention to the humility that runs through the collection. As in Smith’s fictional novels, perhaps the beauty of the essays is in their truthful morality and her powerful ability to observe and recount stories and thoughts from an assured, but in no way aggrandised, intelligence and awareness.
It is these observations sprung from Smith’s experience of being an author and professor in New York in the fifth essay, ‘Screengrabs’, that I most enjoyed reading. The chapter is made up of small sketches of personalities that have made their mark on the periphery of Smith’s life, but who are at the forefront of her meditations. These short portraits are particularly poignant in following the essay ‘Suffering like Mel Gibson’, which is a nuanced discussion on how the suffering experienced as a result of this particular period of widespread difficulty is ‘very precisely defined, and different for each person’. What is ‘real suffering’ and can it be mediated by our individual privileges? The character ‘screengrabs’ that come after seem to provide a partial answer to this complex question. From the outside, Smith contemplates her perception of these six different people from before and in the onslaught of the lockdown; the nail salon owner engrossed in his business, the university IT guy with his own unique style, the elderly neighbour and her dog who yaps, Myron a homeless, disabled, and outspoken man (who Smith had once before used as character inspiration for a novel). Each of them has their own reactions to and consequences of the impending isolation and suffering, consequences that both challenge and confirm Smith’s preconceptions that she had constructed in a world pre-pandemic, pre-reflection. As a reader, the essays result in an appreciation for community and detail and they open up a discussion about the importance of individual variability when considering this global shift.
The postscript, ‘Contempt as a virus’, returns to the bigger picture and employs the metaphor of a deadly virus in a searing and affecting commentary on the class and racial contempt we have witnessed this year in Britain and America. The contempt in Dominic Cummings eyes, who in breaking his own rules, declared himself superior and separate to the ‘herd’ of others he governs. The contempt that rages through the American police force and revealed itself on May 25th in the face of the officer who kneeled on the neck of George Floyd until he died. Smith makes her anger, frustration and hopelessness in the face of change clear. The chapter serves to confirm that Zadie Smith is an essential voice and that her musings, even if born out of the simple and humble need of something to do, provide an important and often radical reflection of our society.