It takes bollocks to model oneself on an acknowledged master of the English novel of manners, that too no less a personage than E.M. Forster, whose mastery of craft was equalled only by his erudition on the craft of literary masterpieces. It takes even bigger bollocks to then take Forster’s most accomplished masterpiece, Howard’s End, raze it to the ground, strip its materials to brick, mortar, plank and panelling, relocate every item in the manner of a self-titled Lord of New England moving his just-purchased Scottish castle across the Atlantic, and rebuild it painstakingly into a literary edifice that seems perfectly at home in its new location and time.
But having taken on that challenge, it then takes bollocks the size of cannonballs to go ahead and title the book in question On Beauty and then make it beautiful in every sense: prose, structure, characterization, dialogue, metaphor, even the artful references to art woven into the narrative. An astonishing literary act of genius, that actually manages to out-Forster Forster and out-Zadie Zadie Smith. And yet, that is Zadie Smith’s third novel, the Booker-nominated On Beauty.
Pause here for applause. A long pause.
Smith might have lost the Booker, but not by much. In any case, the whopping success of On Beauty guarantees her much fatter royalty cheques than the long-deserving John Banville whose superlative The Sea neatly kippered the coveted prize from under her polished fingernails. She won’t be left grasping: already laden with her share of trophies, she can be sure to fetch more for the groaning mantlepiece in the months and years to come. One of Britain’s youngest novelists, she has not stopped manufacturing brilliance ever since she burst onto the literary scene with White Teeth, and while her sophomore effort The Autograph Man disappointed a few, she more than makes up for it with this elegant, poised, and almost perfect third submission.
That On Beauty is a masterpiece of modern fiction, you need not doubt. Lay it out bold and clear in 22 pt. sans serif font for the literary headlines. This is not simply a very good book, it’s a great book. Granted, it’s subject and content may not warrant such adulation, this being a simple comedy of manners rather than the epic saga of an entire nation beset by war, civil strife or some more heart-rendingly important crisis. But it’s not so much the book itself or the material therein, as what Smith achieves with it. Like stale clay grown hard in desert winds, she pours wet talent and breathes warm life to create a flesh and blood being with pink cheeks, hot breath and a figure that Salome would die for.
The plot is nothing to write home about–or waste much of a review on. Like Forster’s classic Howard’s End, this is a novel about family, the connections between its members, and the lack or loss of those connections. The Kipps, a racially mixed (and very mixed-up) family living in New England, USA, form the core of the story. A failed, embittered Rembrandt scholar, the white English father Howard (of course) is struggling after an extramarital indiscretion to woe his African-American wife Kiki, while fighting a losing battle to keep the filial links to his two sons and daughter. The novel starts with a crisis as Howard flies to London to try to rescue his younger son Jerome from a hasty marriage to the daughter of a rival intellectual, who seems to acquire the success Howard craves so easily and plentifully. Later, when the Belseys come to stay in the USA, becoming virtual neighbours to the Kipps, the bitter long-running rivalry, lingering heartache, smouldering sexual attractions, class envy, all simmer to a boil.
There are times when On Beauty seems poised to slip into Tom Wolfe territories of racial-class conflict, but almost at once slips quicksilver-swift into a variety of homages: apart from the intrepid Wolfe-ish play on the human politics of race differences in contemporary America and England, there’s also a vivacious post-Dickensian dissection of social politics, constantly running, incisive intellectual debate-in-dialogues that would have made the late Robertson Davies proud, the uneasy explorations of self and mood that strongly recall the best of Beattie, those wonderfully rambling artistic descriptive digressions of Updike…there are too many minds at work here at times to seem plausible even in a pastiche, yet Smith writes masterfully in all these many hands, drawing them all together like a coach-master wrangling a 16-horse team, to make the whole entirely her creation. Not once in this ambitious, building, resonant novel does she falter, there are no weak passages or clumsy rifts. Every marvellous sentence, every metaphor, every finely observed nuance of action, profane slang, class mannerism, is pitched forth with perfect effect. What does one do with a book this well crafted except acknowledge it for what it is: a masterpiece in its own right.
This is the first Zadie Smith novel I’ve read. I voted it down, unread, when picking my preferred Booker winner, and by a remarkable coincidence (or very fine judgement) my choice won. But having read On Beauty now, long after the hue and cry and hype has died down, I can’t but wish that she wins many other prizes, to add to the already chart-topping sales she’s currently enjoying on both sides of the big salty Atlantic. This is one new writer who can’t be hyped enough, and whose talent is too big to be contained in any one book, however brilliant. Zadie Smith has big bollocks, massive ones, and it looks like she’s going to put them to great use in a great number of books. And we’re the better for it.