Ruminating on 2020, Zadie Smith captures how we all feel right now – insecure, unsteady, remorseful of the lives and times lost. She also writes it better than we ever could.
There’s an honesty in the way Zadie Smith writes. A self-awareness that oftentimes strikes you as a little doubtful. This may come as surprise from a woman who began her career as literature’s wunderkind. (Her debut, White Teeth (2000) was snapped up by publishers in a bidding war, long before she’d even completed it in her final year at Cambridge.) Intimations: Six Essays, shows Smith, like many of us in the year 2020, at her most vulnerable yet. Consisting of six essays (wow no way), Smith discusses everything from what it means to be a woman, constrained by ‘body clocks’, America’s political hellscape, and subtly underlying everything, of course, is 2020’s favourite buzzword: lockdown.
“For millions of Americans, it’s always been a war. Now, apparently for the first time, he sees it. And, in a hurry for glory, he calls himself a wartime President. Let him take that title, as the British Prime Minister, across the ocean, likewise attempts to place himself in the Churchillian role.”
My favourite thing about Zadie Smith is that although she is a genius, her work remains so accessible. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s dumbed-down – it’s not in the slightest – I just mean she remains concise and funny while broaching topics that are difficult to articulate by even the most gifted of writers. I feel like I ‘get’ her, you know? Intimations, Smith’s literary contribution to the pandemic, demonstrates her ability to do this perfectly.
“Writing is what I know. Conceiving self-implemented schedules: teaching day, reading day, writing day, repeat. What a dry, sad, small idea of a life. And how exposed it looks, now that the people I love are in the same room to witness the way I do time. The way I’ve done it all my life.”as an english lit student, this line hit me hard looool exposed
In ‘Something to Do’, she attempts to deconstruct the reasons ‘why’ we write, paint, run, create. Time, and what to do with it, has been exacerbated by staying indoors. In Smith’s view, ‘there is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are just something to do. They are no substitute for love’. Lockdown, for Zadie Smith, has laid bare the monotony and ’emptiness’ of her own creative life.
“The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.”
I guess you could be cynical and read this as ‘woe is me, I’m a hugely successful author who is bored in the house and in the house bored’. But, that aside, I thought it was a really reflective and personal account of a life that has come to be defined by the constraint (or endlessness?) of time. It makes you think. Like, what have I done to fill my time? Forced myself to read, baked, did a 5k, wrote a blog. With time stretching out ahead of us and no clear way as to how to spend it, emptiness really does creep in. Depressing, really.
Still, Smith manages to vocalise the strangeness, the stress and the hurt of this year (well, the first six months or so) in a way that doesn’t come across like a cliché ‘lockdown diary’. The final pages are ‘screengrabs’ set before the pandemic; sketches of people in New York or at home in London, these tiny snippets show us how Smith sees race, suffering, class, womanhood, age.
If you’re looking for someone to give you a hug and say ‘this whole year has been so gross, I have hated every minute of it too’, then this is the book that will do it.