David Blackburn

A tale of two Smiths: Zadie Smith and The Smiths

A tale of two Smiths: Zadie Smith and The Smiths
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It is lit-fiction season: that time of the year of when the premier novelists of the age dominate the market. Ian McEwan, Pat Barker, Zadie Smith, Sebastian Faulks and Rose Tremain all have new books out, and Salman Rushdie’s much anticipated memoirs are to be launched this week, so many newspapers are devoting themselves to regurgitating stale observations about The Satanic Verses ahead of the main and keenly guarded event.

Of the new books, Zadie Smith’s NW is garnering the most plaudits, or at least that seems to be the case. Philip Hensher awarded the ‘rich and varied’ book 5 stars in his Telegraph review, marking the ‘virtuosity of Smith’s technique’ for special praise and revelling in Smith’s conscientious ear for listening to the way people speak. And the Spectator’s Ian Thomson applauded a ‘mesmeric story of social self-improvement, ambition and dashed hopes.’

For those who haven’t heard, NW is situated in the familiar territory of Smithborough — those mixed London communities where affluence and want co-exist uneasily. Put crudely, Smith contrasts those who have ‘succeeded’ with those who have not. The depiction of lives lived encourages the reader to ponder lost talent, equality of opportunity and so forth as contemporary themes. And, as ever with Smith, wry humour ensures that the moral is not intrusive. NW, then, is rather more than a technical achievement.

Away from the fiction racket, several non-fiction books have captured the critics’ imaginations. Christopher Hitchens’s Mortality has been received as one would expect in a society that often mourns premature death to the point of hysteria. However, Nick Cohen’s piece in The Literary Review celebrates Hitchens’s exceptional talents without descending to platitudinous hagiography. He says that Hitchens’s experience confirms that death is without consolation, but gives thanks that one can prepare for the certainty by reading Hitchens’s typically thorough cross-examination of mortality.

Elsewhere, there are several music biographies that might merit a second glance. Barney Hoskyns has written a history of Led Zeppelin, Trampled Under Foot, which promises to thrill enthusiasts. And Tony Fletcher, the biographer of Keith Moon, has compiled a dense volume of research on The Smiths, A Light That Never Goes Out. It’s not to everyone’s taste, even great admirers of Morrissey et al. John Walsh observed in the Guardian:

‘The main onus on anyone writing about the Smiths, then, is the necessity of evoking the magical singularity of their music, but Fletcher's book doesn't manage the trick. He's too fond of the rock-hack vernacular, so that records are rated by "fans and critics alike", and music leans towards "the jazz arena" rather than jazz itself. A group so steeped in literature has long deserved the attention of someone with at least the ambition to be a prose stylist; in the same sense, there is something maddening about music so lithe and lyrical being described in prose that often falls flat.’

And the Independent’s reviewer, Steve Jelbert, a self-confessed ‘mad fan’ who followed the band everywhere, still awaits the ‘definitive account’ of The Smiths. I wonder if the Prime Minister, another mad fan, will read the book.