Sam Leith

Three concepts of freedom

Feel Free, her wide-ranging essay collection covering politics, art, music, literature and philosophy, is funny, enthusiastic and original

Three concepts of freedom
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Feel Free: Essays

Zadie Smith

Hamish Hamilton, pp. 451, £

There’s a tiny mistake in Zadie Smith’s new collection of essays. She describes Geoff Dyer’s unimprovably funny ‘trick while introducing an unsmiling J.M. Coetzee at a literary festival’. And it’s a suggestive mistake.

The moment she refers to is Dyer, bashful, blurting that he wondered how his younger self would have reacted if he’d one day known he’d be sharing the stage with ‘a Booker prize-winning, South African, Nobel prize-winning novelist’… and then deciding that his younger self would have said: ‘That’s incredible, because Nadine Gordimer is my favourite writer.’ The joke is all the funnier because the camera pans to Coetzee, utterly stony of face as Geoff giggles. (It’s still on YouTube; I commend it to you.)

Why it’s a mistake is that it wasn’t Dyer introducing Coetzee — but vice versa; so it’s that much more insolent. And why it’s suggestive is that it’s an easy mistake to make. With Dyer, as with the Zadie Smith of these essays, you can’t ever quite be sure who’s introducing whom: when Dyer writes about Lawrence or Tarkovsky, the real object of study is usually Geoff Dyer; and Smith’s essays here, whatever their subjects, are at least as much a way of taking a walk through Smith’s own sensibility.

That sensibility is liberal, biracial, lower-middle-turned-international-media-class, thoughtful, globetrotting, north-London-hefted, New York dwelling, successful novelist, teacher and critic, hip-hop enthusiast, occasional magazine journalist (though one who can interview Jay Z without asking him about Beyoncé), the sort of person who has Schopenhauer in her pocket and a bit of the teacher’s pet about her, earnest, funny, enthusiastic and original.

A short-lived literary column she wrote for Harper’s, for instance, specialised in unexpected conjunctions — the pessimist philosopher John Gray with the late Duchess of Devonshire; or a 1931 small-press novella by Mela Hartwig with a book about insects (‘At dinner, [Smith’s insect anecdotes] don’t just end the conversation, they end dinner.’). Another essay has as its premise: ‘Imagine a meeting between Justin Bieber, global pop star, and Martin Buber, long-dead Jewish philosopher. I know, I know. But in my mind these two are destined to meet.’ And you know what? She brings it off.

The essays on politics (there are only a couple) are weaker — not weak, but not the top of her game. But who knew she was such a knowledgeable, attentive and original reader of art? There are really penetrating and thoughtful pieces about reacting to Sarah Sze’s installation ‘Centrifuge’ and Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’, for instance.

There’s a brilliant essay — like all the best essays, powered by close attention and fierce enthusiasm — about the various examples dancers have to offer writers (from Prince and Michael Jackson to David Byrne and the Nicholas Brothers, who we meet ‘progressing down a giant staircase doing the splits as if the splits is the commonsense way to get somewhere’). And there is, likewise, a great one on hating Joni Mitchell’s music for years and then suddenly loving it — which is at once utterly particular to Smith’s own experience and resonant with any reaction to art.

And in the section on literature, where she does credit herself with a degree of connoisseurship (‘I have a deep interest in my two inches of ivory’) she’s as good as you’d expect — the highlight probably being a joyous appreciation of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia.

You can read the title three ways. As a set phrase — as a cliché — ‘feel free’ is an offhanded invitation; a gesture almost of indifference. Do what you want. Here’s a literary writer who, describing a street market in her home turf of north-west London, writes breezily: ‘Everybody’s just standing around, talking, buying or not buying cheese, as the mood takes them. It’s really pleasant.’ She doesn’t force herself on the reader’s attention. She’s not bossy. The foreword — which risks an almost mimsy note of self-deprecation about Smith’s far from mimsy intelligence — describes her as having ‘no real qualifications’, as just ‘thinking aloud’.

But you can also read the phrase ‘feel free’ — and Smith seems to — as exhortatory. Is the emphasis on the first term — on feeling? Certainly, there’s support for that. Essays on urban change, the Brexit vote and on global warming are interested in the emotional and personal aspects of the debates. She’s alive to the brain as a feeling organ.

But, above all, the emphasis is on the second term: on freedom. On the literary freedom she discerns in the examples of Philip Roth, D.H. Lawrence or Hanif Kureishi. And here, I think, she’s always shadowing Martin Amis’s remark that ‘fiction is freedom’. She uses that freedom exuberantly. This is a mixed bag in the best way.