Sam Leith 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

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.’).

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