Zadie Smith – An Essayist on the Hitchens/Orwell Plain?

I first was introduced to George Orwell at age 13. There was that favourite older cousin the English teacher who kept recommending things (although I think that Orwell is on a different level to John Wyndham really…) who encouraged me to read 1984 and Animal Farm.

I fear 13 year olds are still too young to see the nuance and irony of such works. It did (sorry Sandra) scare me off reading any more Orwell until my early 30s.

When I did, it was his journalism and his esoteric intellect that drew me back in. Firstly his semi-fictional autobiographical work Down and Out in Paris and London, and then The Road to Wigan Pier, and then Homage to Catalonia. The latter, I must admit, has so many Marxist and Anarchist factions in it that you need, at this removed point in time, PhDs in both history and Marxist philosophy to properly comprehend.

And then I read an anthology of his essays, Shooting An Elephant, in which we get to see not the evangelical Marxist wannabe rebel from the colonist gentry, but rather, the real Orwell, the clever, decent and relatively well educated man, trying to make his way out of a social class where he did not feel at home with what he felt was his obligation to join in oppression.

Instead, a bit like the protagonists in Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air (and even perhaps, when you come to think about it, Winston Smith in 1984), he is a bourgeois with a voluntarily tenuous hold on that place, seeking to use his intellect to find a way to make a living through that intellect, rather than through unskilled manual labour, not possessing a trade (having just paid an electrician AND a plumber to sort out minor problems in my home today, I can understand that very well).

In his essays and book reviews, well before we get to his two last, great, world shaking, novels, we see Orwell at his most clever. The sharpness, and broad curiosity, of his intellect, is plain to see, and is jaw droppingly awesome. We can read the thoughts of a decent and principled man who happens to be both very well read and very clever.

My introduction to Christopher Hitchens gave me that very same impression. A colleague who was a recent acquaintance who had not yet become a friend (now a few years later a very close friend) showed me, for some reason or other, the contents page to Hitchens’ essay anthology Arguably. It was a seminal moment, as I immediately saw something in the way Hitchens’ mind worked and his pen moved to what Orwell did, half a century later.

Since then I have read many of Hitchens’ essays, and he is a great essayist, just as Orwell was. Sadly, he is only an essayist, although I do think that you could forget the first four of Orwell’s six novels and not miss a thing.

Which leads me to current English (or is it Jamacian-English) novelist and essayist Zadie Smith. I first heard of her about 15 years ago, but contemporary novels rarely make a stir in my attention. Last year, on what might be my last trip to Italy for several years, I had finished all the books I had brought along for my trip (I do spend much time resting in my hotel room or on trains during my overseas trips, rather than out raging after dark) and jettisoned them, and found I was a few days short. I bought two books in English at the bookshop at Treviso Railway Station a couple of days before I flew home, but found I did not have the energy to read them.

One of those was Feel Free, a book of published essays by Zadie Smith. She is several years younger than me, and somewhat better read (which is hard to admit given that I am extremely well read by most standards), and I can see that from reading the essays, and feeling the inevitable jealousy that comes of being middle aged and mundane and mediocre and settling for a risk free life with a few rooms full of books rather than a life writing books where the world is one’s room.

Ms Smith, like Orwell and Hitchens, is of the Left. Unlike them, she has not had grounds to rebel against the left and its status quo and be subject to criticism from it. However, she is of a different generation. Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War and then was in the Home Guard during the big one, and Hitchens had reason to choose to support the much vilified second Bush in his decision to remove the tyrant Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Ms Smith just has Boris and Donald to criticise, and none of the pocket tyrants like Kim present a real threat to the world.

But that is not to say that she is not a decent person, nor well read, nor an amazingly good writer, as she tries to make her way in the world on the basis of her own cleverness and education, the way that people like Orwell or Hitchens did before her. Nor, like those predecessors, can I say that she is not trying to persuade people to agree with her about views which she definitely believes are better for the world (and which, as I get older, I am less likely to dismiss entirely out of hand).

But I am not going to go into great details on her writings. I urge you to read just one essay of hers, Meet Justin Bieber!, a very caustic and ironic piece of great wit and cleverness, in which she compares the behaviour of Justin Bieber to the writings of his near namesake Martin Buber, a long dead philosopher. It is a very clever and funny piece, where the tweets of Bieber on his breakup with Selena Gomez (‘Can’t hear you over my cash, babe!) are compared with Buber’s writings, and where the infamous and ultra-narcissistic ‘Hopefully she would have been a Beliber’ comment in the guest book at the Anne Frank museum is taken into wicked account.

If there is any loss, it is that Zadie Smith lives in what, compared to generations before her (she shares a place in my generation, Gen X), is a safe and mundane generation, more so than the last (and hopefully less so than the next), where we have grown up to “find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…” Let’s hope that these are smugger times, where she can preserve her moderate faith in English welfare state social democracy more than Orwell could his in robust 1930s Socialism or Hitchens in the rebellious leftism of the 1970s and 1980s.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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  1. Excellent article Ernest. I look forward to reading Zadie Smith’s Bieber/Buber comparison!


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