Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth

Here’s a confession: I am envious of Zadie Smith.This is not only a case of casual, low-level, everyday envy, the kind you might feel over someone’s new wardrobe, but a full-blown envy that warrants its place among the seven deadly sins. I may be risking victim blaming here – if the object of envy can be seen as a victim – but I believe I have very good reason to feel the way I do. Brilliance is rarely as black and white as Smith’s writing on paper: razor-sharp wit, original analysis of any topic that takes her fancy – and there are many topics –, and twists and turns as the unexpected is brought in line with the expected. Smith is an uomo universale of the 21st century, a Renaissance mind whose boundless interests (her topics range from death to fine art – not very different from da Vinci) have been transported to a modern environment.

To back this up, I take as my evidence Smith’s most recent literary output, Feel Free, her second collection of essays. I say ‘recent’, but the book is recent only in the sense of gracing the publisher’s catalogue for this spring; the essays themselves were written on both sides of Atlantic over the eight years of Obama reign, and so, in Smith’s words, “are the product of a bygone world.” With the Obama presidency ending only in January 2017, the latest pieces are not removed that far in quantitative time, but there is a real effect of time travel given the ongoing political tumult since.

The essay ‘Fences: A Post-Brexit Diary’, for instance, was written in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, the result of which Smith found out at her in-laws in Northern Ireland. “But in Northern Ireland it was clear that one thing it certainly wasn’t about was, not even slightly, was Northern Ireland”, Smith writes, “and this focused the mind of the extraordinary act of solipsism that has allowed this long-brutalized little country to become the collateral damage of an internal rift within the Conservative Party.” There is a sense of a weird time warp when the reader, nearly two years ahead in time of Smith, switches on the news, all about the Irish border.

But to highlight, over other things, the delay in transmission from when Smith typed the essays to when they are served to the reader does not do justice to everything that Feel Free spans. Smith’s range of topics is simply breathtaking. She does not shy away from taking on the highly personal: the reader is treated to snapshots of her childhood in Willesden to her life, now, in Manhattan, from the dreamy time in Cambridge – three years of reading books – and grappling with mixed race identity, to the bizarre anecdote of burning down an Italian plaza. Throughout this, there is no hubris in sight, but instead Smith’s trademark sharp sense of self-irony (“At the time my particular brand of liberal paranoia was focused elsewhere.”), laced with a sense of nostalgia that transcends time.

Ultimately, though, the essays are not about Smith, and she is the protagonist in the sense of being the director rather than the main actor. She imagines being a corpse in the context of reading about Italian painting, and she takes a philosophical interest in what it must be like to be Justin Bieber, through the writings of the long-dead Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (“I know, I know. But in my mind these two are destined to meet. Bieber and Buber are alternative spellings of the same German surname. Who am I to ignore these hints from the universe?”). The unexpected connections and Smith’s dexterity at discussing any topic leave the reader gaping in awe.

Of course, that such a collection can exist is a bow to Smith’s literary achievements – I do not for a moment think that the publishers at Penguin would jump at such a mixed bag of essays from a less established writer (and the envy raises its head!). The freedom that this status brings with it carries a risk, though, and that is the risk of including too much. This is, sadly, the case with the inclusion of the book review columns Smith wrote for Harper’s magazine. In a footnote, she expresses the self doubt about how the stint came about and how she ended up saying yes to taking on the job: “I had a four-month-old baby and a misplaced idea of maternal bravado. I said yes. I lasted six months.” Perhaps the idea of including nearly a hundred pages of literary columns in Feel Fee was misplaced judgement, too: not because the reviews are sub-standard or anything, but because the sheer volume of them is simply heavy and rather disconnected from Smith’s other musings.

Just as Smith asks what it must be like to be Justin Bieber, I am left wondering what it must be like to be Zadie Smith. What kind of a mind weaves all these threads together? Is there an extraordinary order to a seeming chaos? Do the synapses in her brain connect in an especially unique, Renaissance-mind way? What I do know is what I am most envious of when it comes to Smith: the ability – and opportunities – to put all of these thoughts on paper, and to do so seemingly undeterred – basically, to feel free.

Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist who blogs at wishIwasmary

Zadie Smith, Feel Free: Essays (Hamish Hamilton, 2018). I978-0241146897, 464pp., hardback.

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