“Roving and restless” – Intimations by Zadie Smith

You know that expression ‘dance like nobody is watching’? I think it means, sort of, live unabashed, unafraid, don’t you go caring what people think about you. That kind of thing. It strikes me – as I write this from the site of a new lockdown, albeit a localised lockdown, albeit a localised lockdown in what is a large region – that this is the Government’s approach to the coronavirus – except you have to replace ‘dance’ with ‘go to work / spend money’ and ‘like nobody is watching’ with ‘like there isn’t a scary, life-threatening virus that you can both catch and pass on – a virus that may not kill you but may kill someone you pass it on to, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve decided that when it’s your time it’s your time because what happens if you pass it on to someone who hasn’t yet given up on life?”

This is in my head because Zadie Smith – Zadie Smith of White Teeth and Swing Time and Grand Union fame – has written a short collection of six essays during the lockdown, about life in the lockdown, which appear to be have been finished more or less around 31 May, and rush-released.

“There will be many books written about the year 2020,” she writes:

“historical, analytical, political as well as comprehensive accounts. This is not any of those – the year isn’t even halfway done. What I’ve tried to do is organize some of the feelings and thoughts that events, so far, have provoked in me, in those scraps of time the year has allowed.”

As you’d expect, the virus is here, background and foreground, “the global humbling”, “the global shit hit the fan”, but Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s murder are here too, the twin urgencies a helix one about the other, providing a hum of urgency, an undercurrent of now to emphasise why this has been written and published as quickly as it has.

“What was once necessary appears inessential; what was taken for granted, unappreciated and abused now reveals itself to be central to our existence. Strange inversions proliferate.”

There’s a curious back and forth between the (in the face of global catastrophe) the uselessness of art (“The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.”), the strangeness of writing as a profession (“it is a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have”) set against the need for it:

“…to write is to swim in an ocean of hypocrisies, moment by moment. We know we are deluded, but the strange thing is that this delusion is necessary, if only temporarily, to create the mould in the first place, the one into which you pour everything you can’t give shape to in life.”

There is biography, certainly (Smith and her family nervously ducking out of the big city to head to a friend’s out of the way farm), and insight, as you’d expect, but Intimations is also a reckoning, with herself and the world.

“Ever since I was a child my only thought or insight into apocalypse, disaster or war has been that I myself have no ‘survival instinct’, nor any strong desire to survive, especially if what lies on the other side of survival is just me.”

The Road is not one of Zadie Smith’s favourite books, apparently. But the world impinges as you would expect. Hard facts.

“Amid the great swathe of indiscriminate death, some old American distinctions persist. Black and Latino people are now dying at twice the rate of white and Asian people. More poor people are dying than rich. More in urban centres than in the country.”

But this isn’t reporting. Intimations, as the title suggests, may in time come to be seen as quite an important book in the Zadie Smith canon. What are intimations after all but signs, registers of feeling and thought from which greater things come. Once upon a time, Smith tells us, in a discussion on her adoptive country’s prevalent racism:

“I thought if that knowledge became as widespread as could possibly be managed or imagined we might finally reach some kind of herd immunity. I don’t think that any more.”

Any Cop?: There’s much to think on and chew over in Intimations. It’s going to be interesting to see where Smith’s roving and restless talent takes her next.


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