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Intimations: Six Essays


Intimations: Six Essays

Though it won’t garner nearly the attention of Taylor Swift’s new quarantine album, Zadie Smith’s INTIMATIONS is another example of the high-quality work a talented artist is capable of producing during this difficult time. “Confronted with the problem of life served neat,” she observes of the lockdown that began this spring, “without distraction or adornment or superstructure, I had almost no idea of what to do with it.” Luckily for her readers, the result was this book.

Inspired by the MEDITATIONS of Marcus Aurelius, in this collection of a half-dozen pieces comprising barely 100 pages (the proceeds of which she intends to donate to charity), Smith sets herself a modest goal: to “organize some of the feelings and thoughts that events, so far, have provoked in me, in those scraps of time the year itself has allowed. These are above all personal essays: small by definition, short by necessity.” While she confesses that the Roman philosopher-king’s reflections did not turn her into a Stoic, she admits she did emerge from her reading with two invaluable intimations: “Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.”

"Though it won’t garner nearly the attention of Taylor Swift’s new quarantine album, Zadie Smith’s INTIMATIONS is another example of the high-quality work a talented artist is capable of producing during this difficult time."

In this collection of wise, often biting, snapshots of life in the time of COVID-19, we can be grateful that Smith has allowed us to eavesdrop on her reflections on subjects that include why she writes (“it’s something to do” --- her emphasis), her need to fill time (“never to just be in it, nor ever to acknowledge its fundamental independence from your conceptions of it”), and the “infinite promise of American youth,” what she calls “an empty lie for so long that I notice my students joking about it with a black humor more appropriate to old men, to the veterans of wars.” Take her response to Donald Trump’s comment that before coronavirus “we didn’t have death”:

“Death comes to all --- but in America it has long been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder,” a prelude to concluding that while for Americans “there may be many areas of our lives in which private interest plays the central care shouldn’t be one of them.”

Smith’s work acquires its full force in the essay titled “Screengrabs (after Berger, before the virus),” which features a handful of personality sketches from her life in New York City. Among these brief, impressionistic portraits are one of a man named Ben, who gives her massages at a local nail salon. In the midst of the city’s quarantine, she thinks of how for Ben the closure of his son’s school “is a genuine emergency,” but how for her “it is an inconvenience only,” and pictures him, even in good times, scanning the street for the walk-in customers the business needs to survive, but who now are locked in their homes as the pandemic rages. It’s an acute, haunting image that captures the virus’s devastation more compellingly than a welter of mind-numbing statistics.

Smith’s “postscript” to that essay is a powerful meditation on America’s legacy of racism, invoking the metaphor of virus to describe the contempt --- beginning with “patient zero,” a slave trader from 400 years ago --- that allowed a police officer to slowly extinguish the life of George Floyd as he begged for mercy. “You start to think of contempt as a virus,” she writes. “Infecting individuals first, but spreading rapidly through families, communities, peoples, power structures, nations. Less flashy than hate. More deadly.”

Pursuing the metaphor with terminology that’s become all too familiar in recent months, she observes that she once thought there would be a “vaccine” for the disease, or that Americans might someday achieve “herd immunity” if they realized the “intolerable and unending damage both to individual bodies and to the body politic” the virus inflicts. “I don’t think that anymore,” she now bluntly concedes.

For an author like Smith, allusions to writers that include Nabokov, Kierkegaard and Sontag flow easily. Yet there are occasional lighter moments, as when she confesses --- while packing to leave New York for her native London this spring --- that she has no survival instinct, “nor any strong desire to survive, especially if what lies on the other side of survival is just me.” For her, a book like Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD “is as incomprehensible to me as a Norse myth cycle in the original language.”

While she’s known primarily for novels like WHITE TEETH and NW, in her essay collections CHANGING MY MIND and FEEL FREE, Zadie Smith demonstrated that she’s equally talented at nonfiction. There’s a sense in the pages of INTIMATIONS that these brief “hints” --- as the volume’s title implies --- represent only an initial attempt to grapple with some of the most profoundly troubling issues the United States has faced in decades. If that’s so, then we eagerly can look forward to the time she revisits them.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 31, 2020

Intimations: Six Essays
by Zadie Smith

  • Publication Date: July 28, 2020
  • Genres: Essays, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 112 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 059329761X
  • ISBN-13: 9780593297612