September 19, 2012

Interview with Novelist Zadie Smith

Found here:

Q: Technology in the novel can act as a portal to fantasy, in Natalie/Keisha’s case, but can also prompt a ‘level of self-awareness literally unknown in the history of human existence’, to borrow a phrase from the book. Does being at such a historical moment signal a potential sea change in human behaviour and what kind of challenge does that pose to a novelist?

A: What it does to the novelist is only of concern to novelists; more interesting is what it does to people. Only two hundred years ago it was physically impossible to see yourself doing something you had done yesterday, that is, to see it in three dimensions, speaking and moving. It’s a miracle! It’s really unprecedented. The ancient myths thought that if we stared at ourselves in this way too long we’d fall in the water and drown. The myth preceded the technological reality (as seems to happen), but now we’re really here, relating to ourselves as objects.
Q: Becoming middle class is both something to aspire to and a poisoned chalice in the novel. For Felix his time working for a film company appears to offer a glimpse of salvation, until he is pulled down by drugs, whilst Leah and Natalie both aim to rise to the middle class by becoming lawyers and in due course feel a sense of betraying their roots. Is there something particularly English about this anxiety over entering a different strata of society?

A: Perhaps, I don’t know. It’s hard certainly to think of a middle class more afflicted by self-contempt. The phrase, in England, is a form of insult. In France, too. But that’s not true in America. I suppose we suspect the bourgeoise of a lack of vitality, and that’s always to be feared, at least a little.

Q: Women are often the timekeepers of this novel. The arc of Leah and Keisha’s lifelong friendship is traced in numbered vignettes, each with their own internal relativities. The fates of many of your people, from Shar, to Felix and his shut-in father Lloyd, are sealed in part by the removal of womanly affections and attentions. Is stretching and contracting time the only power women in the novel possess in their bid to change their circumstances?

A: Well, I think it’s an enormous power and advantage women have, this understanding of time and mortality. It’s only a shame that we often do everything we can to abandon or deny this natural advantage. I always think of the menopause: what a gift it is to women to have, in their own bodies, this piece of time-keeping which allows them to fully understand, in their bodies, that death is coming. Men don’t have that – you see so many men heading towards their deaths in utter shock and incomprehension because right until the final moments they thought they were going to be given some kind of reprieve. Or all those powerful men who make terrible fools of themselves in old age with girls a quarter of their age . . . They’re not very good managers of time, men. So it’s an odd thing that in my generation this female advantage has been so submerged. The menopause never spoken of among young women, hidden like a curse. Everybody trying to look and be twenty-eight forever . . . In Leah and Natalie’s case they both seem to reject a healthy relationship with time. Leah by staying still and Natalie by refusing to understand that it is finite. But I’m not a pessimist about those two: the novel doesn’t end with the end of their lives and they have in front of them the same possibilities for change that we all have all the time.

1 comment:

William Luse said...

"The ancient myths thought that if we stared at ourselves in this way too long we’d fall in the water and drown."

We did.