23 February 2009

On "On Beauty"

Zadie Smith's On Beauty does not need my accolades, but here are some anyway: Funny. Brilliant. Scathing. Touching. Complicated. Smart. Heartfelt. Cakiest thing on four wheels.

I started reading it whilst hanging out at UC Santa Cruz with a friend who's working on his Ph.D. in comparative literature (we've always claimed to be the same person, and discovered a shared love of The Mysteries of Udolpho and a shared loathing of Tom Hanks). My alma mater being sui generis (look at that, I didn't even study Latin), academia is a strangely mannered, dauntingly layered world to me, and Christian was an able guide. So was On Beauty. Apropos of my previous post, the first half of the novel is curled up in bed listening to the rain, trying not to stay up too late and failing...and later in the book there is a TA named Christian. How perfectly perfect.

Here's a good paragraph:
Claire's kind of learning was tiresome to her. Claire didn't know anything about theorists, or ideas, or the latest thinking. Sometimes Zora suspected her of being barely intellectual. With her, it was always 'in Plato' or 'in Baudelaire' or 'in Rimbaud', as if we all had time to sit around reading whatever we fancied.
And here's another:
"Liberals never believe that conservatives are motivated by moral convictions as profoundly held as those you liberals profess yourselves to hold. You choose to believe that conservatives are motivated by a deep self-hatred, by some form of...psychological flaw."
It's full of this stuff. Zadie Smith manages satire with empathy, unlike, say, Sinclair Lewis: I read Main Street a while back and God, that man hated all his characters. Smith laughs at them, but she knows we are all ridiculous about something, or somethings, or someones, and that it's in our ridiculousness that we deserve the most love.

Also: one of this year's Oscar-nominated short films (wouldn'tcha know, they gave the award to the most mundane of the lot), Auf der Strecke, is about a department-store security guard in love with a girl who works in the bookshop there: ordinary hurt and indifference leads to gut-wrenching consequences, but before that, he buys a book to impress her, and it's Von der Schonheit, by Zadie Smith. Note: this would totally work on me. There's still a copy on the shelf.

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