I have listened to this audiobook twice now and will again. While I’m sure the essays are brilliant in print, hearing her voice gives them a great new dimension. I loved both of the books of her fiction that I have read.
In the forward written at the end of May 2020 Smith notes that many books will be written about the pandemic; hers is an accounting of some of the thoughts and feelings it has provoked in her to that point. She begins by saying that she read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations with the attitude she brings to reading the instructions for putting together a flat-pack table. Though it did not make her a Stoic, she did glean two important intimations: talking to yourself can be useful and writing means being overheard.
She describes the varieties of ways we have suffered: those who are alone, those isolated with work to do and a spouse and children in close quarters, artists who cannot perform, artists with so much time they can no longer write or make pictures. In recent years the relative nature of privilege has been a topic of conversation; suffering overwhelms these discussions and she urges respect for one’s own suffering without trying to put it in perspective. Sometimes suffering will not be irradiated by rational or righteous argument.
In “A Woman with a Little Dog” she describes Barbara, a woman she encountered often in her neighborhood who has a New York accent I remember hearing in movies made in the 1950s (and that Zadie Smith can recreate beautifully). Barbara’s little dog has a bad attitude, making it necessary to stay six feet away from Barbara, pandemic or not. Smith says, “There is an ideal, rent-controlled city dweller who appears to experience no self-pity who knows exactly how long to talk to someone in the street, who creates community without overly sentimentalizing the concept, or ever saying aloud the word ‘community,’ and who always picks up after their dog, even if it’s physically painful to do so.” On Smith’s last day before leaving New York due to the pandemic, Barbara said in a quiet voice, “Thing is, we’re a community and we got each other’s back. You’ll be there for me and I’ll be there for you and we’ll all be there for each other, the whole building. Nothing to be afraid of. We’ll get through this, all of us, together.”
The view of death is regarded as a series of discrete problems in America, she says; wars on drugs, cancer, poverty. “Not that there’s anything ridiculous about trying to lengthen the distance between the date on our birth certificates and the ones on our tombstones. Ethical life depends on the meaningfulness of that effort, but perhaps nowhere in the world has this effort and its relative success been linked so emphatically to money as it is in America.” Even as early in the pandemic as she was writing, that was holding true for the current plague. Black and Latino people die at twice the rate of white and Asian people; more poor people are dying. “The virus map of the boroughs [of New York] turns redder at precisely the same lines as it would if the relative shade of crimson counted not infection and death, but income brackets and middle school ratings.”
She doesn’t mince words about racism in America; even in the bluest states, people might educate themselves about Black life “as long as this education does not occur in the form of actual Black children attending their actual schools.”
Zadie Smith, Intimations, Penguin, 2020, 97 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.