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When I was on one of my bookstore browsing trips a few months back, I saw Zadie Smith’s ‘Changing My Mind’. It has been a while since I last saw a new book written by Zadie Smith and so I thought that I will find out what was there between the covers. I read Smith’s ‘Foreword’ and the first few pages of the first essay ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God : What does Soulful Mean?’ The essay had a wonderful start and kept me hooked. But I was on a self-imposed-book-buying-ban then, and so reluctantly I put the book back on the shelf. But everytime I went to the bookstore after that, Zadie Smith’s essay collection leapt at me. Then one day I decided that it was time to get it. I went to the bookstore at around their closing time, pleaded with the guard there to let me in, told the bookstore assistant that I needed just one book and went to look for Zadie Smith’s book. But, strangely, the only copy which was there in the store had disappeared! I couldn’t believe that a book which was lying around for so long, had suddenly disappeared exactly at the time I wanted to read it! But the bookstore assistant said that the book might still be there, and we started combing the bookshelves. It was getting late and I was prepared to be disappointed, when, once again, Zadie Smith’s book leapt at me from its hiding place. I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and so I immediately got it and ran home, lest any misfortune befall me or the book on the way back. I started reading it nearly a couple of weeks back, but got distracted by life, and finished it only yesterday. Here is the review.

Summary of the book

I am giving below the summary of the book, as given in the inside of the book’s cover.

How did George Eliot’s love life affect her prose? Why did Kafka write at three in the morning? In what ways is Barack Obama like Eliza Doolittle? Can you be over-dressed for the Oscars? What is Italian Feminism? If Roland Barthes killed the Author, can Nabokov revive him? What does ‘soulful’ mean? Is Date movie the worst film ever made?
Split into five sections – ‘Reading’, ‘Being’, ‘Seeing’, ‘Feeling’ and ‘Remembering’ – Changing My Mind finds Zadie Smith casting an acute eye over material both personal and cultural. This engaging collection of essays – some published here for the first time – reveals Smith as a passionate and precise essayist, equally at home in the world of great books and bad movies, family and philosophy, British comedians and Italian divas. Whether writing of Obama, Katherine Hepburn, Kafka, Anna Magnani or David Foster Wallace, she brings a practitioner’s care to the art of criticism, with a style as sympathetic as it is insightful.

Changing My Mind is journalism at its most expansive, intelligent and funny – a gift to readers and writers both. Within its covers an essay is more than a column of opinions; it’s a space in which to think freely.


What I think

Whoever wrote the blurb for the book did a wonderful job. I agree with most of what is written in the blurb about the book. Zadie Smith’s essays are fascinating to read. I liked the way the different sections were named too. As Zadie Smith says in the ‘Foreword’ she has ‘strayed’ into film reviewing, obituaries, cub reporting, literary criticism and memoir. I liked another thing that she has mentioned in her ‘Foreword’ – ‘Reading through these pieces, though, I’m forced to recognize that ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith’. I loved reading that line 🙂

I found Zadie Smith’s journalistic pieces more easy to read. Some of my favourites were her film reviews where she writes glowingly about Katherine Hepburn :

When Hollywood thought it knew what a woman was, or what a black man was, or what an intellectual might be, or what ‘sexiness’ amounted to, Hepburn made a movie to turn the common thinking on its head, offering always something irreducibly singular.

Little Women, in which Hepburn played the greatest, most emphathic beautiful Jo March there ever has been or ever will be.

And George Clooney :

I judged too quickly, thinking him one of those actors who prides himself on making the big bad movies in order to fund the small good ones – a kind of vanity tax upon the audience, whereby the pointless shoot-’em-up is the price we supposedly pay for the chilly little chamber piece about divorce.
Clooney is not that actor. He doesn’t make sterile, unlovable vanity projects. In a cultural climate that ridicules and is repulsed by intellectual and moral commitment, in his way he pursues both. With his role as executive producer and front-of-shop ‘face’ of Syriana, he has now created an unprecedented scenario : the most popular actor in Hollywood is also the man who wants to agitate us most. Something like this has happened only once before, with Marlon Brando, an actor whose personal failings and self-regard overran all his most serious ambitions. Clooney appears to have no such tragic flaw. He is making real American films instead of American products; he is helping real American films to get made. At a time when most people with half a brain cell have long given up on the products of the American multiplex, Clooney gives us a reason to put our foot back through the door and cautiously buy some popcorn. Rarely in the history of Hollywood has so much personal charm been put to such good use.

It looks like Clooney continues to impress moviegoers (and Zadie Smith) with movies like ‘Michael Clayton’ and ‘Up in the Air’.

There is also an essay about Anna Magnani’s ‘Bellissima’, written when Smith was in Italy, which is quite nice. While reviewing ‘Date Movie’ Smith says that it is the worst movie that she has ever seen. (Hasn’t she seen ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, which seems to be at the top of the ‘worst’ list among movie buffs?)

I found Smith’s essays on literary criticism and on books and writers tougher to read – though these were of varying levels of difficulty. Most of them require a bit of effort, but are a pleasure to read and have beautiful insights and thoughts. Some of my favourite essays from the book are from this section – on Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ (the first essay which hooked me to the book), on E.M.Forster, on George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ and on Kafka (he seems to be such a fascinating person! Have to read his biography sometime). I also liked very much the essay called ‘That Crafty Feeling’ where Zadie Smith gives advice to budding writers.

One of the toughest essays that I read was ‘Two Directions for the Novel’. It compared Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’ with ‘Remainder’ by Tom McCarthy. It had passages like this :

Why is the greatest facilitator of inauthenticity Asian? Why is the closest thing to epiphany a dead black man? Because Remainder, too, wants to destroy the myth of cultural authenticity – though for purer reasons than Netherland. If your project is to rid the self of its sacredness, to flatten selfhood out, it’s philosophical hypocrisy to let any selves escape, whatever colour they may be. The nameless ‘dead black man’ is a deliberate provocation on McCarthy’s part, and in its lack of coy sentiment there is a genuine transgressive thrill. Still, it does seem rather hard to have to give up on subjectivity when you’ve only recently got free of objectification.

But then I hadn’t discovered the real tough essay in the book, then. It was the last one called ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men : The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace’, and it was featured under the section ‘Remembering’. At around fifty pages, it was the longest essay in the book. It was quite a tough read for me and I had to plough through it so that I could finish the book. It has passages like this :

For the depressed person pain has certainly been fetishized, pathologized : she can’t feel simple sadness, only ‘agony’; she’s not merely depressed, she is ‘in terrible and unceasing emotional pain’. Meanwhile, another kind of pain – the kind one feels for other people in their suffering – is inaccessible to her. When one of her Support System becomes terminally ill, the only pain this causes her (i.e. the depressed person) is the realization that she doesn’t really care at all, which in turn sparks in her mind the dreaded possibility that she might in fact be ‘a solipsistic, self-consumed, endless emotional vacuum and sponge’. She is disgusted by herself, and the disgust causes her yet more pain and pica-gnawed hands, and on it goes in its terrible cycle….
The spiral sentences, the looping syntax, the repetition, the invasion of clinical vocabulary – none of this is mere ‘formal stunt-pilotry’. Nor does it add up to nonsense, or ‘stream of consciousness’ if sloppiness and incomprehensibility is meant by that term : however long they are, Wallace’s procedures are always grammatically immaculate. The point is to run a procedure – the procedure of another person’s thoughts! – through your own mind. This way you don’t merely ‘have’ the verbal explanation.

To be fair, on reading the above paragraph again, I don’t think it was as tough as it was when I read it yesterday. I think one of the problems for me was that I have never studied literary criticism or literary theory formally. So, I found some of the language in the above essays quite densely-packed which took time to read and understand – like a mathematics textbook. If you are familiar with the language of literary criticism, reading and understanding the above might be child’s play for you. If you are not very familiar with the language of literary criticism, consider yourself forewarned.

If I ignore the ‘tough-to-read’ essays, I would say that I enjoyed reading Zadie Smith’s essay collection very much. Her essays on books, writers and films gave me a lot of pleasure.

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

Good Writing and Zora Neale Hurston

I flattered myself I ranged widely in my reading, never choosing books for genetic or sociocultural reasons…I had my own ideas of ‘good writing’. It was a category that did not include aphoristic or overtly ‘lyrical’ language, mythic imagery, accurately rendered ‘folk speech’ or the love tribulations of women….Three hours later I was finished and crying a lot, for reasons that both were, and were not, to do with the tragic finale. I lost many literary battles the day I read ‘Their Eyes were Watching God’….At fourteen, I did Zora Neale Hurston a critical disservice. I feared my ‘extraliterary’ feelings for her. I wanted to be an objective aesthete and not a sentimental fool. I disliked the idea of ‘identifying’ with the fiction I read : I wanted to like Hurston because she represented ‘good writing’, not because she represented me.

The House Inside Books

The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera. It’s a fortunate rereader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime. I know one, Pnin, having read it half a dozen times. When you enter a beloved novel many times, you can come to feel that you possess it, that nobody else has ever lived there. You try not to notice the party of impatient tourists trooping through the kitchen (Pnin a minor scenic attraction en route to the canyon Lolita), or that shuffling academic army, moving in perfect phalanx, as they stalk a squirrel around the backyard (or a series of squirrels, depending on their methodology). Even the architect’s claim on his creation seems secondary to your wonderful way of living in it.

The Melody of Two Voices

“The voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place – this is not the voice of my childhood. I picked it up in college, along with the unabridged Clarissa and a taste for port. Maybe this fact is only what it seems to be – a case of bald social climbing – but at the time, I genuinely thought this was the voice of lettered people, and that if I didn’t have the voice of lettered people I would never truly be lettered. A braver person, perhaps, would have stood firm, teaching her peers a useful lesson by example : not all lettered people need be of the same class, nor speak identically. I went the other way. Partly out of cowardice and a constitutional eagerness to please, but also because I didn’t quite see it as a straight swap, of this voice for that. My own childhood had been the story of this and that combined, of the synthesis of disparate things. It never occurred to me that I was leaving Willesden for Cambridge. I thought I was adding Cambridge to Willesden, this new way of talking to that old way. Adding a new kind of knowledge to a different kind I already had. And for a while, that’s how it was : at home, during the holidays, I spoke with my old voice, and in the old voice seemed to feel and speak things that I couldn’t express in college, and vice versa. I felt a sort of wonder at the flexibility of the thing. Like being alive twice.

But flexibility is something that requires work if it is to be maintained. Recently my double voice deserted me for a single one, reflecting the smaller world into which my work has led me. Willesden was a big, colourful, working-class sea; Cambridge was a smaller, posher pond, and almost univocal; the literary world is a puddle. This voice I picked up along the way is no longer an exotic garment I put on like a college gown whenever I choose – now it is my only voice, whether I want it or not. I regret it; I should have kept both voices alive in my mouth.”

What Cary Grant said

To occupy a dream, to exist in a dreamed space (conjured by both father and mother), is surely a quite different thing from simply inheriting a dream. It’s more interesting. What did Pauline Kael call Cary Grant? “The Man from Dream City”. When Bristolian Archibald Leach became suave Cary Grant, the transformation happened to his voice, which he subjected to a strange, indefinable manipulation, resulting in that heavenly sui generis accent, neither west country nor posh, American nor English. It came from nowhere, he came from nowhere. Grant seemed the product of a collective dream, dreamed up by moviegoers in hard times, as it sometimes feels voters have dreamed up Obama in hard times. Both men have a strange reflective quality, typical of the self-created man – we see in them whatever we want to see. ‘Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,’ said Cary Grant. ‘Even I want to be Cary Grant’. It’s not hard to imagine Obama having the same thought, backstage at Grant Park, hearing his own name chanted by the hopeful multitude. Everyone wants to be Barack Obama. Even I want to be Barack Obama.

The Best Night at the Movies

Two years ago I went to see The Philadelphia Story play on a big screen in Bryant Park. It was July and so hot my brother and I had been spending the day in the penguin exhibit at the zoo (we had no air-conditioning), but then we heard about the film – my favourite film – playing outdoors and rushed downtown.

We were too late to get a seat. It was packed like I have never seen any New York open space since the Dalai Lama came to Central Park. We were disconsolately looking for a wall to sit on, when suddenly two unholy fools, two morons, changed their minds and gave up their second-row seats. Hard to describe how happy we were. And then over the loudspeakers came some news : Hepburn had been taken ill in the night – gasps, I mean, real gasps – but it was okay – happy sighs – she was back from the hospital and wished us all well. We roared! And then the film started, and I said all the lines before they came, and my brother asked me to shut up. But I wasn’t the only one at it. When Katharine whispered to Jimmy Stewart, ‘Put me in your pocket, Mike!’ a thousand people whispered with her. That was the best night at the movies I’ve ever had.

Final Thoughts

I liked Zadie Smith’s ‘Changing My Mind’ very much. Though some of the essays were tough to read for me, I enjoyed the book as a whole and it was a pleasure to read. If you like reading literary essays and journalistic pieces together, this is the book for you.

Zadie Smith’s last novel ‘On Beauty’ was published in 2005 – five years back. She herself admits in the foreword to ‘Changing My Mind’ that she was planning to write two books – a novel and a nonfiction book on the art and craft of writing, but the deadlines for them came and went. I also read in Wikipedia that she has now become a tenured professor in New York university. It means that she doesn’t need to write novels for a living anymore – she can just teach students how to write novels and write the occasional essay in a literary magazine like the ‘New Yorker’. It is a good thing, because writers of a previous era had to give up a lot for their art and passion and it is good that today’s writers have interesting opportunities to live a more financially stable life. But this is not the situation that Zadie Smith’s readers are happy with. They want more 🙂 Zadie, when is your next novel coming out? We are all waiting for it.

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One more beautiful passage from Zadie Smith’s collection of essays ‘Changing My Mind‘. This one is from the essay ‘Speaking in Tongues’.

“The voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place – this is not the voice of my childhood. I picked it up in college, along with the unabridged Clarissa and a taste for port. Maybe this fact is only what it seems to be – a case of bald social climbing – but at the time, I genuinely thought this was the voice of lettered people, and that if I didn’t have the voice of lettered people I would never truly be lettered. A braver person, perhaps, would have stood firm, teaching her peers a useful lesson by example : not all lettered people need be of the same class, nor speak identically. I went the other way. Partly out of cowardice and a constitutional eagerness to please, but also because I didn’t quite see it as a straight swap, of this voice for that. My own childhood had been the story of this and that combined, of the synthesis of disparate things. It never occurred to me that I was leaving Willesden for Cambridge. I thought I was adding Cambridge to Willesden, this new way of talking to that old way. Adding a new kind of knowledge to a different kind I already had. And for a while, that’s how it was : at home, during the holidays, I spoke with my old voice, and in the old voice seemed to feel and speak things that I couldn’t express in college, and vice versa. I felt a sort of wonder at the flexibility of the thing. Like being alive twice.

But flexibility is something that requires work if it is to be maintained. Recently my double voice deserted me for a single one, reflecting the smaller world into which my work has led me. Willesden was a big, colourful, working-class sea; Cambridge was a smaller, posher pond, and almost univocal; the literary world is a puddle. This voice I picked up along the way is no longer an exotic garment I put on like a college gown whenever I choose – now it is my only voice, whether I want it or not. I regret it; I should have kept both voices alive in my mouth.”

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I am reading a book called ‘Changing My Mind’ by Zadie Smith. It is a collection of essays. Zadie Smith’s prose is so beautiful that I am reading it slowly and enjoying every page 🙂 Here is one of the interesting passages that I encountered in the book (from the essay ‘Rereading Barthes and Nabokov’).

The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera. It’s a fortunate rereader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime. I know one, Pnin, having read it half a dozen times. When you enter a beloved novel many times, you can come to feel that you possess it, that nobody else has ever lived there. You try not to notice the party of impatient tourists trooping through the kitchen (Pnin a minor scenic attraction en route to the canyon Lolita), or that shuffling academic army, moving in perfect phalanx, as they stalk a squirrel around the backyard (or a series of squirrels, depending on their methodology). Even the architect’s claim on his creation seems secondary to your wonderful way of living in it.

Though I like reading a book sequentially, I sometimes turn randomly to a page and read a paragraph. This is one of the interesting paragraphs that I encountered during my random browsing (from the essay ‘Speaking in Tongues’). I couldn’t stop smiling at Cary Grant’s comment 🙂

To occupy a dream, to exist in a dreamed space (conjured by both father and mother), is surely a quite different thing from simply inheriting a dream. It’s more interesting. What did Pauline Kael call Cary Grant? “The Man from Dream City”. When Bristolian Archibald Leach became suave Cary Grant, the transformation happened to his voice, which he subjected to a strange, indefinable manipulation, resulting in that heavenly sui generis accent, neither west country nor posh, American nor English. It came from nowhere, he came from nowhere. Grant seemed the product of a collective dream, dreamed up by moviegoers in hard times, as it sometimes feels voters have dreamed up Obama in hard times. Both men have a strange reflective quality, typical of the self-created man – we see in them whatever we want to see. ‘Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,’ said Cary Grant. ‘Even I want to be Cary Grant’. It’s not hard to imagine Obama having the same thought, backstage at Grant Park, hearing his own name chanted by the hopeful multitude. Everyone wants to be Barack Obama. Even I want to be Barack Obama.

I don’t know whether Obama would say this today – with him being immersed in so many issues and problems and challenges which don’t look like going away anytime soon – but I loved Cary Grant’s line 🙂

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