Arnon Grunberg



On the stuff of life - Andrea Long Chu in Vulture:

‘A novelist has a sacred right to hate her first novel, but White Teeth remains by far the best thing Smith has ever written; what bad luck to have done it by 24! Smith has apparently concluded that White Teeth’s greatest strength, its audacious unreality, was in fact its fatal flaw. Today, she is firmly within the realist camp despite her recurring feints at departure. Her much-debated 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel,” which pitted the “lyrical realism” of Balzac and Flaubert against the 20th-century avant-garde, reads now like two paths for Zadie Smith. Every time she has set out down the second path, it has looped consolingly back into the first. On Beauty was a novel of ideas; NW, Smith’s fourth novel, dabbled in Joycean modernism. But each new form has represented a fresh attempt to write the morally serious novel that White Teeth had failed to be. This is Smith: radical for the sake of tradition. In another 2008 essay, this one on Middlemarch, Smith argued that a heightened moral sensitivity drove Eliot to “push the novel’s form to its limits.” But for this very reason, the “George Eliot of today” would need to invent her own forms; she certainly wouldn’t be writing a “nineteenth-century English novel.”’


‘This humanist impulse has made for some perennial wrongheadedness. Smith rather famously compared the opponents of a white artist’s controversial painting of Emmett Till to “Nazis,” arguing that all art deserved to be “thought through” on its own terms. The truth is that Smith herself struggles to think in groups of two or more; her habit of sympathizing with the least sympathetic party in any given situation frequently drives her to the political center. In fairness, the Trump years have made her more receptive to Black radicalism, but Smith will still always favor a psychological interpretation over an ideological one. Thus we are asked, in the wake of Brexit, to spare a thought for the white working-class voter who lacked “the perceived moral elevation of acknowledged trauma”; thus we are asked not to call the Charleston church shooting a hate crime since, “when it comes to murder, what other kind of crime is there?” At the same time, Smith regularly confesses that she has “no qualifications to write as I do,” downplaying her own essays as “the useless thoughts of a novelist.” This is disingenuous. She is Zadie Smith. But she appears to have decided at some point that being faintly ridiculous all of the time is preferable to being wrong some of the time.
No surprise that Smith’s most ardent wish these days is for fiction to be a space of freedom from the long teeth of identity. She traces her own desire “to know what it was like to be everybody” back to that “big, colorful, working-class sea” that was Willesden Green. But, for her, negative capability gently dissolves the specific contents of whatever consciousness birthed it. One need not be biracial to write a great novel because all great novelists might as well be biracial, so vast are their powers of empathy.’


‘The problem appears to be that it isn’t interesting to her. But when young people rate a novel poorly because they disagree with its politics, it is more convenient to assert that they have simply abandoned the old-fashioned field of aesthetic inquiry altogether than to reckon with the possibility that aesthetic inquiry itself is being remade. And so Smith congratulates the new generation on preferring politics to aesthetics; the best way to get someone off your lawn is to direct them to a lawn of their own.’


‘Indeed, it is precisely because we feel that characters in novels are real that we can politically object to the way a writer treats them. This may be what the youngs were saying — not that they feared for their own sensitive souls but that they wished to know how to do real justice to imaginary people. How might Smith have answered them? She dislikes the adage “Write what you know” on the grounds that it is now used to keep novelists within the bright chalk circle of personal identity. So for her sake, let us look somewhere more morally serious. The mid-century literary critic F. R. Leavis once wrote, in his very serious book The Great Tradition, that Austen’s genius was to take “certain problems that life compelled on her as personal ones” and impersonalize them, tracing carefully out of herself and back into the world. What Leavis admired was not that Austen had “stayed in her lane”; it was that she’d had the good sense to ask where it led. This is a splendid notion. It suggests that, for any novelist, there exists a small number of historical problems that, for reasons of luck and temperament, she naturally grasps as the stuff of life. The genius lies in knowing which ones they are.’

Read the review here.

Let’s forget the part of this essay that is also book review, some important questions are being raised here.

Stay in your line should just be translated as, know your obsessions, or in slightly more political manner, know the historical problems you inherited. Free will is limited to style and form.
The read-a-novel-it-will-teach-you-empathy is another way of slowly killing the novel. The humanist impulse can not only lead to wrongheadedness, but to proselytizing without the blessings of the Son of God.

What does it mean to do justice to imaginary people? And how imaginary are these people? In plenty of biographies we read character x is based on real person y.
A famous Dutch novelist (Hermans), and a good one, once remarked that revenge was the engine of his writing. He wanted justice, or at least he wanted to hit back before he himself was worked to the ground. That’s another form of justice. In less-talented hands it can become pure self-pity.
But self-pity is in these times, therapy is the answer to everything, a virtue. Believe the victims sooner or later always means: believe me.

Young people on universities are not young people and young people on universities are less homogenous than we might think. You don’t need to be a humanist to defend the individual.

And the novel is not apolitical, but to disagree with a novel for political (to politically object how a writer treat’s his characters) reading is a difficult task. And is describing treating?

Reality is never an excuse, another famous Dutch writer (Gerard Reve) said, but novels, likely people living und likely circumstances, do reflect on the world outside the novel.
Has Gustave Flaubert been treating Madame Bovary improperly?

Had Dostoevsky been treating Raskolnikov improperly?

By all means, object politically to the way an author treats its characters, but remember that your objections are also esthetic objections. You cannot separate the ingredients of the novel, or as an Israeli prime minister once remarked, you cannot make grapes out of wine.

Also, it’s worth asking the question whether an author should do justice to his characters and if so, for what reason? What do we mean by justice? That the novelist’s conviction, beyond doubt, reflect our own convictions.
We don’t want to be seduced by a fascist, after all.

More on Andrea Long Chu here. Only in Dutch.

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