Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Zadie Smith: On Beauty

D. and I visited the Boston Public Library today to return a slew of books that had gone overdue while I was away in Kansas. The librarian chastised me for not returning Zadie Smith’s On Beauty—even though it is not yet overdue! “There are people waiting for that book,” she said as she nearly wagged a finger at me. Ouch.

I finished Smith’s novel shortly after arriving in Kansas, and then handed it over to L. to read as well. Naturally I shook my head and gestured innocently as I blamed my boyfriend for keeping the book longer than pleased the librarian.

I find the characters in this novel dynamic. Smith’s portrayal of life both inside the ivy walls and at home for small liberal arts professors works for me—even when there are has loose ends and less than plausible plot twists. The great thing about Smith’s writing is that you can tell how much fun she is having with her characters as they deal with classic human problems in a very contemporary setting.

Memorable Quotes 
(page numbers from hardcover library edition)

Levi Belsey: “It was a matter of an impossible translation—his mother wanted to know about a girl, but it wasn't about a girl or, rather, it wasn’t about just the girl. Jerome had fallen in love with a family. . . .How could he explain how pleasurable it had truly been to give himself up to the Kippses? It was a kind of blissful un-selfing; a summer of un-Belsey; he had allowed the Kippses’ world and their ways to take him over entirely.” (44)

Kiki Belsey: “She had only this brief glimpse of him, but Kiki suspected already that this would be one of those familiar exchanges in which her enormous spellbinding bosom would play a subtle (or not so subtle, depending on the person) silent third role in the conversation. Women bent away from it out of politeness; men – more comfortably for Kiki – sometimes remarked on it in order to get on and over it, as it were. The size was sexual and at the same time more than sexual: sex was only one small element of its symbolic range. Is she were white, maybe it would refer only to sex, but she was not. And so her chest gave off a mass of signals beyond her direct control: sassy, sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting – it was a mirror-world she had stepped into in her mid forties, a strange fabulation of the person she believed she was. She could no longer be meek or shy. Her body had directed her to a new personality; people expected new things of her, some of them good, some not.” (47)

“It is an unusual law of such parties that the person whose position on the guest list was originally the least secure is always the first to arrive.” (97)

Howard Belsey: “It’s true that men – they respond to beauty. . .it doesn’t end for them, this. . .this concern with beauty as a physical actuality in the world – and that’s clearly imprisoning and it infantilizes. . . but it’s true and. . .I don’t know how else to explain what – ” (207)

“She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice.” (225)

“As Dr. Byford explained, she was really the victim of a vicious, peculiarly female psychological disorder: she felt one thing and did another. She was a stranger to herself.” (226)

Victoria Kipps: “But your class – your class is a cult classic. I love your class. Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato.” (313)
NPR Interview

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