Book review: Intimations, by Zadie Smith
I’m not sure how I feel about the inevitable barrage of lockdown/pandemic essays. I’ve managed to successfully avoid them anywhere I’ve seen them in online reading, but one of the first books of personal essays written during and about the lockdown comes to us from Zadie Smith, which presented me a quick conundrum. Quick because it’s nonfiction by Zadie Smith, so I’m reading it. Conundrum because I really don’t want this topic.
Intimations contains six essays written around the time lockdown began in New York City, as well as from a period shortly before, juxtaposing the sudden and extreme changes that the ordinary undertook. Smith ruminates on her Manhattan neighbors and familiar spots, and comments on the psychology behind some of the human stories that made headlines. She is such a compassionate person that reading these thoughts through the filter of her made me realize I’d been at least a little wrong here — this is deeply meaningful writing about our collective experiences in these strange times that doesn’t make me cringe. Or maybe it’s just because it’s her. Probably it’s that.
Suffering has an absolute relation to the suffering individual — it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like “privilege.” If it could, the CEO’s daughter would never starve herself, nor the movie idol ever put a bullet in his own brain.
She creates quick but telling portraits of people familiar to her — an IT worker at the university where she teaches; Charlie, who gives her massages to straighten her spine; Barbara, an older, classic New York type in her building — and shows what the current moment means in relation to them. She also looks at stories like that of a teenage girl who committed suicide at the beginning of quarantine because she wasn’t able to see her friends, which on its surface seems like the most avoidable of tragedies, almost too uncomfortable to discuss or spend time on.
But Smith puts it into a context of how suffering looks different for all of us, and we each have our own personal relationship to it and to what we can bear. I found this incredibly meaningful, as there has been a lot of finger wagging about being grateful for what we have, or just being alive, or whatever privilege you hold, that looks past the importance of feeling your feelings, however irrational they may be. These are extreme cases, but Smith’s words are a balm here.
She bares a lot of herself, in relation to what she’s thought and felt in quarantine and what conclusion it’s brought her to. I loved this kind of stark self-analysis: “Ever since I was a child my only thought or insight into apocalypse, disaster or war has been that I myself have no ‘survival instinct,’ nor any strong desire to survive, especially if what lies on the other side of survival is just me.”
And as usual, she has that wonderful ability to make the personal universal, to take her own seemingly small, everyday experiences or thoughts and use them as a springboard to greater ideas relevant or resonant to us all. I noticed this in Feel Free, and it’s masterfully done here. She illuminates so much about the human condition. One piece that includes her connection to the song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” is particularly thoughtful and highlights that ability beautifully:
I used to listen to that song and try to imagine its counterpart. You could make someone feel like a “real” man — no doubt its own kind of cage — but never a natural one. A man was a man was a man. He bent nature to his will. He did not submit to it, except in death. Submission to nature was to be my realm, and I wanted no part of that. I would be a woman but not a natural one.
Smith’s incomparable way with words is what really makes this worth reading: “When I was a kid, I thought I’d rather be a brain in a jar than a “natural woman.” I have turned out to be some odd combination of both, from moment to moment, and with no control over when and where or why those moments occur.”
One piece that haunts me is about time and how we use it and have had to reevaluate that usage when faced with nothing but time and no distractions during lockdown. Perhaps more than anything, Smith has provided with these essays a framework for us to think about how we structure our lives and how that will change with all that’s transpired as we move forward into a still uncertain, still opaque future.
And she’s such a magnetically compelling writer that even her dedications — or as she calls them here, “debts and lessons,” are sweetly fascinating to read. “It is possible to grow disdainful of love songs of this type. But never to entirely forget what it was to hear truth in banal pop lyrics.” I love that she can navigate seamlessly between the high- and lowbrow, from intellectual depth to the silly but real value in pop lyrics.
These are thought-provoking, both unsettling and reassuring, intelligent, sensitive, and quietly powerful. I can only imagine what she’ll write once she’s had more time to ruminate. I kind of hope that this is only a stopgap sort of collection, and that we’ll get a longer one later.
Intimations: Six Essays
by Zadie Smith
published July 28, 2020 by Penguin
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.