Intimations of mortality?
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - September 5, 2020 - 12:00am

Zadie Smith is one of the brightest stars in the British literary firmament today. Her latest book, “Intimations: Six Essays,” are personal and moving essays reflecting on the Covid-19 pandemic that has changed our lives.

?Smith is the author of five novels, three collections of essays and a collection of short stories. She has won many literary awards, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. She has also been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the Novel and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.

?Zadie Smith is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Royal Society of Literature. She is a regular contributor to the “New Yorker” and the “New York Review of Books.” She studied at  Cambridge University and has taught at Harvard and Columbia. She currently teaches at New York University.

?I just arrived from Malaysia a few days ago and one of my weekly haunts was the well-stocked Kinokuniya Bookstore in KLCC. Displayed on its shelves were row upon row of books on the pandemic. Some were reprints of old books on the Spanish flu; others were books on SARS; and a few dealt, quickly and haphazardly, with the Covid-19 virus. Smith’s book is one of the few that offers short yet substantial essays on the subject matter.

?She wrote the book during the early months of the lockdown. Its title, “Intimations” alludes to the poem of William Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Written in 1804, the series of long poems deals with a persona’s growth and loss of ties to nature. The speaker mourns how quickly his youth has passed, and rues his separation from nature.

?In an ironic twist, Smith’s book deals with mourning as well, but with how Covid-19 has cut down almost one million lives, and the devastation it has wrought.

?Her question floats to the surface like so many bodies of the dead. What does it mean to submit to a new reality? Should we resist this new normal? How do we compare relative suffering? What is the relationship between the pendulum of time and the rigors of work? In our isolation, what do other people mean to us? What is the ratio of contempt to compassion? When an unfamiliar arrives before us, what does it reveal about the world before it?

?Zadie Smith writes about these issues, seeing them from the prisms of her gender (woman) and class (black immigrant). But she also writes with what the songwriter and singer Paul Simon has called “some tenderness beyond the honesty.” The essays are slim but they carry a freight of ideas that thicker books hardly bear.

?In “Peonies,” she writes: “I’m not a scientist or a sociologist. I’m a novelist. Who can admit, late in the day, during this strange and overwhelming season of death that collides, outside my window, with the emergence of dandelions, that spring sometimes rises in me, too, and the moon may occasionally tug at my moods, and if I hear a strange baby cry some part of me still leaps to attention…” She is a clever writer: in one long sentence worthy of Virginia Woolf, she puts in parallel death with its strong, opposite images: the flowers of spring leaping and a baby crying.

?“The American Exception” bristles with rage, like spears flying in the air, right into the eye of the target. She is talking about New York City, which used to be the epicenter of Covid-19 in the USA. “We had dead people. We had casualties and we had victims. . . We had ‘unequal health outcomes.’ But in America, all of these involved some culpability on the part of the dead. Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong skin color. Wrong side of the tracks. Wrong ZIP code, wrong beliefs, wrong city. Wrong position of hands when asked to exit vehicle…”

?Smith writes powerful polemics but for me, the heart of this book lies in her essay on “Something to Do,” which foregrounds the importance of love in the work that we do, in the vast emptiness of our lockdowns. The other memorable part of the book is called “Screengrabs,” written in the manner of John Berger’s concise portraits of people.

?“A Man with Strong Hands” deals with a middle-aged masseur from China who, like Smith, thinks of his children and his economic well-being in the midst of this pandemic. “A Character in a Wheelchair in a Vestibule” sketches very well indeed a New York character: the old, eccentric man who lives alone, now bound to a wheelchair but still gives everyone a piece of his slightly demented mind.

?“A Woman with a Little Dog” seems like a homage to Anton Chekhov’s short story, “The Lady with a Pet Dog.” But whereas Chekhov’s story teems with the energy of an adulterous affair, Smith’s portrait is a sharp contrast. It is about Barbara, a single woman and almost 70, who lives alone.

?In a few deft strokes, Smith shows us Barbara: “In the past ten years, her tall, elegant body has become a little more hunched over and sometimes she needs a walker, but not always. She has a tendency to list rightwards these days, like a willow, and her bone-straight hair, that swishes like a young woman’s… likewise now lists and seems permanently swept over one shoulder.”

?“An Elder at the 98 Bus Stop” is about one of her mother’s friends from Jamaica. Then she remembers her mother: “When you were a child, you looked up at your mother wrapped in gloves and scarf, shivering on the top deck, and tried to conceive of her earlier incarnation: barefoot in a pristine brown-and-yellow uniform, walking towards the one-room school house – but not too quickly because of the heat – and stopping now and then to smell  huge, purple flowers.”

?You could almost hear her sigh as she writes: “Those wide open spaces. . . are now utterly out of reach.”

Danton Remoto’s novel, “Riverrun,” has just been published by Penguin Random House SE Asia. He can be reached at danton.lodestar@gmail.com and his website is www.dantonremoto.com

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