The Forster Connection or, Cosmopolitanism Redux Zadie Smiths on Beauty, Howards End, and the Schlegels

By Moraru, Christian | The Comparatist, May 2011 | Go to article overview

The Forster Connection or, Cosmopolitanism Redux Zadie Smiths on Beauty, Howards End, and the Schlegels


Moraru, Christian, The Comparatist


We know this is our house, because it feels ours.

E.M. Forster, Howards End

I

"There is such shelter in each other," Carlene tells her friend Kiki in Zadie Smith's 2005 novel On Beauty (93). The sentence, critics have been quick to point out, can be traced to Howards End s famous epigraph and chapter 22 passage: "Only connect! ... Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die" (168). Smith herself has acknowledged, in fact, that "from the first line, ... this is a novel inspired by a love for E.M. Forster, to whom my all fiction is indebted, one way or the other." "This time," she goes on specify, "I wanted to repay the debt with hommage" (Smith, On Beauty "Acknowledgements"). (1)

To be sure, On Beauty can be read as a tribute to Forster, on several levels. An exquisite response to Howards End, the novel repays Smith's debt with cultural interest, so to speak, by retelling Forster's story for the new millennium's globalizing world, with the politically conservative, religious-minded Caribbean-British Kippses and the racially mixed, more liberal American Belseys playing in today's Boston the parts the British writer assigns the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels, respectively, in Howards End's early twentieth-century London. What is more, Smith's intertextual tour-de-force has a precise focus. As I argue, her novel's "Forster connection" sets out to foreground connectedness itself; it is this concept and the whole array of cosmopolitan cultural-emotional experiences associated with it that, through Foster, On Beauty "drags" into our time (Caldwell).

In Smith, the world is a world of relations rather than an assemblage of separate entities. We live fully, she suggests, to the extent that we make connections and relate to one another. In her view, relationality is world rationality, the very formula of being. To be is to be with others. In her 2000 international bestseller, this defining togetherness is profoundly engrained in minds and bodies alike, in people's notions and complexions, in their words and teeth, in linguistic roots and tooth roots. Deep as these roots may be, in White Teeth they are intertwined with other roots and thus make selfhood impossible to isolate as a discrete ontological and cultural unit. Te harder one digs--the deeper Smith's narrative "root canals"--the more the vertical cut through a self's biography proves to be a cross-section through other biographies, individual and collective, and the political and ethical bearings of this revelation cannot be underestimated. White Teeth explicitly cautions us that, considering the heteroclite architecture of who we are, literal self-engendering--"autogamy," Smith calls it--is philosophically dubious, a repression of or cover for a process the author seizes as "cross-pollinating" (257). So is, of course, White Teeth itself, a fictional cross-pollination in its own right, what with its Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi textual implants. So is Smith's next novel too, The Autograph Man, where one of the main heroes, Alex, is a "philograph," a collector and trader of autographs--others' quintessential writings, as it were--but also a writer, of late at work on a book of sorts listing in two separate (yet inevitably overlapping) columns all things "typically" Jewish and gentile. No less cross-pollinating is On Beauty.

What draws Smith to Forster and, in particular, to the 1910 classic is her precursor's relational imagination and, behind it, his uniquely cosmopolitan mindset. The connection is just one among many setting forth the strong emphasis Forster places on disinterested ties, friendship and affective bonds, human affiliations, and generally on the other's nurturing proximity to the self no matter how far apart the two may be by location, ethno-racial background, or political allegiance. …

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