Imagining a Better World to Come; BOOKS; Zadie Smith's Short Essays Written in Lockdown, on Subjects from George Floyd to Banana Bread, Are a Triumph, Says Jessie Thompson

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 3, 2020 | Go to article overview

Imagining a Better World to Come; BOOKS; Zadie Smith's Short Essays Written in Lockdown, on Subjects from George Floyd to Banana Bread, Are a Triumph, Says Jessie Thompson


Byline: Jessie Thompson

ZADIE SMITH, whose short book of essays was written at the height of lockdown, is the first major author to address the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on our lives. In her scrapbook-like collection of observations and thoughts, she captures how the last few months have felt to live through, and suggests some ideas that we may wish to preserve and carry into our post-crisis future. But she also provides what we've grown accustomed to in confinement: space to think. There's something endearingly old-fashioned about her resolve not to be rushed. These are not flashy hot takes for social media, but slow, thoughtful reflections.

Her six essays begin with an acknowledgement of the book's smallness. "There will be many books written about the year 2020: historical, analytical, political as well as comprehensive accounts. This is not any of those," she writes in the foreword. But across just 82 pages, her range is broad, with discussions of Donald Trump, Dominic Cummings's Barnard Castle trip and the death of George Floyd, sitting alongside thoughts on banana bread and internet memes.

The first two essays are the weakest; Peonies its most pensive. Just before lockdown, Smith's carefully plotted day is disrupted by the appearance of flowers growing in a New York public gar-den, an unexpected humbling by nature which foreshadows a much bigger one.

It's a chewy few pages, where Nabokov, Kierkegaard and theories of female biology and zoology all come along for the ride. Next is The American Exception, where Smith challenges Trump's child-like play for nostalgia. He called himself a wartime president, but "war transforms its participants," she writes, quoting Clement Attlee's post-war call to put the nation before private interests.

It's nice to think of a time when an elected politician said things like that, but it's not a fresh insight.

But in Something To Do, Smith lucidly captures the see-saw of hysteria and banality that has marked our days, freed from their ordinary scaffolding. "Confronted with the problem of life served neat I had almost no idea of what to do with it," she writes. …

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