Thursday, January 04, 2007

On Beauty

I just reread Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I saw her speak once in San Francisco after White Teeth came out. Somebody asked her what she liked to read, and she said something like she didn't think it was really possible to read a bunch of books and retain them very well, that (if I'm remembering correctly) she just wanted to know one book really well. And she may have said (jeez, I have a terrible memory) that for her that book was Howards End, or perhaps I just made that up. Anyway, On Beauty is an homage Howard's End, which I haven't read myself, but am inspired to read soon.

Like White Teeth, On Beauty has a cast of characters, and no small focus on racial issues and diaspora. On Beauty is the one book of fiction I made time to read during my master's program - and glad I did, because it also focuses on a subject near to my heart: art. Two scholars, one a conservative, black, old school art historian (Monty Kipps) and the other a liberal, white, hard-core theoretician (Howard Belsey), find themselves at odds in the same small-town college. As a liberal myself, naturally I found Kipps for the most part reprehensible, although Smith does go to pains to give him good arguments. The Kipps' are rude to the help and never very likeable.

The extreme views held by both parties (bridged only by the familial matriarchs) offer a fascinating glimpse into the minds of these uber-intellectuals, while at the same time illustrating their foibles (Howard is as worried about premature ejaculation as he is about getting tenure.) Smith is obviously well schooled in art theory, and her analysis of various Rembrandt's work, as well as so-called traditional art history itself, is insightful. Howard contemplates The Sampling Officials of the Draper's Guild:

This is what judgement looks like: considered, rational, benign judgement. Thus the traditional art history.
Iconoclastic Howard rejects all these fatuous assumptions. How can we know what goes on beyond the frame of the painting itself? What audience? Which questioner? What moment of judgement? Nonsense and sentimental tradition! To imagine that this painting depicts any one temporal moment is, Howard argues, an anachronistic, photographic fallacy. It is so much pseudo-historical storytelling, disturbingly religious in tone. We want to believe these Staalmeesters are sages, wisely judging this imaginary audience, implicitly judging us. But none of this is truly in the picture. All we really see there are six rich men sitting for their portrait, expecting - demanding - to be collectively portrayed as wealthy, successful and morally sound. Rembrandt - paid well for his services - has merely obliged them.

Smith elegantly introduces time as a thematic element, using art to make her case - although the characters that appear in the book don't go through radical changes, they do change, and every minute. She writes:

... forty-three years ago, he was an uncultured, fiercely bright, dirty-kneed, enraged, beautiful, inspired, bloody-minded schoolboy who came from nowhere and nothing and yet was determined not to stay that way - that was the Howard Belsey whom the Staalmeesters saw and judged that day. But what was their judgement now? Howard looked at the men. The men looked at Howard. Howard looked at the men. The men looked at Howard.

What initially hit me as a rather oppressive redundancy suddenly became hyper-realism - each second, our perspectives change, because time has passed. As the novel progresses and reaches its stunning ending, this theme is beautifully expressed in one, final, very visual moment that made me really weep to have read such a great book.


Sonya said...

I've seen so many people reading On Beauty lately--I see the book about two or three times a week on BART...and this is without looking for it. Maybe I need to read it!

Happy 2007!


Kathy said...

K---I wonder what you think/know about Joan Didion. I'm listening to The Year of Magical Thinking> currently and I'm really torn. On one hand I think she has a profound understanding on the topic (sadly, for her) and an uncanny ability to distill complicated ideas, to deliver them with gun-fire like precision but there's something that bothers me a good bit...of course, I can not stop listening ;-)

You haven't posted in a while so I thought I'd just offer this for consideration...Happy new Year!

Special K said...

I've read about The Year of Magical Thinking but I haven't read it myself. It gets really good reviews, doesn't it? I might get to it one day, but it looked too sad for me right now. Although, presently I'm reading a really sad book, Dave Eggers What is the What. I've been reading really slowly lately!

Kathy said...

My husband, Rob, has it on his pile to be read (What is the What).

Clearly Didion has a lot of experience with grief and knows it... but I don't want to skew what you think. I did find in the middle of not really liking it that a series of discussions at one point had me crying before I realized it was happening. Powerful. But annoying?