Intimations review – Zadie Smith's life under lockdown

The novelist’s essays on living through coronavirus are at their best when pondering the day-to-day

In Zadie Smith’s previous book, the experimental story collection Grand Union, the most interesting items also happened to be the least unconventional. That’s rarely the case in her new book, Intimations, a shape-shifting series of essays reflecting on life in a time of Covid-19, in which she left New York for lockdown in London, writing in “those scraps of time the year… has allowed”. Meditations on what the pandemic has done for creativity or political commentary on how the US could look to postwar Britain under Clement Attlee feel less essential than more rhetorically adventurous items; there’s a strangely moving list of personal influences (family, Muhammad Ali, “contingency”) that constitutes a kind of kaleidoscopic selfie and an essay that riffs on coronavirus as a metaphor for racism, comparing – in passing – Dominic Cummings’s eyes to those of Derek Chauvin as he knelt on George Floyd.

The pieces vary in tone. What one calls the moment “just before the global shit hit the fan”, another calls “a few days before the global humbling began”. Smith’s loftier mode (“America has rarely been philosophically inclined to consider existence as a whole”) tends to feel less convincing, not least when, discussing a writer’s need for
control, she muses on her attraction to tulips prior to “this strange and overwhelming season of death”. She’s more engaging in the glimpses of day-to-day life under the new normal: pressing a lift button through her sleeve in the early days of the pandemic or feeling self-conscious talking to her mum on Zoom. One piece begins by describing her ATM dash while packing up to take her family to a friend’s empty cottage upstate en route to London before the flights are grounded. She’s appealingly candid: when a neighbour tells her: “We’ll get through this, all of us, together”, she whispers: “‘Yes, we will’, hardly audible, even to myself” while walking on, the truth hanging in the air that she’s about to skip town.

Smith’s sense of herself as fortunate nags her throughout the book. She guiltily reports on small talk about snow-day school closures with her regular masseur in Manhattan, who “allows me to complain with him… As if for me not writing for a day matters economically, personally, existentially, practically or in any way whatsoever”. At one point, she tells us that she writes “because… well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have”; perhaps it might “provide some form of pleasure to serious people, doing actual jobs”. An essay made up of pen portraits of her neighbours pre-lockdown features a wheelchair user railing against New Yorkers “leaving like rats from a sinking ship… and what they running from? A COLD?… I survived WAY worse shit than this”. Another item ends by mentioning that a woman who went to school with Smith’s youngest brother was murdered during lockdown by her boyfriend, who then set fire to her flat.

If Smith takes pains to show how lucky she has it, there’s a productive shift of mood in Suffering Like Mel Gibson, which voices caveats about the discourse of privilege. (The title refers to an internet meme: Mel Gibson, on set for The Passion of the Christ, directing the lead, Jim Caviezel, bloodied under his crown of thorns, with the caption: “explaining to my friends with kids under six what it’s been like
isolating alone”.) Here, Smith probes the obligation she feels, when asked how she’s been faring under lockdown, to point out that she’s “lucky compared to so many others, inconvenienced, yes, melancholy often, but not suffering”. But the essay ends with one of the more provocative insights of this thoughtful book: that to admit the reality of one’s own troubles, in whatever form they take, might actually make it easier, not harder, to address those of others.

Intimations by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton (£5.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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