Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

Zaltzman, Andy

  Zellweger, Renée

  Zhang, Ziyi

  Zikeh, Nyan P.

  Zischler, Hanns

  Ziek, Slavoj

  Zora Neale Hurston: A Life Letters

  Zurer, Ayelet

  1 But I still resist “limp and languid.”

  2 Again, Middlemarch is an interesting comparison. Readers often prefer Lydgate and are disappointed at Dorothea’s choice of Ladislaw.

  3 The (very good) biography is Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd. Also very good is Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, collected and edited by Carla Kaplan.

  4 Dust Tracks on a Road is Hurston’s autobiography.

  5 All the critical voices quoted above can be found in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom.

  6 Hurston, by contrast, wanted her writing to demonstrate the fact that “Negroes are no better nor no worse, and at times as boring as everybody else.”

  7 Not least of which is Alice Walker’s original introduction to Their Eyes Were Watching God. By championing the book, she rescued Hurston from forty years of obscurity.

  8 A footnote for the writers in the audience: Their Eyes Were Watching God was written in seven weeks.

  9 See chapter 16 for a sad portrayal of a truly color-struck lady, Mrs. Turner.

  10 I think this was the point my mother was trying to make.

  11 As Kafka’s The Trial plumbs that ancient buildup of cultural residue that is called “Jewishness.”

  12 Down on the muck, Janie and Tea Cake befriend the “Saws,” workers from the Caribbean.

  13 Until they read books featuring nonwhite characters. I once overheard a young white man at a book festival say to his friend, “Have you read the new Kureishi? Same old thing—loads of Indian people.” To which you want to reply, “Have you read the new Franzen? Same old thing—loads of white people.”

  14 At its most common and banal: catching a beat, following a rhythm.

  15 In the Oxford English Dictionary: “Schmaltz n. informal. excessive sentimentality, esp. in music or movies. ORIGIN 1930s: from Yiddish schmaltz, from German Schmalz ‘dripping, lard.’ ”

  16 Is there anything less soulful than attempting to define soulfulness?

  17 In literary terms, we know that there is a tipping point at which the cultural particular—while becoming no less culturally particular—is accepted by readers as the neutral universal. The previously “Jewish fiction” of Philip Roth is now “fiction.” We have moved from the particular complaints of Portnoy to the universal claims of Everyman.

  18 The book in question is The BBC Talks of E. M. Forster, 1929-1960, University of Missouri Press.

  19 He refers to the narrative version by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson.

  20 The book recommended is The Social Substance of Religion by Gerald Heard.

  21 Next to the phrase “into her dream he melted” was written “You mean he fucked her, do you?”

  22 The other panelists: Desmond MacCarthy, Rose Macaulay, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Philip Toynbee.

  23 “I don’t belong to any club or group. I don’t fish, cook, dance, endorse books, sign books, co-sign declarations, eat oysters, get drunk, go to church, go to analysts, or take part in demonstrations.”

  24 His translated poetry reader of 1944, Three Russian Poets: Selections from Pushkin, Lermontov and Tyutchev, takes care to include three sparklingly written mini-biographies of the poets.

  25 Another way of thinking about the distinction might be: there is a style that believes writing should mimic the quick pace, the ease, and the fluidity of reading (or even of speech). And then there is a style that believes reading should mimic the obstruction and slow struggle of writing. Raymond Carver would be on that first axis. Nabokov is way out on the second. Joyce is even further.

  26 These were originally conceived as lectures for Nabokov’s Cornell undergraduates on the Masters of European Fiction. They were collected and published after his death.

  27 Properly poshlost, from the Russian for vulgarity. Nabokov’s definition: “Not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.”

  28 Nabokov nerds often slavishly parrot his strong opinions. I don’t think I’m the first person to have my mind poisoned, by Nabokov, against Dostoyevsky.

  29 “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”—Joan Didion

  30 Vera, his wife and “first and best reader” being a close second.

  31 Warning: this footnote for Pnin nerds only. Galya Diment’s illuminating study Pniniad reveals that Nabokov meant to kill Pnin, and was committed to this plan until quite far along in the novel. It appears to be a case of a writer becoming too charmed by his own creation to kill him. But it also means that the Tolstoy and Lermontov echoes (this sense of being spoken about casually, or caricatured, by other people, while you yourself are experiencing an extremely personal and ulterior reality) are deprived their final satisfaction (as Pnin’s escape from the jaws of death finds its own echo in the glass bowl that improbably survives the washing up). We can faintly imagine what the last chapter was to have been: the narrator and Jack Cockerell doing their sordid, lame little impressions of Pnin, while Pnin lies dying, or perhaps has already died. (Which leads to the question: what is it about having people speak of you as you lie dying that is particularly Russian?)

  32 Of course an actual Van Eyck turns up at Pnin’s successful little party, when Laurence Clements, lost in thought while holding a dictionary, is compared to the master’s portrait of Canon van der Paele. At the same party, a little later on, bored Laurence is to be found “flipping through an album of Flemish Masterpieces.”

  33 All appear in Pnin. Bole is used for “the trunk of a tree” but is also the small eye on a butterfly wing; crepitation is a Nabokov favorite, but aside from crackling generally, it’s the word for what a (bombardier) beetle does when he “ejects a pungent fluid with a sudden sharp report.” Punchinello, in Pnin, is of course the ugly Italian commedia character, who is short and stout, and so, in the simile under consideration, reminiscent of a tongue. But it is also a very pretty butterfly.

  34 From Pnin: “He placed various objects in turn—an apple, a pencil, a chess pawn, a comb—behind a glass of water and peered through it at each studiously: the red apple became a clear-cut red band bounded by a straight horizon, half a glass of Red Sea, Arabia Felix. The short pencil, if held obliquely, curved like a stylized snake, but if held vertically became monstrously fat—almost pyramidal. The black pawn, if moved to and fro, divided into a couple of black ants. The comb, stood on end, resulted in the glass’s seeming to fill with beautifully striped liquid, a zebra cocktail.”

  35 “My method of teaching precluded genuine contact with my students. At best, they regurgitated a few bits of my brain during examinations.”

  36 Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” 1969. The English translation quoted is by Joseph V. Harari, first published in 1979.

  37 “Ferrety, human-interest fiends, those jolly vulgarians,” as he called them. And that cagey afterword to Lolita performs a similar function.

  38 Foucault, “What Is an Author?”

  39 In Nabokov’s case, it’s more like S&M—an experience you’d hope Foucault could get behind.

  40 A largely romantic concept. And wasn’t it always the same examples? Either it was Hom
er; some unspecified “ethnographic societies” within which “narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relator whose ‘performance’—the mastery of the narrative code—may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius’ ” (Barthes); or else the rather weak model of Beaumont and Fletcher.

  41 Respectively, Walter Benjamin, Milena Jesenská, Erich Heller and Felice Bauer.

  42 This has not been seriously assailed since Edmund Wilson’s “A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka.”

  43 Begley tells us that Brod did not directly publish Kafka’s letters to Milena and Felice, but neither did he press them to “surrender his letters for destruction, or to destroy the letters themselves.” As a result, Brod lost control of them. As the German army entered Prague, Milena entrusted them to Willy Haas, who published them in 1952; Felice, who emigrated to America, sold her letters herself, in 1955, to Schocken Books.

  44 Brod championed many artists, including Leoš Janáček, Franz Werfel and Karl Kraus.

  45 The truly hagiographic text is Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka. The young Gustav befriended Kafka in Berlin in the final year of the writer’s life. In this essay, where I quote from the book, it is with the understanding that this is “reported speech” and most probably prettified for publication.

  46 Conversations with Kafka, Gustav Janouch.

  47 Ibid.

  48 Although, naturally, Larkin felt his own case to be by far the more extreme, as he makes clear in his poem “The Literary World”: My dear Kafka / When you’ve had five years of it, not five months, / Five years of an irresistible force meeting an / Immoveable object right in your belly, / Then you’ll know about depression.

  49 “Self’s the Man” by Philip Larkin.

  50 From Kafka’s diary. “She” is Felice.

  51 Traditionally, critics credit Felice Bauer with being at least partial inspiration for “The Judgement”—the first story of his that satisfied Kafka. The evidence is circumstantial but convincing: it was dedicated to Felice, its composition dates to the beginning of their correspondence, and its heroine, to whom the hero is engaged, shares her initials: “Frieda Brandenfeld, a girl from a well-to-do family.”

  52 Now more commonly used for recent immigrants to Western democracies.

  53 Begley: “Three ‘ritual murder trials,’ throwbacks to the Middle Ages, and unimaginable for Jews believing that they lived in an era of moral as well as material progress, took place within his lifetime.”

  54 From her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. As Begley points out, Benjamin and Kafka were “near enough contemporaries for Arendt’s comments to be considered directly relevant” to Kafka’s case.

  55 Sylvia Plath hinted at this: “I think I may well be a Jew.”

  56 As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic Ungeziefer. Variously translated as insect, cockroach—much to the horror of Nabokov, who insisted the thing had wings—bug, dung-beetle, the literal translation is vermin. Only the David Wyllie, Joachim Neugroschel and Stanley Corngold translations retain this literal meaning.

  57 McCarthy is also the author of the novel Men in Space.

  58 This can be heard at

  59 In another INS report, this line is described as “an active construct in which ‘nothing’ designates an event, perhaps even a momentous one.”

  60 RAI is the Italian state broadcasting corporation.

  61 Alessandro Blasetti (July 3, 1900-February 1, 1987) was the director of more than twenty films including Quattro passi fra le nuvole (1942) and La fortuna di essere donna (1956).

  62 The bikini-clad showgirls on Italian television.

  63 Literally a recommendation of iron. A good word that will secure an applicant in a position.

  64 Urban Italian mass housing, the equivalent of England’s housing estates and America’s projects.

  65 From Larry McCaffery’s Dalkey Archive Press 1993 interview with Wallace, conducted during the composition of Brief Interviews. The great majority of Wallace quotes in this piece come from that interview.

  66 Each year, the MacArthur Fellows Program gives out awards of several hundred thousand dollars (nicknamed genius grants) to individuals working in any field who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” Wallace received his in 1997. Brief Interviews was published in 1999.

  67 Wallace’s most attentive mainstream critic, Wyatt Mason, made this point in his 2004 review “You Don’t Like It? You Don’t Have to Play.” There he asks and answers the question—“Why should [the reader] grant Wallace any of his demands . . . when the reader feels, not unreasonably, that Wallace is making unreasonable demands?”—with the only honest response available, that is, an account of Mason’s own pleasure: “having read the eight stories in Oblivion; having found some hard to read and, because they were hard and the hardness made me miss things, reread them; having reread them and seen how they work, how well they work, how tightly they withhold their working, hiding on high shelves the keys that unlock their treasures; having, in some measure, found those keys; and having, in the solitary place where one reads, found a bright array of sad and moving and funny and fascinating human objects of undeniable, unusual value.” But to those readers who find even Wallace’s habit of abbreviating the phrase with regard to (w/r/t) an unreasonable demand, no counterargument will suffice.

  68 The second person present tense imperative—a fashionable conceit of the ’90s.

  69 Maybe writers have this dream more than most.

  70 I once asked Wallace, in a letter, for a list of favorite writers. Larkin was the only poet mentioned.

  71 From “Dockery and Son.”

  72 The end of “High Windows”: “The sun-comprehending glass,/And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” The end of “Water”: “And I should raise in the east/A glass of water/Where any-angled light/Would congregate endlessly.”

  73 From “Dockery and Son.”

  74 This, and later James quotes, are from the 1908 preface to The Princess Casamassima. This section of the preface has been used before, in the context of the connection between fiction and philosphy, by Martha Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge.

  75 Whom he called crank turners: “When you talk about Nabokov and Coover, you’re talking about real geniuses, the writers who weathered real shock and invented this stuff in contemporary fiction. But after the pioneers always come the crank turners, the little gray people who take the machines others have built and just turn the crank, and little pellets of metafiction come out the other end.”

  76 We’ll come to the second.

  77 OED: abreaction; Psychoanalysis. The relief of anxiety by the expression and release of a previously repressed emotion, through reliving the experience that caused it; an instance of this.

  78 And does not sit with Wallace’s respect and interest in AA, an organization he researched during the writing of Infinite Jest: “I went to a couple of meetings with these guys and thought that it was tremendously powerful. . . . For me there was a real repulsion at the beginning. “One Day at a Time,” right? . . . But apparently part of addiction is that you need the substance so bad that when they take it away from you, you want to die. . . . Something as banal and reductive as “one Day at a Time” enabled these people to walk through hell. . . . That struck me.”

  That AA is by its nature a communal activity, however, which places therapeutic emphasis on a “buddy system,” is also worth noting.

  79 An argument recently challenged by the American professor of linguistics Dan Everett, whose paper “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã,” caused an almighty brouhaha among the sort of people who get all brouhaha-ed about linguistics. In the paper he claimed to have found a tribe in the rainforest of northwestern Brazil—the Pirahã—whose language does not use recursion and is, in f
act, finite. The New Yorker had an interesting article about all this, “The Interpreter,” in the April 16, 2007 issue.

  80 From the OED: “Pica—A tendency or craving to eat substances other than normal food, occurring during childhood or pregnancy, or as a symptom of disease.” This is Wallace’s way of describing someone chewing her own fingernails.

  81 When still a child, the depressed person’s divorced parents had battled each other over who was to pay for her (i.e., the depressed person’s) orthodontics. The writer Mary Karr informs me that this detail wasn’t accidental; it was lifted from Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir, Prozac Nation.

  82 In the acknowledgments of Brief Interviews Wallace thanks the MacArthur and Lannan foundations, The Paris Review, and “The Staff and Management of Denny’s 24-Hour Family Restaurant, Bloomington IL.”

  83 He makes the same point, at greater length, in an interview with Salon: “It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that’s gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me, like ‘It’s really important not to lie.’ OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don’t feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can’t trust you. I feel that I’m in pain, I’m nervous, I’m lonely and I can’t figure out why. Then I realize, ‘Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie.’ The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting—which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff—can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can’t, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel.”

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