Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith


  3

  The impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently. One might add a fourth impossibility, the impossibility of writing. . . . Thus what has resulted was a literature impossible in all respects, a gypsy literature which had stolen the German child out of its cradle and in great haste put it through some kind of training, for someone had to dance on the tightrope. (But it wasn’t a German child, it was nothing; people merely said that somebody was dancing.)

  A perfect slice of Kafka. On May 3, 1913, Kafka’s diary conceives of a butcher’s knife “quickly and with mechanical regularity chop[ping] into me from the side,” slicing thin, parma ham style, pezzi di Kafka. . . . The quote above is like that: it has the marbled mark of Kafka running through it. It traces a typical Kafka journey, from the concrete, to the metaphorical, to the allegorical, to the notional, which last—as so often with Kafka—seems to grow obscure the more precisely it is expressed. From this same quote Begley efficiently unpacks Kafka’s “frightful inner predicament,” born of his strange historical moment. A middle-class Prague Jew (“The most Western Jewish of them all”) both enamored of and horrified by an Eastern shtetl life he never knew; a Jew in a period of virulent anti-Semitism (“I’ve been spending every afternoon outside in the streets, wallowing in anti-Semitic hate”) who remained ambivalent toward the Zionist project; a German speaker surrounded by Czech nationalists. The impossible “gypsy literature” an aspect of an impossible gypsy self, an assimilated Judaism that was fatally neither one thing or the other.

  In Kafka’s world there were really two “Jewish questions.” The first was external, asked by Gentiles, and is familiar: “What is to be done with the Jews?” For which the answer was either persecution or “toleration,” that vile word.52 (Writing to Brod from an Italian pensione, Kafka describes being barely tolerated at lunch by an Austrian colonel who has just found out he is Jewish: “Out of politeness he brought our little chat to a sort of end before he hurried out with long strides. . . . Why must I be a thorn in their flesh?”). The second Jewish question, the one that Kafka asked himself, was existential: What have I in common with Jews? Begley does not shy from citing this and many of the other quotations “used by scholars to buttress the argument that Kafka was himself a Jewish anti-Semite, a self-hating Jew”:I admire Zionism and am nauseated by it.

  At times I’d like to stuff them all, simply as Jews (me included) into, say, the drawer of the laundry chest. Next I’d wait, open the drawer a little to see if they’ve suffocated, and if not, shut the drawer again and keep doing this to the end.

  Isn’t it natural to leave a place where one is so hated? The heroism of staying is nonetheless merely the heroism of cockroaches which cannot be exterminated, even from the bathroom.

  To this evidence, Freudians add exhibit number one: fantasies of self-slaughter (“Between throat and chin would seem to be the most rewarding place to stab”), shadowing Kafka’s lineage (grandson of the butcher of Wossek) and those tales of Jewish ritual murder that are as old as anti-Semitism itself.53 For Begley, though, the accusation of auto-anti-Semitism is “unfair and, in the end, beside the point.” He sees rather the conflicted drama of assimilation: “The fear was of a crack in the veneer . . . through which might enter the miasma of the shtetl or the medieval ghetto.” In this version, affection and repulsion are sides of the same coin:It would have been surprising if he, who was so repelled by his own father’s vulgarity at table and in speech, had not been similarly repelled by the oddities of dress, habits, gestures and speech of the very Jews of whom he made a fetish, because of the community spirit, cohesiveness, and genuine emotional warmth he was convinced they possessed.

  It’s an awkward argument that struggles to recast repulsion as “the cumulative effect on Kafka of the ubiquitous anti-Semitism” all around him, which in turn caused a kind of “profound fatigue,” compelling him to “transcend his Jewish experience and his Jewish identity” so that he might write “ about the human condition”—a conclusion that misses the point entirely, for Kafka found the brotherhood of man quite as incomprehensible as the brotherhood of Jews. For Kafka, the impossible thing was collectivity itself:What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content than I can breathe.

  Kafka’s horror is not Jewishness per se, because it is not a horror only of Jewishness: it is a horror of all shared experience, all shared being, all genus. In a time and place in which national, linguistic and racial groups were defined with ever more absurd precision, how could the very idea of commonness not turn equally absurd? In his Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, fellow Austro-Hungarian Gregor von Rezzori presented the disquieting idea that the philo-Semite and the anti-Semite have something essential in common (the narrator is both): a belief in a collective Jewish nature, a Semiteness. Kafka, by contrast, had stopped believing. The choice of belonging to a people, of partaking of a shared nature, was no longer available to him. He often wished it was not so (hence his sentimental affection for shtetl life), but it was so. On this point, Begley quotes Hannah Arendt approvingly, though he does not pursue her brilliant conclusion:. . . These men [assimilated German Jews] did not wish to “return” either to the ranks of the Jewish people or to Judaism, and could not desire to do so . . . not because they were too “assimilated” and too alienated from their Jewish heritage, but because all traditions and cultures as well as all “belonging” had become equally questionable to them.54

  Jewishness itself had become the question. It is a mark of how disconcerting this genuinely Kafkaesque concept is that it should provoke conflict in Begley himself.

  “My people,” wrote Kafka, “provided that I have one.” What does it mean, to have a people? On no subject are we more sentimental and less able to articulate what we mean. In what, for example, does the continuity of “Blackness” exist? Or “Irishness”? Or “Arabness”? Blood, culture, history, genes? Judaism, with its matrilineal line, has been historically fortunate to have at its root a beautiful answer, elegant in its circularity: Jewishness is the gift of a Jewish mother. But what is a Jewish mother? Kafka found her so unstable a thing, a mistranslation might undo her: Yesterday it occurred to me that I did not always love my mother as she deserved and as I could, only because the German language prevented it. The Jewish mother is no “Mutter,” to call her “Mutter” makes her a little comical. . . . “Mutter” is peculiarly German for the Jew, it unconsciously contains, together with the Christian splendor, Christian coldness also, the Jewish woman who is called “Mutter” therefore becomes not only comical but strange. . . . I believe it is only the memories of the ghetto that still preserve the Jewish family, for the word “Vater” too is far from meaning the Jewish father.

  Kafka’s Jewishness was a kind of dream, whose authentic moment was located always in the nostalgic past. His survey of the insectile situation of young Jews in Inner Bohemia can hardly be improved upon: “With their posterior legs they were still glued to their father’s Jewishness, and with their waving anterior legs they found no new ground.”

  Alienation from oneself, the conflicted assimilation of migrants, losing one place without gaining another . . . This feels like Kafka in the genuine clothes of an existential prophet, Kafka in his twenty-first-century aspect (if we are to assume, as with Shakespeare, that every new century will bring a Kafka close to our own concerns). For there is a sense in which Kafka’s Jewish question (“What have I in common with Jews?”) has become everybody’s question, Jewish alienation the template for all our doubts.55 What is Muslimness? What is femaleness? What is Polishness? What is Englishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer,56 now.

  Six

  TWO DIRECTIONS FO R TH E NOVEL

  Those who knew

  what was going on here

  must give way to

  those who know little.

  A
nd less than little.

  And finally as little as nothing.

  —WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA, “The End and the Beginning”

  1

  From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglo-phone Novel. Both are the result of long journeys. Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, took seven years to write; Remainder, by Tom McCarthy, took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. The two novels are antipodal—indeed, one is the strong refusal of the other. The violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland is, in part, a function of our ailing literary culture. All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us down this road the true future of the Novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene. These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It is perfectly done—in a sense, that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.

  Netherland is nominally the tale of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch stock analyst, transplanted from London to downtown New York with his wife and young son. When the towers fall, the family relocates to the Chelsea Hotel; soon after, a trial separation occurs. Wife and son depart once more for London, leaving Hans stranded in a world turned immaterial, phantasmagoric: “Life itself had become disembodied. My family, the spine of my days, had crumbled. I was lost in invertebrate time.” Every other weekend he visits his family, hoping “that flying high into the atmosphere, over boundless massifs of vapor or small clouds dispersed like the droppings of Pegasus on an unseen platform of air, might also lift me above my personal haze”—the first of many baroque descriptions of clouds, light and water. On the alternative weekends, he plays cricket in Staten Island, the sole white man in a cricket club that includes Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian wiseacre, whose outsize dreams of building a cricket stadium in the city represent a Gatsbyesque commitment to the American Dream/human possibility/narrative with which Hans himself is struggling to keep faith. The stage is set, then, for a “meditation” on identities both personal and national, immigrant relations, terror, anxiety, the attack of futility on the human consciousness and the defense against same: meaning. In other words, it’s the post-9/11 novel we hoped for. (Were there calls, in 1915, for the Lusitania novel? In 1985, was the Bhopal novel keenly anticipated?) It’s as if, by an act of collective prayer, we have willed it into existence. But Netherland is only superficially about 9/11 or immigrants or cricket as a symbol of good citizenship. It certainly is about anxiety, but its worries are formal and revolve obsessively around the question of authenticity. Netherland sits at an anxiety crossroads where a community in recent crisis—the Anglo-American liberal middle class—meets a literary form in long-term crisis, the nineteenth-century lyrical realism of Balzac and Flaubert. Critiques of this form by now amount to a long tradition in and of themselves. Beginning with what Robbe-Grillet called “the destitution of the old myths of ‘depth,’ ” they blossomed into a phenomenology skeptical of realism’s metaphysical tendencies; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt that questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world in any accuracy. They all of them note the (often unexamined) credos upon which realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self. Yet despite these theoretical assaults, the American metafiction that stood in opposition to realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history, to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most prominent public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart. Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, David Foster Wallace—all misguided ideologists, the novelist equivalent of the socialists in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In this version of our literary history the last man standing is the Balzac-Flaubert model, on the evidence of its extraordinary persistence. But the critiques persist, too. Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?

  Netherland, unlike much lyrical realism, has some consciousness of these arguments, and so it is an anxious novel, unusually so. It is absolutely a post-catastrophe novel, but the catastrophe isn’t terror, it’s realism. In its opening pages, we get the first hint of this. Hans, packing up his London office in preparation to move to New York, finds himself buttonholed by a senior vice president “who reminisced for several minutes about his loft on Wooster Street and his outings to the ‘original’ Dean & DeLuca.” Hans finds this nostalgia irritating: “Principally he was pitiable—like one of those Petersburgians of yesteryear whose duties have washed him up on the wrong side of the Urals.” But then:It turns out he was right, in a way. Now that I, too, have left that city, I find it hard to rid myself of the feeling that life carries a taint of aftermath. This last-mentioned word, somebody once told me, refers literally to a second mowing of grass in the same season. You might say, if you’re the type prone to general observations, that New York City insists on memory’s repetitive mower—on the sort of purposeful postmortem that has the effect, so one is told and forlornly hopes, of cutting the grassy past to manageable proportions. For it keeps growing back, of course. None of this means that I wish I were back there now; and naturally I’d like to believe that my own retrospection is in some way more important than the old S.V.P’s, which, when I was exposed to it, seemed to amount to not much more than a cheap longing. But there’s no such thing as a cheap longing, I’m tempted to conclude these days, not even if you’re sobbing over a cracked fingernail. Who knows what happened to that fellow over there? Who knows what lay behind his story about shopping for balsamic vinegar? He made it sound like an elixir, the poor bastard.

  This paragraph is structured like a recognized cliché (i.e., We had come, as they say, to the end of the road). It places before us what it fears might be a tired effect: in this case, the nostalgia-fused narrative of one man’s retrospection (which is to form the basis of this novel). It recognizes that effect’s inauthenticity, its lack of novelty, even its possible dullness—and it employs the effect anyway. By stating its fears Netherland intends to neutralize them. It’s a novel that wants you to know that it knows you know it knows. Hans invites us to sneer lightly at those who are “prone to general observations,” but only as a prelude to just such an observation, presented in language frankly genteel and faintly archaic (“so one is told and forlornly hopes”). Is it cheap longing? It can’t be because—and this is the founding, consoling myth of lyrical realism—the self is a bottomless pool. What you can’t find in the heavens (anymore), you’ll find in the soul. Yet there remains, in Netherland, a great anxiety about the depth or otherwise of the soul in question (and thus Netherland ’s entire narrative project). Balsamic vinegar and Dean & DeLuca in the first two pages are no accident. All the class markers are openly displayed, and it’s a preemptive strike: is the reader suggesting that white middle-class futures traders are less authentic, less interesting, less capable of interiority than anyone else?

  Enter Chuck Ramkissoon. Chuck has no such anxieties. He is unselfconscious. He moves through the novel simply being, and with abandon, saying those things that the novel—given its late place in the history of the novel—daren’t, for fear of seeming naive. It’s Chuck who openly states the central metaphor of the novel, that cricket is “a lesson in civility. We all know this; I do not need to say more about it.” It’s left to Chuck to make explicit the analogy between good behavior on pitch and immigrant citizenship: “And if we step out of line, believe me, this indulgence disappears. What this mean
s . . . is we have an extra responsibility to play the game right.” Through Chuck idealisms and enthusiasms can be expressed without anxiety:“I love the national bird,” Chuck clarified. “The noble bald eagle represents the spirit of freedom, living as it does in the boundless void of the sky.”

  I turned to see whether he was joking. He wasn’t. From time to time, Chuck actually spoke like this.

  And again:

  “It’s an impossible idea, right? But I’m convinced it will work. Totally convinced. You know what my motto is?”

  “I didn’t think people had mottoes anymore,” I said.

  “Think fantastic,” Chuck said. “My motto is, Think Fantastic.”

  Chuck functions here as a kind of authenticity fetish, allowing Hans (and the reader) the nostalgic pleasure of returning to a narrative time when symbols and mottoes were full of meaning and novels weren’t neurotic, but could aim themselves simply and purely at transcendent feeling. This culminates in a reverie on the cricket pitch. Chuck instructs Hans to put his old-world fears aside and hit the ball high (“How else are you going to get runs? This is America”), and Hans does this, and the movement is fluid, unexpected, formally perfect, and Hans permits himself an epiphany, expressed, like all epiphanies, in one long, breathless, run-on sentence:All of which may explain why I began to dream in all seriousness of a stadium and black and brown and even a few white faces crowded in bleachers, and Chuck and me laughing over drinks in the members’ enclosure and waving to people we know, and stiff flags on the pavilion roof, and fresh white sight-screens, and the captains in blazers looking up at a quarter spinning in the air, and a stadium-wide flutter of expectancy as the two umpires walk onto the turf square and its omelet-colored batting track, whereupon, with clouds scrambling in from the west, there is a roar as the cricket stars trot down the pavilion steps onto this impossible grass field in America, and everything is suddenly clear, and I am at last naturalized.

 
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