What makes this novel a bit unusual is that it is conceived as an act of homage to E.M. Forster, ‘to whom’, the author writes, ‘all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other’. The acknowledgment is obscure and ‘one way or the other’ could, but probably doesn’t, mean ‘both by attraction and repulsion’. To take as a model Howards End, a novel published in 1910, need not be a mere game or stunt, but it does tend to steal the limelight of critical attention.
Having decided to go about the business in this way, rather as Virgil chose to update Homer, an author could give good reasons for choosing Howards End. There are also objections to doing so. Forster’s skills are certainly a challenge to the disciple, but his narrative feats quite often relate intimately to his historical period, and some of his brilliance consists in getting things right in ways that are not of primary interest a century later. The modern writer may have to find ways of bringing off feats of comparable virtuosity, but they are unlikely to be discovered by close imitation. Attempts to do so may have an undesired outcome: the shadow of the older novel might darken or distort the new one.
In the present case it doesn’t. Zadie Smith’s real debt may not lie in her echoes of Howards End, though she does insist on them. Two families of very different temperaments are forced to confront one another when in On Beauty, as in Howards End, a sudden engagement is announced and almost at once cancelled. In Forster’s novel a mysteriously attractive old woman suddenly dies, leaving her house to another old woman she barely knows; in this book it is a painting that is similarly bequeathed. In each novel the self-interest of the male survivors frustrates the bequest, but the house and the picture still end up where their owners wanted them to.
These parallels continue. Forster, as has often been noticed, has on occasion a certain peremptoriness of manner. He brings his Schlegels and Wilcoxes together simply by having the latter family come to live almost next door. The story requires them to be in contact, so he arranges it without fussing about probability. Likewise Smith, wanting her two professors, the heads of her opposed families, to be neighbours, simply awards one a job at the university where the other works.
Forster is famous for his brusque manner with probability, for killing off perfectly healthy people, say, because he needs them out of the story. Gerald Dawes in The Longest Journey is an example: ‘Gerald died that afternoon. He was broken up in the football match.’ No need for more, though more could easily have been supplied. This is machinery; plots need it and novelists manipulate it without needing to think of Forster as their model. But there are other less obvious plot devices that are not bits of machinery, which have a rarer and more magical character. Forster uses lots of them. He was good on the practical virtues and shortcomings of the rentier class of 1910, but Mrs Wilcox is concerned not with machinery but with magic, as in her relationship with Margaret Schlegel and of course with the house. Magic echoes may now be heard among Smith’s tenure-seeking professors in modern New England. Kiki Belsey, the fat black wife of the inadequate white professor who does art history, is magical as well as substantial, funny as well as beautiful – beautiful because she understands families and is unaffectedly a moral being. Wholly modern in her setting, she might have been hard for Forster to understand, but she is of the company of Mrs Wilcox and Mrs Moore of A Passage to India.
Of course novels are nearly always, in some proportion, a mixture of magic and faits divers, and Forster is adept not only in the representation of manners, in the provision of social detail, but in otherworldly links, in connections, to use his own famous phrase, between ‘the prose and the passion’; ‘only connect’ is his slogan. The prose and the passion ought to be connected in life, and they can, given the necessary skill and conviction, be connected in books. Mr Wilcox deals with the prose, Mrs Wilcox intuits or instantiates occult connections – with wisps of hay, with the pig’s teeth stuck in the trunk of the wych-elm, with the house itself. And there is the sibylline Miss Avery, a specialist in connections, past and future. If magic and ordinary life connect in all novels, they do so with particular aptness in Howards End, which is – to give a trivial example – why the urban Mr Wilcox suffers from hay fever.
Back in 1910 some were bewildered by Forster’s blend of craft, passion and conscience, perhaps also by a sense that an eloquent member of the upper middle class had retained some elements not only of his ancestors’ social position but also of the spiritual authority they acquired by virtue of their membership of the Clapham Sect. For he does quietly claim a spiritual authority. It can be expressed in fiction, though not only there. Long after he had stopped writing novels we find Forster explaining why Henry James fell short of his ideal: ‘There is no philosophy in the novels, no religion (except an occasional touch of superstition), no prophecy, no benefit for the superhuman at all.’ Forster’s novels contain, in some form, all the ingredients cited as missing from the works of the master. It is worth remembering that when Forster was working on Howards End James was writing his Prefaces, now, far more than anything of Forster’s, the guides and companions of serious novelists.
Zadie Smith is already famous for being in the world, for knowing and loving its diversity. Her characters are down to earth: they are coarse, fat, bald, myopic, have uneven teeth, they talk their own talk, and are, in short, human, living all they can since that’s all they have; but she is nevertheless with Forster because she cares about religion, prophecy, philosophy. The main resemblance between the two books goes beyond the plot allusions everybody talks about. What lies behind both is an idea of the novel as what Lawrence called the one bright book of life – a source of truth and otherworldliness and prophecy.
As with Lawrence, it can all go wrong. One particular and glaring failure is prompted by Forster’s famous passage describing a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It is introduced facetiously – the facetious was the getaway car of the Edwardian novelists – and is altogether an embarrassing couple of pages, gently sneering at people who profess to like music without knowing how to do so, or at the more instructed who complain that the andante of this symphony is very like all the other Beethoven andantes, or who detect the presence of goblins and elephants in the scherzo. Beethoven’s goblins are said to suggest that ‘there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world.’ They walk about the universe proclaiming ‘panic and emptiness’ (one of the keynote phrases of the book, along with ‘telegrams and anger’ and ‘only connect’). Beethoven scatters the goblins, but they are still there, and ‘they could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.’
That’s the passage to which Smith alludes when one of her families goes to a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Pits and precipices confront the listener, and Mozart brings in other nasty things, which may include ‘your many lovers; your family; your enemies . . . the man you thought you were going to marry; the man you did’. During the Kyrie, mermaids and apes persist in dancing around one another and sliding down an ornate staircase – events of which the programme notes (understandably) say nothing, not even whether these manoeuvres are intended only in a merely metaphorical sense:
That is all that happens in the Kyrie. No apes, just Latin.
A pedestrian editor would have eliminated the blunder and a good editor the entire passage. It hardly helps that the Forster original is just as bad. Both episodes do some basic work in the narrative: at Forster’s concert Helen goes off with Leonard Bast’s umbrella, a trivial act that leads to complications of class, education and money which culminate in her pregnancy and his death. Smith uses the scene to introduce to the Belsey family (replacing Forster’s Schlegels) a young black man, from well outside their social orbit, whose Discman the Belsey daughter has taken by mistake. Naturally this young man will have an important part in what follows. So far so good; in this respect Smith imitates Forster’s elaborate but neat ways of plotting. But it seemed to both authors necessary to make more of the concert: to prophesy, philosophise, to hint that the music is an image of the universe; but to make the explanations facetious or trivial, mere metaphorical bombast. It is a fault completely out of character in this gifted novelist, and Forster has led her into it.
It is of course pleasing that a young novelist of such virtuosity and intelligence should hold Forster in such respect. We need to remember that although he was only about thirty when he wrote Howards End he had already published three other remarkable novels and acquired a reputation and a measure of authority recognised by his contemporaries. Authority was a quality he undoubtedly valued and which he was modestly certain of possessing. It looms behind the genially whimsical author of Aspects of the Novel. His confidence as an artist made possible delicate feats of writing; his assurance of authority gave him the nerve sometimes to write badly, as in the Beethoven passage; and it could sometimes make him preach. This confidence can erode the confidence of the reader: ‘It is those that cannot connect who hasten to cast the first stone’; ‘Death destroys a man: but the idea of death saves him.’ Of the 22 items under Forster’s name in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations nine come from Howards End. You might not guess that they came from a novel at all.
Forster obviously knew what he was doing when he deliberately tore the web of the tale to make such announcements. They were serious, they needed to be said; the novels were about human beings and their relationships, and therefore they were involved in moral issues, up to and including the ‘ethic of salvation’; and the interpretation of human relationships and moral issues was a principal interest of this writer, whether he was writing or not.
No one should complain of that, but times and terms have changed. If we reflect on the change in the meaning of the word ‘relationship’ between 1910 and now we may have some sort of measure of the change. It would be difficult now to use the word in such a way as to exclude the sexual sense, whereas in the English of a century ago that sense would have been at the bottom of the list, as indeed it remains in the most recent edition of the OED, which offers no instance of the dominant modern sense before 1944. Smith can be as serious as Forster, but they could not agree on a definition of this word; yet its broader sense was extremely important to Forster. Smith’s seriousness cannot be expressed in the same way, not because she thinks relationships in the larger sense are unimportant but because they can’t be separated from relationships more narrowly conceived. Helen Schlegel certainly has a relationship with Leonard Bast but we are a little surprised to discover that it has made her pregnant.
On Beauty is a much less tumultuous novel than White Teeth, and a more sober book than The Autograph Man. I should explain that I delight in all three and do not believe this new book to be either a disappointment or a recovery from a post-White Teeth slump. Smith began with an encyclopedic novel: it explains the nine acts that invalidate a Muslim fast, describes life in the kitchen of an Indian restaurant, or in Bangladesh, ‘God’s idea of a really good wheeze, his stab at black comedy’; it allows that ‘life is a broad church’ and situates us outside a narrow church with its ‘quivering believers’, whence we can look contentedly at ‘the smelly bustle of black, white, brown and yellow shuffling up and down the high street’. The subjects of the book are vast and various but its manner is comic, high-spirited, obscene in a long tradition, the multitudinous world as seen by a clear, happy eye. The whole impression is of ribald affection backed by understanding and compassion.
The Autograph Man followed a couple of years later, this time with Judaism as its central religion and subjected to some teasing: is Judaism ‘the most goyish of monotheisms’? Paradoxes abound; a father tries to persuade his son not to turn up for his bar mitzvah, and so on. As a pure comic turn the cool milkman is a brilliant success. The autograph collector himself seems expertly handled, the minor characters are odd and funny, and the whole thing is a new exhibition, somewhat different in tone, of the author’s exceptional comic skills. She is seriously comic about death, pain, faith.
On Beauty is quieter. There is a complicated story making up by richness of implication what it lacks in exuberance. The culture of the Boston campus is set among the other cultures such a city harbours. Carl, the outsider who enters the story because of the muddle at the concert, is far from being a replica of Leonard Bast. He’s an exponent of rap culture – and it is a culture, unlike Bast’s pathetic aspirations. The power of his rap has to be explained, and indeed the author intervenes personally to endorse it: ‘the present-day American poets, the rappers’. The mufflered pink-cheeked charm of a New England campus in winter is very agreeably rendered. The row between Professor Belsey and Kiki when she finds out he’s been cheating is as deft as anybody could make it, he with his stumbling, evasive academic dialect and she with her ‘personal’ language and naturally inflexible notions of fidelity and honour.
In a late scene Kiki is sorting out her children’s accumulated belongings. As she is carrying two bags of her elder son’s ‘pre-growth-spurt clothes’, we are told:
Last year, she had not thought she would still be in this house, in this marriage, come spring. But here she was, here she was. A tear in the garbage bag freed three pairs of pants and a sweater. Kiki crouched to pick these up and, as she did so, the second bag split too. She had packed them too heavy. The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.
What makes this passage brilliant is that the sententia at the end, though it may be true, is somehow made ironical because it is Kiki, there among all the random evidence of her love, who is uttering it, and not some cheat, some intellectual, some person of recognised authority. She is the measure of Zadie Smith’s powers at 30, Forster’s age when he published Howards End.