The Shelter of Each Other
New York, Penguin, 2005, 446 pps., $25.95, hardcover
Review by Susan Alice Fischer
One may as well begin with Howards End. With the first sentence of her new novel, On Beauty, Zadie Smith declares E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howards End, to be a model for her own. Smith’s high-tech opening—“One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father”—updates Forster’s first line and introduces the short-lived engagement between Jerome Belsey and Victoria Kipps. Jerome’s e-mail triggers the same cringe-inducing meddling as Helen Schlegel’s letter announcing her equally fleeting alliance with Paul Wilcox in Howards End. In each novel, the missive initiates the plot, propelling the opposing worlds of Belseys/Schlegels and Kippses/Wilcoxes towards collision.
Parallels between the two novels abound. Both the Belsey and the Schlegel children are bicultural—the Belseys are African American/white British and the Schlegels English/German. A Christmas shopping expedition in each novel produces a connection between a Belsey/Schlegel and a Kipps/Wilcox woman that results in an unexpected legacy. Henry Wilcox, the family patriarch in Howards End, represents the interests of capital and wealth. Smith’s Sir Montague Kipps, who hails from the Caribbean via Britain, wants to eradicate affirmative action. The progressive Belseys and Schlegels claim to believe in handling those in socioeconomic straits with more humanity than the obdurately conservative Kippses and Wilcoxes. Yet, the hypocritical actions of liberal and conservative family members paradoxically align them. A female member of each novel’s liberal family—Helen Schlegel, Zora Belsey—inadvertently pinches someone else’s property at a concert—Helen grabs an umbrella and Zora a CD player—and in the end, unwittingly snatches far more from the rightful owner. Their high-minded carelessness about the people they feel equipped to manage, but fail to see accurately, initially opens new worlds to the beneficiaries of their largesse but ultimately plunges them into catastrophe. In Forster’s novel, Leonard Bast’s dream of escaping his constrained clerk’s life by embracing literature and the open road comes to naught, while Smith’s talented but diffident Spoken Word poet, Carl Thomas, is vulnerable to stereotypes about young black men from Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. In Howards End, Forster famously exhorts, “Only connect.” Similarly, Smith invites us to connect the dots, to see what is before our eyes, across differences of gender, race, class, sexuality, and ideology, and to embrace the full beauty of art and humanity.
However, Smith’s novel can be read and enjoyed without reference to Forster’s. Although On Beauty displays the author’s penchant for intertextuality, also present are the considerable gifts of observation and language already in evidence in her earlier novels, White Teeth and The Autograph Man. These were both set in her native London, while, with the exception of a few London scenes, On Beauty moves to Wellington, a college town on the outskirts of Boston with more than a passing resemblance to Cambridge, where the author spent some time. Focusing her gleefully satirical eye on American mores and foibles and tuning her highly sensitive ear to the regional, ethnic, and class quirks of American speech, Smith presents a more exuberantly cluttered novel than Forster’s; it feels rather like a circus car from which an implausible number of clowns emerge. Full of big ideas, On Beauty is a pointed parody of contemporary academic life as well as an engaging story about numerous characters, most of whom do double duty as vehicles for the author’s views on the role of beauty in the university, art, and human relations.
While part of the novel focuses on the ideological conflicts between academic rivals Montague Kipps and Howard Belsey, the members of the Belsey family also understand beauty and human connection differently from one another. The protagonist, Howard Belsey, is a white, British transplant of working-class origins who has been teaching at Wellington College for the past ten years and is somehow still untenured. He and his African American wife, Kiki Simmonds, have three children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Howard’s feeble attempts to prop up their marriage, after confessing to a one-night stand at an out-of-town conference, collapse on their thirtieth anniversary, which appropriately falls on September 11th.
Sight is one of the novel’s controlling metaphors. Early on, we learn that Howard is the only member of his family who is not myopic. An art historian, he has been trained to see, yet ironically, he repudiates truth and ignores beauty. Howard bans representational art from the house, and his academic career rests on the notion that beauty, while worth deconstructing, is itself irrelevant. Chapters of his incomplete book on Rembrandt litter his study, and he argues that “Rembrandt is part of the seventeenth-century European movement to… invent the idea of the human” and “the corollary to that is the fallacy that we as human beings are central, and that our aesthetic sense in some way makes us central.” Lecturing about one of Rembrandt’s paintings, “Howard [has] seen it so many times he [can] no longer see it at all.” Intensely self-absorbed, Howard also fails to see himself accurately or occasionally even to recognize people he knows, including his own family members.
Certainly not the first man in midlife to attempt to run away from his own mortality, Howard blinds himself to his wife Kiki’s beauty, which now resides in a much larger body. As Howard lamely puts it, men “respond to beauty… it doesn’t end for them, … this concern with beauty as a physical actuality in the world.” Kiki’s fat, menopausal body contrasts with the younger body of the powerfully pretty Victoria Kipps, whose promise of youthful sexuality predictably turns middle-aged and young men’s heads. Meanwhile Victoria, intelligent enough to know that men see only “her face, her breasts, her hips,” nonetheless participates in her own objectification, and her staggering physical beauty is sordidly reduced to a series of penetrable orifices. Indeed, another theme in Smith’s novel concerns the depressingly synecdochic ways that men—and women—often see female bodies.
Kiki’s stronger vision stands out against Howard’s blindness. She sees across the divide of academic argument to the beauty of Carlene Kipps, whom she befriends. Visiting Carlene, Kiki admires a painting that Carlene owns of the Voodoo goddess Maîtresse Erzulie, who symbolizes “love, beauty, purity, the ideal female” and represents Kiki, providing her name. (According to Judi Singleton, in “The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life Definition: In the Vodoun (Vodoo),” available online at http://www.thegoddessworld.com/freecontent/voodoo.shtml, Erzulie Dantor, the Black Virgin of Carlene’s painting, cries “ke-ke-ke-ke-ke.” Moreover, Erzulie’s connection to lesbians explains Kiki’s allusion to her own same-sex experiences as well as Howard’s repeated references to lesbians toward the end of the novel.) Seeing the unique beauty of others allows for human connection. Carlene tells Kiki that “the eyes and the heart are directly connected” and, borrowing a line from the poetry of Nick Laird, Smith’s husband, points to one of the novel’s themes: “There is such a shelter in each other.”
The Belsey children struggle for vision. Jerome, to the horror of his father, who is “terrified of anyone who believes anything,” has found answers in Christianity. His sister Zora, a brainy undergraduate at Wellington College, wholeheartedly buys into academic life. Like her father, she is more interested in theory than in art. She ludicrously believes that her creative writing teacher must be intellectually lacking because she spends time reading Plato, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud rather than theorists such as Foucault, “as if we all had time to sit around reading whatever we fancied.” (Smith’s binary between art and theory must be at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek, given the theoretical nature of her own art.) When Zora goes to a concert, she listens to a recording of lecture notes rather than to the music. Unable to see others clearly, she oscillates between being blinded by the physical beauty of Carl, the poet whom she meets at the concert, and by her stereotypical view of African American men of his class.
The youngest Belsey is perhaps the book’s sweetest character. Levi, whose name suggests unity, is fed up with being stared at in white Wellington and gathers together a tribe of dispersed, young black men. He embarks upon direct action as a response to injustice against the people of Haiti, which he connects to struggles in the United States and elsewhere. Although he too fails to perceive people and situations clearly, he naively attempts to create a sense of “shelter in each other.” Always plugged into his iPod, he is moved to tears upon hearing “the lovely sadness” of Haitian music, which sounds to him “like a human heartbeat… a whole nation weeping in tune.” Tears run freely for many of this novel’s characters. It is as if the ideological detritus that hinders their ability to see life and each other must be washed from their eyes.
In the final chapter, Howard asks his son Jerome, “What am I looking at exactly?” Smith leaves the reader to ponder this question as well. More than a mere update of Forster’s original, Smith’s novel offers a multilayered, challenging look at the aesthetic and ethical values of contemporary life. In his final lecture, Howard projects onto the wall a slide of a woman, Rembrandt’s Hendrickje Bathing of 1654. Earlier in the novel, a silent student in Howard’s class provided the reader with a gloss to Rembrandt’s etching of another woman “unadorned, after children and work and age, and experience.” Howard’s eyes are open, his answers suspended. Less afraid of life and his own mortality, he has stopped chattering. His surname is now less ironic. He sees the beauty in “the marks of living”—and the intimation of his, Howard’s, end.
Susan Alice Fischer is professor of English at Medgar Evers College of The City University of New York and associate editor of Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, a peer-reviewed journal published by Routledge. She is currently finishing a book on contemporary women’s novels set in London.