Post Road Magazine #29

Listen Up: Aurally Spinning through Zadie Smith's On Beauty

Tim Horvath

Our readings are invariably shaped by context, and hence my take on Zadie Smith's On Beauty this summer, a stretch in which I've been working on a novel about music, spending long days in the presence of composers and musicians, taking up the trumpet and dabbling in African drumming, was particularly attuned to its music—its depictions, its ruminations on the subject, and not least, its seemingly bottomless storehouse of musical sentences. I'd picked the book up and put it down twelve, thirteen times over the years, put off by its opening—Emails? Really? Wasn't that gimmicky? A transparent bid for timeliness, at lowballing the cultural bidding in a book largely about culture and the so-called "wars" fought in its name? But maybe because we're now in an era when email itself can seem quaint, more evocative of Forster's epistolary world than our own instageist, I stuck with it. And thank goodness, for Jerome's emails are mere overture to a symphonic work that resounds in many voices, many registers, many textures, and one that I can't believe I waited so long to partake in.

One of my non-negotiable demands of fiction is that the sentences be musical—even if they are also functional, as music, too, can be: ring tones, the beeping at a crosswalk or that which announces a truck backing up, or our own voices making their daily rounds. Smith's sentences in On Beauty evince an unerring ear for melody: "He bent his knees and parted the miniature orange curtain as if entering a tiny harem." A park consists of "broad oaks for brave men to kiss against, mown meadows for summer balls games, hills for kites, ponds for hippies, an icy lido for old men with strong constitutions, mean llamas for mean children…" (it goes on. I could too).  

And then there is her description of Mozart's Requiem itself. To do it justice I would have to quote the passage in its entirety, and my work here would be done. It is the peer of the finest writing I know on music, ranking with Nicholson Baker on the bassoon in Traveling Sprinkler and Joshua Cohen's verbal bowing in Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto. Smith opens, "Mozart's Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit. The pit is on the other side of a precipice, which you cannot see over until you are right on its edge. Your death is awaiting you in that pit. You don't know what it looks like or sounds like or smells like. You don't know whether it will be good or bad. You just walk towards it. Your will is a clarinet and your footsteps are attended by all the violins." The description continues—through mermaids and apes who slide down staircases like interlopers from some Karen Russell story, and beyond. You have to read it—and then you will go and listen to the Requiem and hear it splendidly anew. There are other pivotal moments where music chimes in—it is hinted that Howard serenaded his wife Kiki once upon a time with The Magic Flute, although that serenader is barely discernible in his rigidly austere present-day incarnation. There's the character Carl, whose hip-hop/spoken word blithely cuts across racial and class lines, and whom the poet Claire Malcolm wants to "refine" into a poet, as if he's anything but already; Smith samples his work as smoothly as Carl himself samples Mozart's "mad cool" Lacrimosa. And at last it is music, rather than the brooding brushstrokes of Rembrandt upon whom he's staked his career and reputation, that will stir Howard Belsey to tears and undo him, fleetingly, into some former version of himself, as though he is experiencing a Requiem in reverse. 

But Smith also recognizes that it is the human voice—yammering and spieling, wheeling and dealing, cajoling and jabbering—which is the instrument par excellence, the one we encounter most commonly, where we're each a Yo-Yo Ma and Coltrane and a Robert Johnson. She is sublimely attuned to the ways that our speech plays out, defines us, betrays us. Partly this is by dint of her characters, who speak distinctively and, in some cases at least, listen intently. Here's Kiki on her husband's rival, Monty: "…the accent was incredible to her. It flew around the scale—somewhat like Erskine's but the vowels were given a body and depth she had never heard before. Fair came as Fee-yer." Phonetics trump spelling on numerous occasions—Levi, Kiki's son, will say "Eyeano," and the word "A'ight," when it appears, is no mere synonym for "All right." Smith knows that a middle C on the piano is by no means that same as one played on a woodwind or brass instrument, nor one sung in a human voice—the source makes all the difference in the world. And similarly she knows that the way we talk reflects more than individual differences, physiognomy and mood, but instead is rooted in cultural background, socioeconomics, class and identity, history. In short, the polyphony of human speech that she puts in the foreground of the novel is inextricable from the themes of class, race, ethnicity, and the question of what beauty really is, both inside and beyond the ivy walls. All such matters are contentious in On Beauty, hardly to be resolved in the finality of some dominant chord. Rather, Smith revels in the counterpoint of voices and perspectives, never wholly reverent nor entirely dismissive of any. Is it any wonder that a Roxbury mural depicting Robert Johnson at the crossroads hovers over some key scenes? 

Yes there's an intricate plot, teeming with machinations and reversals, and I suppose it helps to have read, or be at least glancingly conversant with Forster's Howard's End to appreciate it. I suppose I'll save that for my fourteenth reading. But for now I'm sated by Smith's symphony, which more than holds its own. In moments such as the gorgeous one where the Belsey children all find themselves, through a series of coincidences, converging near "the blasted heath of Boston Common" around Thanksgiving. It is as if the larger orchestra has dropped away, leaving only this little chamber music ensemble—they talk, perform, argue, quibble, criticize, gossip, sit silent, and find their places in this circumscribed, self-contained Belseyness. At one point, Jerome "hear[s] himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues vibrating against slightly noticeable buckteeth"; Levi picks the blueberries out of his blueberry muffin. Time has slowed, the world has fallen away; they need no conductor, guided instead by rhythmic instinct, years of practice, muscle memory. It can't last, of course—the other instruments crash in, the symphony resumes, and we stay with it, feeling fortunate, even if, as some of us did, we came to the performance late.

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