Sentences — March 13, 2009, 12:08 pm

Weekend Read: “Whatever hole contains forever”

Zadie Smith certainly doesn’t need a great deal of critical subsidy. Her novels are bought and read in tremendous volume, and she is regularly looked to to hold forth critically on the state of fiction. Curiously, though, a number of good younger fiction writers I know are suspicious of her qualities as a writer, having found in her novels reason enough to question, if not her seriousness, her excellence (and, in her criticism, reason to question its coherence).

I’ve written about Smith’s three novels for this magazine, and I don’t find them to be successful books; rather, they are parts of successful books, or books with successful parts. There is a fundamental lack of achieved-ness that I find in a Smith novel, a striving for form that isn’t attained. That said, she can be a superb writer, both of descriptive prose and of dialogue, line-to-line and paragraph-to-paragraph, and I am always eager to see her to succeed in producing a fully successful whole.

There is one Smith short story, though, that I uncomplicatedly love and regularly recommend. “Hanwell in Hell” appeared in The New Yorker in 2004. It is a very tender, very muted thing, written in a register that never sees Smith overreaching for an effect or overstepping what the story wants. “Hanwell” begins with a classified advertisement—

I am looking to enter into correspondence with anyone who remembers my father,
Mr. —— Hanwell, who was living in the central Bristol area between 1970 and 1973.
Any details at all will be gratefully received by daughter trying to piece together the
jigsaw. Please write back to P.O. Box 187.

—and then picks up with an answer to it:

I spent just one night with your father, in Bristol, thirty-four years ago. He was down on his luck at the time, as was I. We had both suffered dramatic reversals of fortune and recognized immediately that we had failure in common—a rare example of masculine intuition. Each sniffed out the other’s catastrophe. For my part, I had lost my livelihood and my house; I spent the spring of that year bewildered and outraged, almost unable to comprehend that I now lived in a gruesome basement flat in which lichen seemed to grow upon every damp surface. A crooked business partner who took cash under the counter, compounded by my own careless accounting, had separated me from my business (a small chain of Bristol off-licenses) so completely that I was reduced to a salesman’s existence. I hawked the new American fridge-freezers from a catalogue, door-to-door. It was a dismal job and one that required me to spend a humiliating amount of time—or so I thought then—with women. In the off-licenses, all my staff had been men, and I always appreciated the fact; emotionally men are so much simpler. My new job made me feel as if I were being returned to the domestic scenes of my childhood. I seemed always to be in kitchens having cups of tea pressed upon me, repelling the timid advances of motherly women. Hanwell’s situation was of course somewhat reversed: he valued the domestic and lamented its loss; with it went all the things he cared for—women, the home, family. You ask in your letter if I know why you and your sisters were left in London—I don’t know, but it must have been against his will. No one would choose the life that Hanwell had.

If you haven’t read this wonderful story, which continues here, I propose it as your Weekend Read.

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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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