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Posts Tagged ‘Feel Free’

Zadie Smith’s novels and essays never fail to display her keen powers of observation, analysis, and expression. In Feel Free, her new essay collection, Virginia Woolf is a strong influence, never far from Smith’s mind, an “expert witness” to invoke as she regards her subjects and her craft. Five examples serve as evidence.

  1. The first essay that caught my attention was “Life-Writing.” It’s a wry account of failure, much like my own, to keep a diary during adolescence, “a banal account of fake crushes and imagined romance and I was soon disgusted with it and put it aside.” As a young adult she found inspiration in Woolf’s diaries and gave it another go. “I tried to copy the form and style of Woolf’s single-volume Writer’s Diary,” but that didn’t last either. She realized that “I don’t want any record of my days.” For better or worse, her email history is “probably the closest thing to an honest account of my life, at least in writing.”
  2. In “Dance Lessons for Writers” Smith finds applications to writing in the dancing of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson and Prince, Janet Jackson, Madonna and Beyonce. Fred Astaire’s movements, she says, “are so removed from ours that he sets a limit on our own ambitions. Nobody hopes or expects to dance like Astaire, just as nobody really expects to write like Nabakov.” She introduces the Nicholas brothers, Harold and Fayard: “Writing, like dancing, is one of the arts available to people who have nothing. ‘For ten and sixpence,’ advises Virginia Woolf, ‘one can buy paper enough to write all the plays of Shakespeare.’ The only absolutely necessary equipment in dance is your own body.”
  3. “A Bird of Few Words” considers the portraits of British-Ghanaian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, whose subjects appear like “a group of intensely creative people in a small community.… Early New York beatniks, maybe, or some forgotten, south London chapter of the Bloomsbury Group. Poets, writers, painters, dancers, dreamers, philosophers—and lovers of same.” Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant are evoked in the modernist palette, and a further connection is made in that Yiadom-Boakye was influenced by Walter Sickert, about whom Woolf wrote a monograph, its cover illustrated by Bell.
  4. In a review of a book about Harlem, Smith compares the author, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, to Woolf in that both are “bookish and devoted, interested in everyday matters,” and like Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, Rhodes-Pitts employs a technique of authorial transparency.
  5. “Notes on NW” Smith speaks directly to Woolf’s influence. In her novel NW she sought to “create people in language,” to do justice to “the unruly, subjective qualities of language” and “the concrete ‘thingyness’ of people.” This was Woolf’s way of being a modernist: “she loved language and people simultaneously.”

Essences of Woolf permeate Smith’s work, overtly and indirectly: “I admire Beckett and respect Joyce. I love Woolf. Whenever the going gets tough I reread her journals and it helps me through.”

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