*82 Zadie Smith in Focus (JP)

In this 2019 episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”

Zadie Smith at Brandeis with a slightly freaked out John (credit: Mike Lovett, Brandeis)

Zadie and John also touch on the purpose of criticism and why it gets harder to hate as you (middle) age. She reveals an affection for “talkies” (as a “90’s kid,” she can’t help her fondness for Quentin Tarantino); asks whether young novelists in England need to write a book about Henry VIII just to break into bookstores; hears Hegel talking to Kierkegaard, and Jane Austen failing to talk to Jean Genet. Lastly, in Recallable Books, Zadie recommends Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom.

Mentioned in this episode:

Zadie Smith, White TeethNWSwing TimeTwo Paths for the Novel” “Embassy of Cambodia,” Joni Mitchell: Some Notes on Attunement” “Zadie Smith on J G Ballard’s Crash

Willa Cather, Song of the Lark (1915, revised 1932)

Elif Batuman, The Idiot

Charlotte Bronte, The Professor and Villette

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Pauline Kael, various film reviews

Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

Ursula Le Guin, “The Story’s Where I Go: An Interview”

Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black and Wolf Hall

Dexter Filkins, “The Moral Logic of Humanitarian Intervention” (on Samantha Power)

Patti Smith, Just Kids

Elizabeth Strout, Olive KitteridgeOlive Again

Gary Winick (dir.), Thirteen Going on Thirty (starring Jennifer Garner, not Anne Hathaway)

Sally Rooney, Normal People

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Matthew Lopez, The Inheritance

Jean-Philippe Toussaint, The Bathroom

Listen to the episode here

Transcript of the episode here

Upcoming Episodes: This summer’s archival episodes are all fiction-focussed. Next up is John and Elizabeth cogitating on the conversation with Zadie. That is followed next month by a Cixin Liu interview John conducted with Pu Wang, Chinese literature scholar–and their postmortem to conclude the summer season. In August we leap into the new release of our busy Fall by speaking with Dana Stevens about her great new Buster Keaton book.

Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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