• Friday, April 29th, 2022

Zadie Smith was born in 1975 in Willesden, North-West London, to an English father and a Jamaican mother. After finishing local state schools, she continued her studies at King’s College, Cambridge and graduated in 1998 from Cambridge University with a B.A. degree in English literature.

Smith has written novels, essays, short stories and two collections of non-fiction. She has been a tenured professor in the Creative Writing faculty of New York University since 2010 and leads her life between New York City and London. Zadie Smith is an acclaimed writer, winning the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2000 and the Orange Prize For Fiction, and she has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

On Beauty, Smith’s third novel was published in 2005 and it won the 2006 Orange Prize For Fiction and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. The story is roughly based on Howards End, a novel published in 1910 by the British novelist, essayist, and social and literary critic, Edward Morgan Forster and considered as his masterpiece.

The analogies between Howards End by Forster and On Beauty by Zadie Smith reside in the two antipodean families. One is liberal and atheist, the Belseys, and the other is the well-to-do, conservative and religious, the Kipps. In Forster’s Howards End, the liberal side is illustrated by the intellectual Schlegels three siblings and the wealthy, conservative side by the Wilcox family.

Another similarity is the bequest; Ruth Wilcox bequeaths her beloved country house, Howards End, to Margaret Schlegel. In comparison, Carlene Kipps leaves the valuable, priceless painting “Maitresse Erzulie”, the voodoo goddess, by the grandmaster of Haitian art, Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948), in her will to Kiki Belsey. The underprivileged, enthusiastic, sharp, gifted rapper and poet, Carl, is reminiscent of Leonard Bast, and the privileged, spoilt, fickle, stubborn Zora is remindful of Helen Schlegel, who endeavours to help Leonard but falls in love with him.

The liberalism and conservatism in E. M. Forster’s novel were depicted in the code of conduct, ethics and economics of pre-first World War England, portrayed by the three families, Schlegel, Wilcox and Bast. In Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, the emphasis is mainly on liberalism and conservative values in Academia.

The two University professors represent two opposed ethics at Wellington university (a fictitious place near Boston). The leftist, fifty-seven-year-old Howard Belsey, a white English academic, a history of art professor and a Rembrandt scholar. He has been married to the hospital administrator, Kiki, an African-American from Florida, for thirty years. The couple’s three children, Jerome, Zora and Levi, being of mixed race, have identity problems.

The twenty-year-old Jerome will find peace with the religion; the nineteen-year-old Zora feels uneasy on many issues. For the sixteen-year-old Levi, he chooses to be part of the black brotherhood community in search of recognition. Moreover, Levi adopts the rap language, associates himself with the Haitian immigrants and becomes a street hustler. He embraces their cause by stealing the valuable painting “Maitresse Erzulie” for them from the profiteering, perfidious Kipps family, who owns the largest private collection of Haitian art.

Howard Belsey’s nemesis, the rightist, Trinidadian also scholar of Rembrandt, Monty Kipps, has been married to the Haitian, Carlene, and has two children, Victoria and Michael. Unlike the two male nemeses, their wives, Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps discover a shared affinity for certain things; they sympathise and become friends, hence the bequest.

Zadie Smith’s characters are noticeably emotive; Kiki and Carlene are described with compassion by the author, contrary to their husbands, who are belittled. Kiki often mentions that she is not an intellectual, and although not as well educated as her husband, she shows a strong, determined, sensible character.

She and Carlene are more reasonable and intelligent than their highly educated, weak charactered husbands, who are both obstructed by their dogmas, arrogance and hypocrisy. Two headstrong professors circumvent the beauty of art and what it involves, dedication wise, to focus on their antagonism.

Like E. M. Forster, Zadie Smith underlines the conflictual problem of classes and inequality, still persisting today between bourgeois and needy people, adding to it the race and search for identity problems as well as lust and hypocrisy.

On Beauty has been written as a homage to E. M. Forster, mentioned by the author as her first love in her reading life and who had an effect on her during her teens. She adopted one of his well-known novels and masterfully transformed the story to make it contemporary, not omitting to include “beautiful” things she loves in art and music. Nevertheless, the sexual performances could have been less descriptive without altering the subject’s substance.

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Category: Book Reviews
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