Monday 26 October 2020

Intimations: Six Essays | Zadie Smith #NonFiction


This slim volume of essays grabbed my attention thanks to it's Covid-related lockdown content. Lately, I've been reading a number of fiction titles about plagues and epidemics (see below). This was the first one, however, that considered our current Covid situation.

I've been meaning to read something by Zadie Smith, ever since 2000 and White Teeth, which almost everyone I know has read and loved and says I should read too. The most I've managed so far, though, are a few introductions that she has done in other books or passing references made by other authors who admire her work.

This was a fine start, showing her obvious intelligence and thoughtfulness. Two things I usually appreciate a lot. However, in the middle of a pandemic, I guess I was also looking for more warmth. 

I found it curious that she choose an epigraph by Marcus Aurelius to lead us in, as I also found Aurelius intelligent and thoughtful, but lacking in warmth, when I read him twenty odd years ago. At the time I put it down to a translation and passing of time thing, but perhaps it can be hard to intellectualise and emote at the same time? 
It stares you in the face. No role is so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.

The second epigraph was by Grace Paley, who according to wikipedia was 'a writers writer', fuelled by idealism and activism. Perhaps with this quote, Smith is saying she is prepared to look at what is happening 'in the face...right now', but that something more is needed for 'an active moral life.' Perhaps developing an excellent soul requires more rigor and virtue than most of us can summon up right now?
My vocabulary is adequate for writing notes and keeping journals but absolutely useless for an active moral life.

However, Smith realised that there were two things she could, indeed, do. In her Foreword she embraces the notion that:
1. Talking to yourself can be useful.
2. And writing means being overheard.

The following six essays went on to explore death, control, denial, resistance, restraint, vulnerability, creativity, destruction, distance and social justice. She talks; and we listen. She posits; we ponder.
Below is what I pulled out of her essays.

1. Peonies: or tulips, or how nature, real and imagined, can heal, connect and soothe our souls. 
  • Walking is what got me through our lockdown in NSW. It was autumn, the weather was glorious, and I walked for hours through parks, and past gardens in their final flush of flowering. I took solace in the changing of the leaves and the shortening of the days, even in a built up inner city suburb. Splashes of geraniums and chrysanthemums would catch my eye and lift my spirits. The sun would sparkle on the harbour and reflect in the glassed sky scrapers across the bay, along with the blue skies and clouds. 

How experience 'rolls over everybody' - sometimes we resist, sometimes we submit. The creative process is about trying to create some order out of the chaos. 
writing is control...writing is all write is to swim in an ocean of hypocrisies. 
  • I was surprised by how quickly and easily I submitted to the changing circumstances. My control, my creativity found expression in photography. I captured the autumnal changes and posted them on instagram. I didn't need my tulips to be peonies. For me, any flower would do!

2. The American Exception: 'I wish we could have our old life back'. 
  • Curiously, I don't. There was absolutely nothing wrong with my old life; I loved most of it, most of the time. But even back then, pre-Covid, life changed and evolved. Things shifted. Good things happened; bad things happened. And we moved onto the next thing. This is the next thing. It's a bit bigger and more drastic than is usual, but it's what we do. Life changes and we can never go back. There is only a constantly changing now.

Death absolute is the truth of our existence as a whole, of course, but America has rarely been philosophically inclined to consider existence as a whole....

  • Every time I read something about the American health system, I am so grateful to live in a country that has basic free health cover for all of it's citizens. 

war transforms its participants. What was once necessary appears inessential.

  • I've realised I don't need to go out as often as I did. I'm an introvert and staying home, quietly, is pretty easy for me. But I do miss art galleries. It's not necessary for me to go shopping or go out every night. I don't need hustle and bustle or endless stimulation. But I do need beauty. And I need my local community. I need to know we will have cafes and restaurants and local businesses going forward. I now only shop local; no online megastores for me.

3. Something to Do: or how we fill our lockdown days. How conflicted we feel about this new liberty and/or captivity...the only way out is is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through.
  • Once I got over the distraction of lockdown and all the Covid news, I rediscovered reading. I've always read, but now, I'm reading more than ever. Creating little projects for ourselves is a good thing. We do need to keep busy; it can keep the demons at bay. And if it's something you also love to do, or it helps those you love, then bonus! Bake bread, solve a puzzle, create a potted herb garden, clean out your cupboards, paint the deck. Yes, it's busy work. Yes, it's something we do, because most of us really have 'no idea what life is for', so surely it's better to being doing something, than glumly doing nothing. The older I get, the more I realise there is no meaning of life. Life is simply what we make of it. 

4. Suffering Like Mel Gibson: or how lockdown affects us all differently, depending on our circumstances. Privilege and suffering have a lot in common. They both manifest as bubbles, containing a person and distorting their vision.
  • I acknowledge all the good fortune that I have experienced during Covid so far. All my family are still working. Some now work from home or have reduced hours, but they're all still working. For those with reduced hours, our government JobKeeper program has buffered any pain. Our lockdown (in NSW) was brief and moderate. Our social lives are curtailed and I miss hugging close friends (I don't miss the cheek kissing or hand shaking though). I only know one person who has had the virus, although most people I know have been tested once or twice. Our state government seems to have nailed contact tracing. Any outbreaks are quickly contained. We feel safe but quiet. The restrictions we live under now are occasionally irksome but not onerous. I am fortunate. 

5. Screengrabs (After Berger, before the virus): I assume she means John Berger and is referencing Ways of Seeing. She draws mini-word-portraits...of a man with strong hands, a character in a wheelchair in the vestibule, a woman with a little get the idea.
  • I liked how this helped Smith to focus on her local community, and how different people are coping with Covid and lockdown. Covid has also concentrated my gaze onto the local. I'm doing all my grocery shopping locally, I eat takeaway from our local restaurants. I could have coffee at home, but I'm getting it from a rotating set of local baristas on my walk to work instead. I'm not the only one. Many of those new to working from home, are taking their laptops to local cafes for the company. We've lost a few businesses, but they were struggling before Covid. I see more people reading books, in cafes, in the parks, and in the doctor's surgery.

The enviable style of the young is little protection against catastrophe...their style is all they have.
  • It's not easy for the young. B20 is home more than out. And when out, he and his friends cannot dance, sing or walk around. They must sit in a pub, at a designated table. They are usually home again by 1pm. B20 is mostly philosophical. It's all he knows. They have social media to keep in touch. At least he isn't heading off to war, like many previous generations of young men his age. It could be worse.

6. Intimations: acknowledgements and shout-outs, or as Smith called them 'Debts and Lessons' to her family and friends.
That my physical and moral cowardice have never really been tested, until now.

A number of the essays tackled Black Lives Matter concerns. Racism as a virus. Class contempt. Plagued by poverty. I suspect Smith will have a lot more to say about this in the future. I look forward to it. 

Intimations felt like a beginning. A germ of an idea that hasn't quite reached fruition. It's the first reaction, a first response, by a thoughtful writer. It's a reaching out to test the waters and to connect. To see if anyone is listening. 

Judging by sales, lots of people are listening. Lots of people are looking for someone to help them make sense of what is happening to their world, to find a common cause, to stand on common ground. Together. To feel connected in our isolation. 

Royalties of my edition of Intimations are going to The Equal Justice Initiative and The Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York.

Previous Plague/Pandemic Reads:

Current Plague Reads:
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman (non-fiction)

Up Next
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider | Katherine Anne Porter

Plague/Pandemic Books On My Radar:
  • Station Eleven | Emily St John Mandel
  • Blindness | José Saramago
  • The Last Man | Mary Shelley
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World | Steven Johnson (non-fiction)
  • Nemesis | Philip Roth
  • Love in the Time of Cholera | Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Years of Rice and Salt | Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Dog Stars | Peter Heller
  • The Children’s Hospital | Chris Adrian
  • Severance | Ling Ma
  • The White Plague | Frank Herbert
  • The Passage | Justin Cronin


  1. I liked this but it is slight by her standards. I think my favorite of the essays was Screengrabs, the least COVID-related of them.

    I've pretty much read everything of hers and while I think White Teeth is great, I'd plump for NW as her best novel precisely because it has more emotional content for me.

    1. I think I was expecting something a bit meatier too, but obviously this was brought out fairly quickly and reflects her early thoughts on Covid. I also felt I had a lot more to say in response to her essays, but I got tired last night, and had to draw a line in the sand, as they say!

      Thanks for the tip about NW.


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