I was surprised and relieved to find myself on the last page of On Beauty by Zadie Smith on the bus this afternoon. The main feature of the book is that it’s on the reading list for the Goldsmiths Art Writing MA I’m starting in September, and so everything I read was framed by the question of how it might be meant to relate to “work that addresses art as writing, writing as art and writing about art”.

Tenuously: there’s a bit about an open mike night called “The Bus Stop” on page 211 where people read out things they’ve written that don’t count as “poetry poetry” but are “poetry” all the same but grittier, and there’s a bit about a poetry teacher called “Claire” on page 258:

It was always the same, Claire’s poetry class, and it was always a pleasure. Each student’s poem was only a slight variation on the poem they had brought in the week before, and all the poems were consistently met with Claire’s useful mix of violent affection and genuine insight. So Ron’s poems were always about modern sexual alienation, and Daisy’s poems were always about New York, Chantelle’s were always about the black struggle, and Zora’s were the kind that appear to have been generated by a random word-generating machine. It was Claire’s great gift as a teacher to find something of worth in all these efforts and to speak to their authors as if they were already household names in poetry-loving homes across America. And what a thing it is, at nineteen years old, to be told that a new Daisy poem is a perfect example of the Daisy oeuvre, that it is indeed evidence of a Daisy at the height of her powers, exercising all the traditional, much loved, Daisy strengths! Claire was an excellent teacher.

Also two years ago, for a seminar called “Is Experience Real?”, a tutor at Central Saint Martins photocopied a bit from the book for to read about a temporary character called “Katherine (Katie) Armstrong” who “begins the slow process of thinking about possibly opening her mouth and allowing sound to come from it” on page 252, so I took note when that reappeared. There’s also a bit about lesbians so I thought that might count.

But really the bits that have made me sit up were the last four of the 446 pages. The final episode of the book sees Harold on the last legs of his career as an Art History academic, standing in front of an impatient audience trying to deliver a lecture about Rembrandt when he’s left all his notes in the back of the car. He’s twenty minutes late for his own talk, sweating, and has his mind on other things. Here is what happens:

He clicks through his reproductions of paintings in his powerpoint one by one, and can’t remember anything he was going to say, and so he just clicks through them not saying anything. Someone in the audience whispers to his son “You see, Ralph, the order is meaningful”. And then he gets to the last image and clicking stops doing anything, so he uses the zoom function and it goes in close to the skin on the screen until it’s just pixels, as though getting really really close up would contain the reason for the whole string of

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Then there’s a final note from the author at the end in which even the vaguest references to paintings, texts and songs that have come up in the book are named out loud. Perhaps it was to show us how much research had gone into the book, or that the author’s capable of scholarly referencing, or that some readers should feel sufficiently moved to look up Kiki’s painting, say, and see it for themselves rather than stick with what they got in the book.

Whatever the rationale, it does something unusual to the status of all the descriptions in the book by suggesting that what we’ve got in the novel itself isn’t sufficient, and that we might have some use for the things in the book outside of the context of the book itself. It sets the book up as some kind of culturally inclusive introduction to art and literature which you can use to find new access to dead artifacts. Or it sets up the events in the narrative as accessible starting points you might like to try out at home – here’s how Kiki felt looking at the painting – now why don’t you have a go?

It flattens the experience of the book so it’s pinned down inside the covers with a glossary so you’ve got the option to make it real if you like. And that keeps the book in back its place rather mercilessly. There’s a value in making things up, and in keeping things imaginary – or at least keeping alive the possibility for something to be imaginary – and the note at the note stuck it all back down.

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