Clear-Sighted Essays For Hazy Times

What’s the difference between novels and banana bread? According to Zadie Smith in her new collection of essays, Intimations, there isn’t one. Her essay ‘Something to Do’ discusses the sudden overflow of time that we were presented with in lockdown, and the “moral anxiety” surrounding this “new culture of doing something.” How, she asks, can we give meaning to all of the extra time we’ve been faced with?

Her answer is simple: love. “All of that time,” she says, “without love, will feel empty and endless”. Both writing novels and making banana bread – acts of filling the time, something to do – are “no substitute for love”. The act of searching for meaning and purpose in “this strange and overwhelming season of death” is precisely what Zadie Smith attempts in her new and compact essay collection.

From the beginning, Smith acknowledges that “there will be many books written about the years 2020”, and states that these essays will be like none of those. Instead of claiming to be historical, political or polemical, she calls these “personal essays: small by definition, short by necessity”. These essays are simply observations and reflections from 2020 so far, including brief ‘screengrabs’ of everyday life, an appraisal of privilege and suffering, and an exploration of the relationship between contempt and prejudice.

Smith’s essays remind me of a socially-distanced conversation I had with a friend recently: “The virus is extraordinary,” said the friend, “because, in one way or another, it’s happened to everyone. We’ve all shared an experience”. Though we must be aware of the privileges that the virus has exposed, and the inequalities that it has inflamed, Intimations nonetheless addresses a crisis that has been experienced by all.

Smith doesn’t give us easy answers to this year’s events, nor does she tell us how we should continue from here, but Intimations is certainly a place to start.