On this gap year I have also made myself a promise: every day I will either a) exercise or b) read at least 50 pages of a book. It is going well so far…
I have done less exercise than I had hoped, but what that does mean is that I have managed to fit in some books. What books? Two books. Lady Chatterly’s Lover and NW by Zadie Smith. Both interested me hugely for various reasons.
Lawrence has intrigued me for a long time. Having read Sons and Lovers, the Rainbow and now this (I should have read Women in Love first to stay in order…) the picture of what he’s really trying to get at continues to expand. The Freudian tendencies of Paul Morel and the spiritual liberation of Ursula Brangwen form the cornerstones of Lord and Lady Chatterly, the former being far more pathetic than Morel while the latter represents a more polished version of Ursula. The three novels move towards focusing attention on the need to separate our social selves from our natural, as characterised by sexual in LCL, selves. Mellors’s “post-coital” reflections dwell upon the socioeconomic dilemmas that may stem from their natural “fucking” and it is only once Lady Chatterly disconnects herself from the loveless marriage and status (and therefore her title), she can actually go from being a “Lady” to a bona fide “woman” who can enjoy her “cunt” and making love and all the things that go with being happy. So to speak
I chose NW because I live in NW. I like reading about things that I can see on my street, it makes me feel like I understand my neighbours better; it’s quite a cathartic novel for me as it addresses the insecurity I’ve always had is that I have never really understood my area, Kilburn, and perhaps by reading some highbrow literature everything shall suddenly fall into place for me. I actually feel less in touch with it now than four days ago, due to the incredulous set of coincidences that link up four plots all held together by a backbone of Kilburn High road.
Lawrence called for leaving your society to discover yourself. Zadie Smith’s novel seemed to scream the opposite to me: disconnecting from your society to join another one alien to you is the worst thing you can do. Social mobility, through achievement and moving “near the park” for Keisha results in emotional destitution. She is someone who far surpassed her “artificial boundaries” by constructing a world around her which equates to success in the most modern sense; she is liberated sexually and socially, she can do what she want, she is Ursula Brangwen in that respect; but while you can never imagine Ursula longing to go back to the farm where she grew up, Natalie gravitates back to Keisha, the girl who grew up on the Caldwell estate. A ball thrown straight up into the air is how I see Keisha’s character: she starts from a point and goes on a trajectory, an impressive one, but ultimately no matter how hard she tries she will never be able to land where she was originally and instead she lands into “Natalie”, a stone’s throw away in the “posh bit” of Kilburn.
It was the last paragraph of the novel that made me think of Frederic Moreau in Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education:
Through the glass doors they watched the children spinning on the lawn…the whole process reminded her of nothign so much as those calls the two good friends used to make to boys they liked, back in the day, and always in a slightly hysterical state of mind, two heads pressed together over a headset. (NW Zadie Smith)
Frederick presented his as a lover does to his betrothed. But the heat, the fear of the unknown, and even the very pleasure of seeing at one glance so many women at his disposal, excited him so strangely that he turned exceedingly pale, and stood there without advancing a single step or uttering a word. All the girls burst out laughing, amused at his embarrassment. Fancying that they were ridiculing him, he ran away; and, as Frederick had the money, Deslauriers was obliged to follow him. They were observed leaving the house; and the episode furnished material for a bit of local gossip which was remembered three years later. They related the story to each other each supplementing the narrative where the other’s memory failed; and, when they had finished the tale:
“I believe that was the best time we ever had!” said Frederick.
“Well, perhaps! Yes, I, too, believe that was the best time we ever had,” said Deslauriers. (A Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert)
For both Smith and Flaubert life is ultimately a process of disillusionment. The murderer Nathan Bogle, one of the boys the two girls “liked” professes that “Everyone love a bredrin when he’s ten. After that he’s a problem. Can’t stay ten always”. And perhaps NW is not ultimately a book about Kilburn (it certainly isn’t about all of NW London!), but its about the struggle for a grasp on one’s identity: Natalie seeks a stasis in her life after she feels like she has been “eight for a hundred years and thirty-four for seven minutes”. A summary of the frustration is the surreal encounter between Felix and Annie, between a man who lives for the “next level”, who dies hours later and a woman who festers and stagnates in a life of nothing, yet who lives. The novel becomes deeply philosophically disturbing when you view it thus as does the premise of A Sentimental Education which Flaubert described visually: he held his two hands in a pyramid with a point to the top to demonstrate the basic idea of a conventional novel which is to reach the sublime; he then flipped the pyramid and said: “This is what my novel will do” and separated his hands. Both Smith and Flaubert go for this pulling the rug from under our feet, which is a bit depressing, but very interesting.
But two good books, lol.
- Zadie Smith’s Desert Island Discs (offtheshelftheblog.wordpress.com)
- An Undelightful Novel on a Hedonist Novelist (karlomongaya.wordpress.com)
- Review 1: NW by Zadie Smith (thesnobbyreader.wordpress.com)