Rachel and I elected to teach Howards End and On Beauty for self-evident reasons: both
novels are exquisitely crafted in terms of plot, imagery, symbolism and character development, and, consequently, both novels are eminently readable and teachable. Readers encounter in these novels sympathetic portraitures of humans struggling and often failing, in the words of Forster, to “only connect”. The fact that all of us desire at times to connect and fail, like the characters, to do so, lends a universality to the themes of the novels that transcends the limitations of time and place (Edwardian England, the United States during the first decade of the 21st century). Both novels move along a stylistic fault line where comedy and satire (Forster’s carefully crafted representation of middle class arrogance and folly, Smith’s accurate and barbed depictions of the inflated egos and meaningless chatter of academics and administrators) pushes against tragedy (the senseless death of Leonard Bast, the death of Carl Thomas’s poetic and scholastic aspirations) causing tremors and upheaval.
Zadie Smith acknowledges her indebtedness to E. M. Forster, and she pays homage to him by repurposing much of the structure of Howards End in On Beauty. Her novel, however, is not a pastiche, or simple retreading of the path worn by E. M. Forster’s writing. Although a reader familiar with Howards End will immediately recognize Smith’s indebtedness, On Beauty stands on its own. One needn’t read Howards End (presumably many of Smith’s readers had not) to appreciate the merits of On Beauty.
Smith, to an even greater extent perhaps than Forster, dips into a vast reservoir of history, culture and academic theory. Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps exemplify liberal and conservative positions in how they approach art, textuality, religion and even the question of affirmative action. Karen Armstrong, a character who only appears in one brief section, provides the reader with a passionate, living examination of the Rembrandt paintings that is overlooked in Howard’s arid and pedantic theorizing. In Smith’s writing, the paintings of Rembrandt and Haitian artists are vividly realized in ways that seem alien to her characters who make a living teaching about them. There is also the liminality of the various characters – Howard, a white, British expatriate from a lower-class background who has married Kiki, a black American, and now works at Wellington College; Monty, a knighted, black, Caribbean-British intellectual who starts the novel in London, but moves with his family to Boston. And then, of course, there are the young characters who struggle to define their identities – Levi, who embraces the cause of Haitians, even though he has really only learned about Haiti through a book, Carl, who shifts between hip-hop and classical music, the gritty streets of Boston and the refinement of Wellington, and Victoria, who moves from sexual relationship to sexual relationship in search of somebody who “sees” her as a person. In all of this Smith moves seamlessly back and forth between geographic and ideological positions: London and Boston, Foucault and TuPac all find places in her world.
One of the cultural borrowings I have not addressed is Zadie Smith’s use of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. I’ve included a link to it here for anyone who might want to skim it.