Thursday, 8 November 2007

On Beauty and Words

It was a varied group last night at the Atwater Library: youngish, oldish, white, black and brown. The participants in the informal book discussion group I lead there agreed however: On Beauty by Zadie Smith is a pleasure to read and the starting point for much reflection.

The wildly-succesful novel has more than enough plot and characters to keep you turning paages, but at the heart of the book are several potentially aridly intellectual matters. Among them is the difficulty of dealing with beauty in words. How do we define it? How do we react to it? Is physical beauty enough? Only one of the characters—Howard Belsey—rants academically about these questons, and the end of the book (we decided) demonstrates how inadequate Belsey’s verbosity is when appreciating real beauty. For a book which pointedly renders hommage to E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, this ending seems strangely uncommented upon.

I’d read the book a couple of years ago, and found Smith’s depiction of her middle-aged characters absolutely spot-on. They were so good, in fact, that I wondered if she wasn’t a closet woman-of-a-certain-age. Then my daughter, who like Smith just turned 32, saw the book lying around the house, and commented on how much she liked it. When I asked whether Smith had got the young people right too, Elin said she had. The two young women last night agreed.

If you haven’t read On Beauty, do. Just make sure you’ve got several evenings free for reading, though, because you’re going to want to keep going to you’re finished.

Next week at the Bibliothèque Robert-Bourassa in Outremont we’ll be talking about Neil Bissoondath’s La clameur des tenèbres (the French translation of The Unyielding Clamour of the Night), another fine novel although much more troubling than On Beauty. Next month at Atwater, it will be Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes.

No comments: