Gustave Flaubert reckoned thousands dying for their country in a war were as nothing compared with Horace getting the iambics right in a poem. Art was all. Gustave Flaubert, however, wasn’t married. Gustave Flaubert didn’t have a child. Zadie Smith is and does, and displays a healthy perspective on the writing life – and the place of writing in life:
In the interview with which we kicked off this month’s discussion of Smith’s NW, she said: “I imagine the gaps between my novels are about to get even longer [than the seven years between NW and its predecessor, On Beauty] – I have a young, expanding family and I can’t produce work like your average single male novelist. I don’t think of it as life getting in the way. My experience is that the novels get in the way of the life. All writing for me is difficult because I’m somewhat hard on myself and because I don’t believe in this romantic idea of sacrificing one’s friends, partners, children and health for the sake of Art. My writing has never brought me the happiness that life brings me, and I don’t expect my books to sit watching over me at my deathbed, or provide any comfort at that end of things. When I’m writing novels, I suppose I suffer, but in-between I want to enjoy myself. The life is not to be sacrificed on the altar of fiction. That’s a man’s conception of literary martyrdom, and I’m not interested in it.”
British literary critic Cyril Connolly famously wrote that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”.
But for some writers the pram in the hall – or other impediments to their work - merely make them adjust their art to their circumstances, and by no means for the worse. Raymond Carver is not the only writer to have, at least initially, concentrated on short stories because they could be fitted more comfortably into the time he had available – other, paid work and his family taking up the rest.
Similarly, Smith’s admirable approach to work-life balance may have had formal consequences for NW.
In our interview, she said that with Keisha/Nathalie, “with her somewhat psychotic focus on the future … it made sense to render her life in the numbered forward march.”
But talking to the New Yorker‘s Page Turner blog she expanded: “In Keisha’s case, she has this belief that life is a meaningful progression towards some ultimate goal – in her case, ‘success’ – and this made the numbered sections the obvious choice. It was also an attempt to force myself into a new mode. I’ve always admired the idea of the ‘fragment,’ but fragments are usually single-voiced – often a monologue of some kind. I can’t write in that singular way, it bores me. I think I wanted to see if I could make a fragmentary third person work. Finally, there is the simple time restraint of having a kid. Four hours a day is as much as I had. I didn’t have the time or inclination for sixty-page chapters. The idea of writing at any great length became absurd.”
What do you think about that numbered Keisha/Nathalie section of NW? A case of good art arising from the constraints in which it was made? Or might the novel have benefited from a child minder?
For me, it’s very much the former. But what about you?