Bill Goldstein and I met in the spring of 2014 at Ucross, an artists’ retreat in Wyoming. Our studios were actually quite far from each other but we became fast friends in part because we shared the same work schedule: every morning we’d meet in the quiet kitchen for a pre-dawn breakfast, both of us eager to get to our desks before procrastination could claim the day. A lot of the time we joked around; my coffee was always sludgy with grounds, Bill said, and I would remark on his debonair bathrobe-and-pajamas combo. Other times we talked novels. Bill not only hosts a segment about books on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, he also went back to school a few years ago to get a PhD in literature, and we’d often sit for longer than planned chatting about Edith Wharton or a contemporary novel we loved. Sometimes we would discuss our works in progress. While I was wrestling with my second novel, Bill was writing a literary history of 1922, specifically, the creative and personal lives of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and E.M. Forster. His studio was filled with books about these figures, and I knew that before coming to Ucross he had dug into primary sources at many libraries and archival centers; his book struck me as so much more expansive than mine, and I enjoyed hearing about it. Sometimes one of us would have a breakthrough with our writing. Other days, we were made miserable by a bad paragraph or uncooperative chapter. I distinctly remember Bill worrying he’d never complete what he had begun.
Well, he didn’t have to worry: The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year that Changed Literature was published last month, receiving praise from such varied publications as The Times Literary Supplement, People, and The New York Times Book Review. I myself tore through the book in just a few days. I loved it. Bill renders this history vivid, compelling, and even dishy. It made me want to re-read The Waste Land and seek out D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo. It inspired me to return to my (lately neglected) third novel.
It also made me grateful for my own literary friendship with Bill. All of our sprawling, funny, and thought-provoking conversations in Wyoming informed my work and helped me to clarify my aesthetic intentions; I’d like to think that in some minuscule way I was involved in the making of The World Broke in Two. Bill was kind enough to continue our conversation here for The Millions; he answered these questions via email.
The Millions: As someone who only writes fiction and the occasional personal essay, I’m interested in the process of writing biography. It strikes me as such a daunting and mysterious task! How do you shape all this history into a compelling—and, perhaps more importantly, intimate—narrative? Tell me about your process. How did you go about researching this material, and then organizing it?
Bill Goldstein: I wouldn’t say I was aware that it was going to be either or both of those things while I was working, or even that I was consciously shaping it to be that. The editing process is so different from the writing and the researching (and the researching, at least for me, was so much easier than the writing). I think, at least from the evidence of what my own main subjects were dealing with in 1922, that one thing writers of fiction and nonfiction have in common is the difficulty and anxiety of writing. Poets, too—because I think T.S. Eliot said it most succinctly, when he wrote to a friend in December 1921, just before The Waste Land began to take its final shape, “I do not know whether it will work.” (Being Eliot, he wrote it in French—“Je ne sais pas si ça tient.” I think he turned to French for that one sentence in the letter because it was too frightening to say it in English, and yet he had to confide it to someone.) This was just before he went to Paris, in January 1922, and began to edit, with Ezra Pound’s help, what had been nearly 1,000 lines of poetry into the poem half that length that was published at the year’s end. At almost the same time, Virginia Woolf was editing Jacob’s Room, her first unadulteratedly modern novel, into its final form, and was worried that it was only “sterile acrobatics.”
So much of my book is about my main subjects’ insecurity about what they are working on, and their absolute despair that they will be able to do the work they want to do. Whether they will achieve their artistic goals—or whether, physically, they will be able to finish the work. I loved that Virginia Woolf, just before her 40th birthday in January 1922, wrote to E.M. Forster that writing was like heaving bricks over a wall—she had a severe case of influenza—but also cautioned him that even though she was about to turn 40, he must count her only 35 because she had spent so much time sick in bed.
But finding lines like that is why the research is the best part of biography. Also because the process is comparatively straightforward, as opposed to the writing or editing. I spent a lot of time in libraries and archives, and it is just wonderful to be able to go through original letters, diaries, manuscripts—you’re actually holding them, and that’s thrilling in and of itself —but then you always convince yourself (and you’re right) that you must look at more. My focus is pretty specifically 1922, but I found so many important things looking in later and earlier archival material. So much depended on how much time you had in any one place. I was lucky enough to have a fellowship at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where I researched for two months. You don’t have to do the same kind of triage as when you are in a place for only a few days or a week. The New York Public Library was a similarly endless resource, and luckily I live here. You gather this enormous amount of stuff, and then you have to cut most of it.
In terms of writing and editing, I found that the thing I most resisted, but in the end most depended on, was simply chronology. You’d think that in the story of a year that would be obvious! But that is somewhat alien to my digressive mind, and I learned I had to keep the story as chronologically clear as possible, and that involved, in the editing, sometimes working paragraph by paragraph. If one paragraph did not follow logically from the previous one, and I was spending too much time working on a transition that inevitably became too baroque or abstract—I gave up, basically, and cut it. It only took me several years, and imminent deadlines, to sharpen my mind that way.
I think one thing nonfiction writers can do that is perhaps harder for novelists is that whole chapters can move around—they are much more discrete than chapters in a novel, I would imagine. I don’t know that novelists write in order—I certainly didn’t—but then once I got back to the chronology, I could find the place for things I had drafted, or I could cut. The chapters fit into place because of the time period they covered. Though I remember once many years ago interviewing Ann Beattie, who said that in writing her novel Love Always she didn’t want to “tell a story chronologically.” She wrote the novel in pieces, and when she had finished all the chapters, she spread them on the floor of her living room and re-assembled them “like pieces in a puzzle.” What “foiled” her, she said, was “having to fix it technically, to go back and revise the chronology.”
Talk about losing myself in research—I just went back and looked up the interview.
TM: Was there any sweet little piece of history that you couldn’t fit into the book?
BG: Do you know the phrase l’esprit d’escalier? Literally, the spirit of the staircase? What you think of saying to someone only after the conversation has ended, some caustic or brilliant reply that only comes to you when you’re on your way out—dramatically—down the stairs? When I do my TV segment, I almost always think more of what I should have said, what I wanted to say, than I do of what I did say. So, in terms of the book—most of what I wanted to get in I had to leave out. I feel almost as much despair now about all that I couldn’t use as I did when I was trying to organize all my research notes into a draft. But there are two quotes I tried to fit in, moving them from place to place, and they just never fit. One was a line of Clive Bell’s to his mistress Mary Hutchinson. Clive Bell was married to Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. He admired T. S. Eliot’s poetry but did not warm to him as a person. Mary, on the other hand, was close to Eliot, was very sympathetic to him in the many financial and marital struggles that in 1922, as at other times, consumed his life (and which made their way into The Waste Land). I think Clive liked to tease her with his barbs about Eliot, a kind of literary foreplay, almost. Eliot published The Waste Land in late 1922, but also spent a lot of time that year working on the first issue of The Criterion, a literary magazine he inaugurated that year (and which he edited in one form or another until 1939). Eliot wrote the prospectus for the magazine in the summer, and Clive, as he often was, was dubious of Eliot’s efforts. When the prospectus arrived, he wrote to Mary that the morning post brought many letters, “all, except yours, very dull—bills for the most part.” One of the very dull things she had likely seen herself: “the prospectus of The Criterion on which most unluckily, though perhaps prophetically, a swallow shat before I had time to read it. You will lend me your copy I dare say.”
The other quote was one of E.M. Forster’s. He read Woolf’s Jacob’s Room in late 1922, and wrote her a beautiful letter about how ecstatically he read it, and what a profound an effect it had on him and, he thought, on the work (A Passage to India) that he was trying then to do. I quote the letter at length. It just didn’t fit to have the wonderful kind of P.S. that he offered to a friend, more traditional than he was, to whom he recommended it highly, but with a caution: “Good. Very very very very very very very—modern.”
TM: You rely on diaries and personal letters to provide insight into these writers’ careers and domestic situations. There are some real gems here. For instance, D.H. Lawrence remarks that the people in Ceylon would be as “beshitten” there as anywhere else on “this slippery ball of quick-silver of a dissolving world.” In her diary, Virginia Woolf describes an evening spent with T.S. Eliot; he was, “sardonic, guarded, precise, & slightly malevolent, as usual.” Can you describe what it was like to interact with these personal papers? Did reading correspondence or private writings alter your understanding of these writers, or even change the course of the book as you might have first imagined it?
BG: Yes, and yes. When you write a nonfiction book, you usually write a proposal first, for your agent and prospective publishers. That, of course, takes years of work (or at least it did for me). You have to do a lot of research, but in researching that, I relied on published material—Virginia Woolf’s complete letters and diaries are published, and Lawrence’s letters too. But when I began working most of Eliot’s letters of the period were still unpublished, and most of Forster’s letters (and his diaries) were also unpublished. You don’t know, of course, what you don’t have, or even whether you will find it or if it still exists. I knew the story of 1922 I wanted to tell, and knew that there was a story in these people’s lives that I could tell by focusing on one narrow bit of time in which they did important work. A story that by necessity the definitive biographies of all of these people could not tell because they had whole lives to encompass. Each of them had a little about 1922, of course.
I knew the story, then—of Woolf, for example, writing “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” in the spring of 1922, the story that by the end of the year gives rise to Mrs. Dalloway; of Forster’s picking up his “Indian fragment” (which becomes A Passage to India) after nearly a decade. In the same way, I knew where Eliot and Lawrence began and ended the year. In the book, the story is the same—the stories, I suppose I should say—but the details are almost completely different from what I’d planned. What I hadn’t counted on was the range of unpublished material by them and about them. The fact that Woolf’s diaries and letters, and Lawrence’s letters, for example, have been published in complete editions obscures the other salient fact—that so much private writing by and about my subjects is available in archives and libraries and has not been published. There’s so much of Eliot’s correspondence and Forster’s that hasn’t been collected yet, and it was all a revelation to me, including much that they wrote later that revealed essential aspects of 1922, and their work—and their private lives—in that period. Even more thrilling for me—because finding it all was completely unexpected—were the diaries and letters of the people who knew my main subjects extremely well, and either loved or loathed them or both. That was a perspective I never thought to have, and discovering them provided me with some of the most juicy and insightful and bitchy and jaundiced raw material (see Clive Bell’s letters to Mary Hutchinson; and there are hundreds of them at the Ransom Center). The trouble, then, was that I had more than I could ever use—which brings us back to the editing paragraph by paragraph. My editor, Gillian Blake, had a very help suggestion (really, directive)—quotations should be ornaments. Perhaps that’s something every editor says—but it related very specifically to a dilemma my drafts posed to both of us, and that advice helped me enormously.
One other thing about working in these archives is the thrill of holding the original letters. You’re looking for particular things, of course, and you get so used to moving quickly through the papers. Sometimes I would have to scan letters looking only for capital letters—to see if any of my subjects were mentioned. And then every so often you just stop yourself in awe and realize, these are Virginia Woolf’s letters! This is her paper, her ink, she wrote this—it’s not a facsimile. The same thing with drafts. You are holding Eliot’s typescript. You are holding D.H. Lawrence’s notebooks. At the Ransom Center they have Virginia Woolf’s copy of A Passage to India inscribed to her by Forster. And Ezra Pound’s copy of The Waste Land, in which he made not one single pencil notation, unfortunately.
The challenge, I think, is to convey some of the excitement in the book.
TM: I read The World Broke in Two on vacation, far from my writing desk, and by the time I was done, I was thinking a lot about my new book, eager to get back to it. Part of that is due to reading about these brilliant writers and their artistic processes, challenges, and goals. I loved learning about Woolf’s interests in depicting human consciousness, and how inspired she was by Marcel Proust. I’ve read a lot of Forster but didn’t know much about what was happening in his personal life as he returned to the book that would become A Passage to India. And then there’s Eliot, struggling to finish The Waste Land, take care of his ailing wife, and go to work as a banker, a job that demoralized him and caused him great anxiety. Last, we’ve got D.H. Lawrence, giving himself the challenge to start and finish a draft of a novel in six weeks. These could be writers I know personally, in 2017! I felt a connection between their artistic struggles and passions and my own, which was exhilarating. Was that your intention, or was that simply an intriguing part of these writers’ lives that you couldn’t help but focus on, being a fellow writer yourself? Did their processes echo your own, as you worked on your book?
BG: I struggled for a long time with the book, as we’ve discussed. It took me over six years to finish it. And practically every day as I wrote I was immersed in these writers’ despair (which eventually becomes triumph in one way or another by the end of 1922). And I kept thinking of my own difficulties, “But they are Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster! Who am I?” It was comforting on the one hand and intimidating on the other. I mean, what right did I have to struggle? The end result was not going to Mrs. Dalloway or The Waste Land. But at least I had a much smaller goal!
I was talking to a friend just after I was finished with the book. He works in politics but admits he is really a struggling screenwriter. When he said something about how hard it was to do it, and even to find the time, I told him about what Woolf, et al were going through in 1922. He said, “Most people think great art just happens—but it doesn’t.” I think that’s what my book is about. It helps goad you forward, at least a little, to know that whatever struggle you are having with your writing doesn’t indicate, by itself, that you are doing bad work or aren’t a good writer. You can recognize you are not Woolf, Forster, Eliot or Lawrence, and still try to do your work.
TM: You have a PhD in English and you’ve written this literary history of 1922. But you’re also very much part of today’s book culture: you host “Bill’s Books” where you review contemporary work, and you were the founding editor of The New York Times books website. I’m curious how it felt, to be immersed in two literary worlds, past and present. What feels different? What feels similar? Do we have modern day counterparts to these brilliant minds? (And who is our modern-day James Joyce—arrogant, uncouth, genius?)
BG: It was a relief to move between the past and the present. I mean, each was an escape from the other, though of course having to do so much work in the real world leaves you less time for writing. But if you don’t earn money, you can’t write. It’s not a new dilemma. Forster put it wonderfully (and sadly) about his own journalism, which he was doing in part to distract himself from his failure at his novel: “How fatuous!…Always working never creating.” So much is the same, or at least we seem to feel the same way about some things as the writers in my book felt then—overwhelmed by their own work (of course), but also, as Woolf, who was also a publisher of the Hogarth Press, felt, simply by the number of books published. She made fun of the sheer number of books published, and the hype about them (that’s not the word they used then, but she describes the same machinery for it, both from the publisher’s side, creating it, or trying to, and the public’s side, the press’s side, trying to make sense of it). She wrote an article in 1922 decrying this very thing, part of which was trying to understand what her own place was in that universe, not only as a publisher, but as a writer—where would her own work fit in? How would Jacob’s Room make its way in that world? It was the start of her trying to figure out what role the “common reader” plays in making an audience for a writer—but also a posterity for a writer? Would she be read in later years? She could barely see her way to finishing the work she was doing—but still she was anxious about whether she and it would have a posterity. She and Leonard Woolf conducted a mock debate for the BBC in 1927 about whether too many books were being published. The text survives, but not a recording, unfortunately.
As for who is like Joyce—two things. One, I love that you’re quoting Clive Bell’s reaction to him when they met in Paris in 1921, which is from one of his letters to Mary Hutchinson, and which I think he also shared with Virginia Woolf and which influenced her own sense of him as a person (she and Joyce never met) and more vitally as the writer of Ulysses. And two—I think I know too few writers well enough to answer your question. I only know the nicest ones.
TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you, what’s the last great book you read?
BG: You mean other than Woman No. 17? I recently read and liked Pachinko by Min Jin Lee; Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout; and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (in alphabetical and chronological order, conveniently enough). The last great book I reread is Mrs. Dalloway.
Reared in the dressing rooms of the 18th century, the novel can often seem out of place in our age of LOLcats and Angry Birds. But in spite of its advanced age and sometimes stuffy reputation, the old chap is surprisingly nimble. In the technological tumult of the past decade, for example, YA went through puberty, electric literature moved out of the ivory tower, and the literary novel was successfully (for the most part) cross-pollinated with a number of more exotic genres.
In the midst of all this, a strange literary beast has reemerged, a hybrid of the short story and traditional novel. This newly reinvigorated genre — let’s call it the polyphonic novel — uses a chorus of voices and narrative styles to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Think Nicole Krauss’s Great House or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists.
Just as polyphonic music combines melodies to create texture and tension, the polyphonic novel collects a multiplicity of distinct, often conflicting voices around a single place, family, object, or idea. Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze. Drawing inspiration from classics like The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, and John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, contemporary polyphonic novels make music from the messy cacophony that is life in the 21st century.
Bypassing traditional notions of character and plot, polyphonic novels create meaning at the intersection of seemingly random plot lines. Harmonies are found in the artful assemblage of disparate voices. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin described the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “A plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” Eschewing objectivity and uniformity, polyphonic novels rely instead on simultaneity, contradiction, and the empty space between voices.
Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, is a perfect example of the genre. The book traces four Londoners as they attempt to understand, escape, and make their way through Kilburn, the working-class neighborhood where they all grew up. With each new narrator, the novel loops back on itself, answering and expanding upon questions raised by previous sections. Towards the beginning of the book, for example, one of the main characters watches her best friend and her best friend’s husband exchange a glace across a crowded party. “She sees no smile, no nod, no wave, no recognition, no communication, nothing at all.” Two hundred pages later, we have begun to understand the glance in all its sad complexity. The seemingly enviable couple is really nothing but “an advert for themselves,” “like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.”
Polyphony is particularly well-suited to excavations of the urban landscape. (For what is a city if not a collection of conflicting voices?) In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann mobilizes a chorus of seemingly incongruous voices to conjure a portrait of New York in the 1970s. Skipping between narrators — an aging prostitute, an Irish monk, a judge, and an irresponsible young artist, to name just a few — McCann creates a dissonant, yet synchronistic world nearly as vivid and wonderfully cluttered as the city itself.
But polyphonic novels need not live in the city. Take, for example, Hari Kunzru’s brilliant Gods Without Men, which layers the Mojave desert with a progression of characters searching for meaning in the void. Narrators pop up and fade away. They build doomsday bunkers, military bases, and geodesic domes. They spend decades looking for truth, but the quiet mystery of the desert subsumes them all. As the final narrator writes, “that which is infinite is known only to itself and cannot be contained in the mind of man.”
Contemporary polyphonic novels come in a wide variety of flavors. Many find structure in the family. Others, like The Imperfectionists, are shaped around the extended family of the workplace. Ian McEwan’s Atonement centers around a single act of accusation. While Great House and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book follow a single object through history, dipping in and out of the lives of those who have possessed it. And then there are those polyphonic novels built on nothing more than an idea. Swirling around seemingly unapproachable concepts such as authorship and fictionality, aging and time, novels like Cloud Atlas and A Visit From the Goon Squad use a variety of forms and styles to create a sense of scope that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with a single narrator.
It can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between these most disparate polyphonic novels and linked short story collections like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Emma Donoghue’s Astray. Often, unfortunately, this border is delineated by marketing departments eager to attract readers (who, as conventional wisdom would have it, are drawn like moths to those two tiny words, “a novel,” tucked away at the bottom of the book cover). As Jay McInerney grumbled in a recent review: “I suspect that if Dubliners had been published in recent years it would have been marketed as a novel.”
Whether or not his assessment is true, many readers agree with McInerney’s basic premise. Indeed, a quick perusal of Goodreads reveals a sizable cadre of those frustrated by polyphonic novels’ lack of traditional plot and character development. As one reviewer on the Great House page wrote: “writing a book of short stories, fitting them together Tetris-like, and calling it a novel DOES NOT MAKE YOUR BOOK A NOVEL.” Even some professional critics seem flummoxed by polyphony (see, for example, Douglas Copeland on Gods Without Men or Mike Peed on Let the Great World Spin).
While certain readers and critics might be frustrated by shifting genre boundaries and non-linearity, the polyphonic novel has found favor among those responsible for giving out literary awards. Almost all of the books mentioned above have won (or should win) major literary prizes. The finalists for the past decade of Pulitzers, Bookers, and National Book Awards include quite a few works that could be described as polyphonic. This might be a coincidence, or a peculiar bias of the awards’ judges. Regardless, these awards indicate that the polyphonic novel occupies an important sector of the contemporary literary landscape.
With each foray onto the Internet, each ping and clang, we are searching for meaning in a haystack of data, balancing perspectives, trying to find reason in a cacophony of opinion. Is it any wonder we are drawn to fiction that reflects this new way of being, to a form that’s uniquely suited to our fragmented and globalized century? The novel survived the advent of radio, cinema, and television, thanks in large part to its pliability. And the novel will continue to survive so long as it continues to adapt.
Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, NW, sees her return to Willesden, northwest London, the same setting as her debut novel, White Teeth. Her first novel in seven years, NW signifies a departure for Smith in terms of her prose as well as her thematic scope: not only is NW a more poetic and abstract novel, but it is also one that calls iteratively to its reader to “keep up!” Indeed, it is in the pacing and in the gaps amid the fractured narrative structure that the reader locates NW’s most incisive social criticisms, insights, and its numerous laments about what it means to be “modern.”
A novel of visits and visitations, ghosts and hauntings, NW begins with the destabilizing visit of Shar, who rings the doorbell to Leah’s council flat to ask for money. This uncanny encounter sets off a chain of events and memories, a narrative spiral that occasionally feels out of control, but which comes full circle in a surprisingly satisfying way in Smith’s sure hands. When the narrative does return back to this initial moment, its effects are just as unexpected on the two main female protagonists as they are on the reader.
On the surface, NW is the story of two childhood friends, Leah and Keisha (who later changes her name to Natalie, to sever ties with the council estate on which she grew up), brought together by a “dramatic event:” as a young girl, Natalie saves Leah from near-drowning, causing the two to be joined together for life in spite of their different cultural backgrounds. United by this near-death experience and their shared socioeconomic status, the two girls grow up in a council estate in Willesden, northwest London, sharing their experiences with a host of characters ranging from Cheryl, Natalie’s sister who, despite several pregnancies, refuses the financial assistance of her now much wealthier sister, to the drug-addicted, morose Nathan Bogle, Leah’s childhood crush.
But NW is much more than a tale of a friendship. Indeed, Smith chooses to structure the novel in such a way that it textualizes the chaotic world of the estate and its inhabitants while, at the same time, dramatizing the intense anguish, emptiness, and despair found in the psychological lives of her protagonists. As Leah muses at one point: “She has forced a stillness in herself, but it has not stopped the world from continuing on.” She is ostensibly happily married to Michel, a Frenchman of African descent who works as a hairdresser, and yet secretly takes contraceptives to maintain control over her body and her life (“He is two feet away. He is on the other side of the world”); by contrast, Natalie marries the affluent, debonair Frank De Angelis strategically — or so she thinks — only to find her sexual desires wandering, enhanced by the technological world and myriad websites offering quick, anonymous sex with no strings attached. Technology is one of the major culprits in NW, causing rifts in our interactions with others and creating more distance when there should be more intimacy: “Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates.” Eerily enough, Smith suggests that the two women know one another better than anyone else does, and yet the secrets each keeps from the other enhance their states of isolation within a community to which each still feels indebted in often inexplicable ways, despite an ever-growing distance.
Several critics have already pointed out NW’s debt to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Both novels are concerned with female characters who are lost in their marriages and in their modern worlds. The pace of Smith’s prose, especially in the opening section, is reminiscent of Woolf’s, but in NW Smith creates a rhythm all her own:
Nothing to listen to but this bloody girl. At least with eyes closed there is something else to see. Viscous black specks. Darting boatmen, zig-zagging. Zig. Zag. Red river? Molten lake in hell? The hammock tips. The papers flop to the ground. World events and property and film and music lie in the grass. Also sport and the short descriptions of the dead.
The two different Londons are utterly incongruous in this intertextual alignment in rather jarring ways: Clarissa Dalloway encounters crowds in Hyde Park baffled about the modern aerial advertising upon which no one can agree as far as the trade name goes. “But what letters? A C was it? an E, then an L? Only for a moment did they lie still; then they moved and melted and were rubbed out up in the sky, and the aeroplane shot further away and again, in a fresh space of sky, began writing a K, an E, a Y perhaps?” As Leah journeys through the NW district, she is even more bombarded than Clarissa is; not only can Leah not escape the commercialization of the city itself, but she is similarly trapped in a multicultural space where different groups — while joined in similar socioeconomic circumstances — carve out different spaces, thus creating rifts of separation in a zone that is already a kind of No Man’s Land:
Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps. Casino! Everybody believes in destiny. Everybody. It was meant to be. Deal or no deal? TV screens in the TV shop. TV cable, computer cable, audiovisual cables, I give you good price, good price.
As in Mrs. Dalloway, there is a death that sends a rupture through the community; however, unlike Woolf’s more direct approach, Smith has complicated the dynamics and inserted two characters who are affected by the death rather than just one. This demonstrates how contemporary identity is shared, collective, and yet also at risk of being subsumed beneath another’s; it also underlines how compartmentalized each of our identities become in our high-paced, technology-driven culture. Mrs. Dalloway does this in its own way, but Smith’s strength here in updating Woolf’s novel is in her hopeful pessimism: while Septimus Smith’s death allows Clarissa to see her own anguish reflected, the death in NW actually upsets the mirror images Leah and Natalie reflect for each other. As such, the individual stands both for and against the community, and the harrowing walk Natalie finds herself on toward the novel’s close — where Smith indicates the need to meet one’s own ghost, if only to prove that one is solely a ghost in this world — coupled with the two women’s final act suggests that living is at the cost of sacrificing a part of oneself and also a willful condemnation of one’s own subculture.
To stress NW’s debt to Mrs. Dalloway alone, though, would be to Smith’s great discredit. The reader is asked here to read between the lines, and the events are not given in chronological order; in fact, we begin with Leah’s adult life (which includes some memories of her past and her friendship with Natalie), and, after a rupture that places a marginal Felix front and center to centralize a noble kind of masculinity (a rare kind indeed in Willesden), we are then presented with a very postmodern bildungsroman that grants us access to Natalie’s formative years. As this section progresses with its deployment of short sections almost reminiscent of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse — a text that is about its author coming to terms with the end of a relationship, much as Natalie’s section is, too, in its own way — one gets a full sense of Natalie’s identity from the fragments themselves. Smith is able to build a very solid portrait of her protagonist from bits and pieces, implying that this is how we are all fashioned by our society and that perhaps such a form is the best way to render modern experience. To be sure, we are all shaped by devouring films, books, music, from our early love affairs, and from our traumatic experiences; it is no surprise that, in shaping Natalie’s subjectivity, Smith manages in a masterful way such allusions to figures as seemingly disparate as Jean-Luc Godard, Søren Kierkegaard, John Donne, and Michael Jackson.
Although her prose owes much to the modernist school and her structure to the postmodernist dissection of time and identity, Smith continually returns to “the modern” as a continuum: “At some point we became aware of being ‘modern,’ of changing fast. Of coming after just now. John Donne was also a modern and surely saw change but we feel we are more modern and that the change is faster. Even the immutable is faster. Even blossom.” As we witness Leah swallowing her pride and working for a charity despite her university degree, rendered moot in the economy; as we witness Natalie rising as a barrister despite her class status and in spite of an ambivalence she can never wholly express, one which she tries to correct or mask through motherhood; and as we witness how these women relate to the men in their lives (whether central or tangential), we are left with the sense that, like Anna in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, modernity wreaks havoc on individuals’ conceptualizations of their own identities.
Smith’s great skill in NW is not only questioning this — and, in so doing, allowing her prose to mimic the nuances, cadences, and occasional sing-song slang of the NW district, proving her yet again a master of dialogue and tone — but in the way she finds dangerous such a compartmentalization of experience, desire (“Desire is never final, desire is imprecise and impractical”), and subjectivity when it comes to how we relate to others in the world, whether these be the strangers we pass on the street or the ones with whom we share our beds. Smith seems to be calling us to unite these disparate parts of our lives, and perhaps NW’s strength is in her insistence: “Global consciousness. Local consciousness. Consciousness.”