Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, November 29, 2013

a broken spell

Recently I was reading a lovely autobiographical essay by Zadie Smith about — well, in the way of the true essay, it’s about several things: gardens, civility, grief, memory. Much of it concerns her travels with her late father, and those scenes are beautifully rendered.

And then I came to her description of the Borghese Gardens in Rome, and read this:

For our two years in Rome, the Borghese Gardens became a semiregular haunt, the place most likely to drag us from our Monti stupor. And I always left the park reluctantly; it was not an easy transition to move from its pleasant chaos to the sometimes pedantic conventionality of the city. No, you can’t have cheese on your vongole; no, this isn’t the time for a cappuccino; yes, you can eat pizza on these steps but not near that fountain; in December we all go to India; in February we all ski in France; in September of course we go to New York. Everything Romans do is perfect and delightful, but it is sometimes annoying that they should insist on all doing the same things at exactly the same time. I think their argument is: given that all our habits are perfect and delightful, why would anyone stray from them?

And in an instant all my interest and sympathy evaporated. Those are the things that “Romans” do, yes? Travel to India and New York City, ski in France? These are the habits of “Romans”? But of course Smith means the tiny, tiny fraction of Romans who have the extravagant wealth to do these things — the .01 percent, the absolute elite. These are the “Romans” she knows.

To this one might reply, well, Smith herself was not born into privilege: a biracial woman from London who grew up in straitened circumstances if not absolute poverty, she knows what it’s like to struggle. Exactly: all the more reason for her not to take privilege — extraordinary privilege — as the norm. “Romans” indeed.

I am willing, seriously willing, to consider that this response may well be a failure of charity on my part, so I record it not as a confident judgment but as a snapshot of readerly experience. Whether I was right or wrong to respond as I did, I think it noteworthy that with that paragraph my involvement in the essay — which until that point had been complete, I had been absorbed — ended. I listlessly cast my eyes over the last few paragraphs. The voice that had so delighted me a few moments before now seemed to me almost precious in its complacency. A lovely little spell had broken and could not be brought back. Whether it was Smith or I who broke it I leave as an exercise for you, my readers.

6 comments:

  • Pay attention to the sentence that directly preceded the objectionable paragraph: "In Italy, where so many kinds of gates are closed to so many people, there is something especially beautiful in the freedom of a garden."

    Much of the point of the essay involved elaborating their entry into a different world. It was never about being a generic "Roman," but rather about the specific "Rome" to which she gained entry by virtue of her ridiculous fortune. I accept her shorthand "Roman," in the context of the essay, to refer to the privileged 0.1% with which she was mingling, and don't believe that she was under any illusion that her impressions should be generalized to all "Romans," those she realized were outside "those kinds of gates."

    Especially given that it was published in The New Yorker, home to so many more egregious examples of the pretentiousness that offended you, I suggest that charity may be in order.

  • Let me see if I follow the logic here: your claim is that Smith refers to exclusions in Roman society and therefore her reference to "Romans" can only be a reference to the very wealthiest of all Romans? I think there may be some missing stages in the argument.

    Also: I'm sure it's true that the New Yorker offers more egregious examples of pretension, but I make it a firm policy only to comment on what I have actually read.

  • "I make it a firm policy only to comment on what I have actually read."

    Well, OK, I suppose that it was a lack of charity on my part in suspecting that it may have been preexisting prejudices that led you to your harsh conclusion. I am no Professor of English and sometimes get too caught up in placing my reading in context, taking the source into account, and examining my "trigger points." I am often put off by the New York Times articles that equate the idiosyncrasies of Park Slope, Brooklyn co-ops with the concerns of American parents generally, or National Review rants that equate a contretemps on the Brown campus with American Higher Education generally. Under the right (wrong?) circumstances, I may have reacted to that paragraph of Zadie Smith's essay in the same manner as you. I have something of an anti-Pauline Kael radar, easily put off by "everyone I know voted for Nixon" types of description and analysis. Like you, I try to read what is actually written, and not allow such triggers to allow me to miss the point.

    But when I read it last week, Smith's essay did not set off the trigger. Rather, it seemed that her late comments about "Romans" were entirely ironic and easy to understand without offense. It does not seem to take many steps to get from 1: there is stratification in Rome, to 2: the Borghese Gardens offer a healthy reprieve from the stratification, to 3: well, the "Romans" are like "this" (conveniently completely forgetting about stratification), without understanding that Smith is in no danger of falling into pretentious Kaeldom.

    But limiting myself to "what I have actually read" (in that specific paragraph), and ignoring the context of Smith's life and the rest of the essay, she has clearly conflated the life of the 0.1% with "Romans" generally.

  • Alan,

    Having lived in Rome for a little while I can say that the Romans often do "all the same things at exactly the same time". When I was there black was the fashionable color to wear, and nearly everyone regardless of class wore mostly black. And I did get dirty looks for drinking a cappuccino in the afternoon instead of the morning. I also remember being in Prague on holiday when the city was filled full of Romans because it was the fashionable place to visit that year. Most of them did not seem to be the top .01%--travel is relatively cheap in Europe.

    Perhaps some charity would be in order-- the examples she listed of Roman habits did not only include things that the .01% can do.

  • the examples she listed of Roman habits did not only include things that the .01% can do

    Are you sure? For whom is it affordable go to India one month and to ski in France in another month and to visit New York in another month? Travel may be relatively cheap in Europe — if you fly budget airlines — but two of her three examples involve travel outside of Europe and the third ... well, if you can find affordable skiing in France do please let me know!

    And Tim, I still don't see how you get from your point 2 to point 3: that is, I don't see how what she says about those gardens somehow imposes limits on the meaning of the term "Romans."

    I want to be convinced! But y'all don't seem to be reckoning with what Smith actually wrote. That is a requirement for charity in reading, as I ought to know — I wrote the book on the subject. (NB: irony alert!)

  • I read this over the weekend and wanted to respond, but I wasn't able to post from Firefox or Chrome. Now, at work, I just thought to try IE (of all things)--looks like it may do the trick!

    ---

    I think Smith may be guilty of nothing more than good ol' comic exaggeration (if poorly executed). In the previous two paragraphs to the one you quote, Smith speaks of immigrants in Rome and London, so I don't think she's actually under the impression that all Romans ski France. Keeping in mind her earlier reference to A Room With a View and especially the comments immediately before and after this paragraph about her father, I think she's trying to evoke a certain British mixture of horror, bemusement, and envy at Those Wacky Continentals. Note the parallel structure of the offending sentence: three complaints about quotidian things (cheese, cappuccino, pizza), then three larks of the idle rich--surely this is a deliberate move, ramping up the absurdity for humor. It also has the effect of mirroring the structure of the essay, which first deals with what it's like to be in Rome with her harrumphing British dad, and then with returning as a Famous Author.

    Of course, you're right that she does seem to be dealing with the .01%. At least, she mentions meeting people who wear Barbour jackets (not cheap, I'm told), whose purebreds wear chic raingear, and whose children look "like tiny CEOs of Fortune 500 companies."

    And anyway, isn't Smith's generalization about "Romans" what all returning travelers do? I was in Boston for two days years ago, saw two or three neighborhoods, and talked with maybe a dozen people, but damned if I don't find myself talking about the city like I know exactly what "Bostonians" are like.

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