On Beauty, p.1Zadie Smith
kipps and belsey
the anatomy lesson
on beauty and being wrong
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First published by Hamish Hamilton, 2005
First Electronic edition, 2005
Copyright © Zadie Smith, 2002
Illustrations copyright © Roderick Mills, 2002
The moral right of the author has been asserted
The publisher would like to thank the following for permission to reproduce the following copyright material:
Faber and Faber Ltd for the extracts from ‘The Last Saturday in Ulster’, ‘Imperial’ and ‘On Beauty’ from the collection To a Fault by Nick Laird; Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd for the extract from On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry; the Random House Group Ltd for the extract from School of the Arts by Mark Doty, published by Jonathan Cape; Saja Music Co. and Sony/ATV Music Publishing Ltd for the extract from ‘I Get Around’, words and music by Shirley Murdock/ Larry Troutman/Roger Troutman, copyright © 1993. Saja Music Co. and Sony/ATV Music Publishing Ltd
Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders, and we apologize for any unintentional omission
All rights reserved.The author would particularly like to acknowledge the importance of Leon Wiesetier’s wise and poetic memoir, Kaddish
Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to civil and/or criminal liability, where applicable. No part of this book may be reproduced by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zadie Smith was born in north-west London in 1975 and continues to live in the area. On Beauty is her third novel. Her first book, White Teeth (also available as an ePenguin ebook), was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Award.
For my dear Laird
My gratitude to my first readers, Nick Laird, Jessica Frazier, Tamara Barnett-Herrin, Michal Shavit, David O’Rourke, Yvonne Bailey-Smith and Lee Klein. Their encouragement, criticism and good advice got the thing started. Thank you to Harvey and Yvonne for their support and to my younger brothers, Doc Brown and Luc Skyz, who offer advice on all the things I am too old to know. Thank you to my ex-student Jacob Kramer for notes on college life and East Coast mores. Thank you to India Knight and Elisabeth Merriman for all the French. Thank you to Cassandra King and Alex Adamson for dealing with all extra-literary matters.
I thank Beatrice Monti for another stay at Santa Maddelena and the good work that came out of it. Thank you to my English and American editors, Simon Prosser and Anne Godoff, without whom this book would be longer and worse. Thank you to Donna Poppy, the cleverest copy editor a girl could hope for. Thank you to Juliette Mitchell at Penguin for all her hard work on my behalf. Without my agent, Georgia Garrett, I couldn’t do this job at all. Thank you, George. You’re a bobby dazzler.
Thank you to Simon Schama for his monumental Rembrandt’s Eyes, a book that helped me to see paintings properly for the first time. Thank you to Elaine Scarry for her wonderful essay ‘On Beauty and Being Just’, from which I borrowed a title, a chapter heading and a good deal of inspiration. It should be obvious from the first line that this is a novel inspired by a love of E. M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other. This time I wanted to repay the debt with hommage.
Most of all, I thank my husband, whose poetry I steal to make my prose look pretty. It’s Nick who knows that ‘time is how you spend your love’, and that’s why this book is dedicated to him, as is my life.
kipps and belsey
We refuse to be each other.
H. J. Blackham
One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father:
To: [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Date: 5 November
Hey, Dad – basically I’m just going to keep on keeping on with these mails – I’m no longer expecting you to reply, but I’m still hoping you will, if that makes sense.
Well, I’m really enjoying everything. I work in Monty Kipps’s own office (did you know that he’s actually Sir Monty??), which is in the Green Park area. It’s me and a Cornish girl called Emily. She’s cool. There’re also three more yank interns downstairs (one from Boston!), so I feel pretty much at home. I’m a kind of an intern with the duties of a PA – organizing lunches, filing, talking to people on the phone, that sort of thing. Monty’s work is much more than just the academic stuff: he’s involved with the Race Commission, and he has Church charities in Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti, etc. – he keeps me really busy. Because it’s such a small set-up, I get to work closely with him – and of course I’m living with the family now, which is like being completely integrated into something new. Ah, the family. You didn’t respond, so I’m imagining your reaction (not too hard to imagine . . .). The truth is, it was really just the most convenient option at the time. And they were totally kind to offer – I was being evicted from the ‘bedsit’ place in Marylebone. The Kippses aren’t under any obligation to me, but they asked and I accepted – gratefully. I’ve been in their place a week now, and still no mention of any rent, which should tell you something. I know you want me to tell you it’s a nightmare, but I can’t – I love living here. It’s a different universe. The house is just wow – early Victorian, a ‘terrace’ – unassuming-looking outside but massive inside – but there’s still a kind of humility that really appeals to me – almost everything white, and a lot of handmade things, and quilts and dark wood shelves and cornices and this four-storey staircase – and in the whole place there’s only one television, which is in the basement anyway, just so Monty can keep abreast of news stuff, and some of the things he does on the television – but that’s it. I think of it as the negativized image of our house sometimes . . . It’s in this bit of North London called ‘Kilburn’, which sounds bucolic, but boy oh boy is not bucolic in the least, except for this street we live on off the ‘high
The family are another thing again – they deserve more space and time than I have right now (I’m writing this on my lunch hour). But, in brief: one boy, Michael, nice, sporty. A little dull, I guess. You’d think he was, anyway. He’s a business guy – exactly what business I haven’t been able to figure out. And he’s huge! He’s got two inches on you, at least. They’re all big in that athletic, Caribbean way. He must be 6' 5". There’s also a very tall and beautiful daughter, Victoria, who I’ve seen only in photos (she’s inter-railing in Europe), but she’s coming back for a while on Friday, I think. Monty’s wife, Carlene – perfect. She’s not from Trinidad, though – it’s a small island, St something or other – I’m not sure. I didn’t hear it very well the first time she mentioned it, and now it’s like it’s too late to ask. She’s always trying to fatten me up – she feeds me constantly. The rest of the family talk about sports and God and politics, and Carlene floats above it all like a kind of angel – and she’s helping me with prayer. She really knows how to pray – and it’s very cool to be able to pray without someone in your family coming into the room and (a) passing wind (b) shouting (c) analysing the ‘phoney metaphysics’ of prayer (d) singing loudly (e) laughing.
So that’s Carlene Kipps. Tell Mom that she bakes. Just tell her that and then walk away chuckling . . .
Now, listen to this next bit carefully: in the morning THE WHOLE KIPPS FAMILY have breakfast together and a conversation TOGETHER and then get into a car TOGETHER (are you taking notes?) – I know, I know – not easy to get your head around. I never met a family who wanted to spend so much time with each other.
I hope you can see from everything I’ve written that your feud, or whatever it is, is a complete waste of time. It’s all on your side, anyway – Monty doesn’t do feuds. You’ve never even really met – just a lot of public debates and stupid letters. It’s such a waste of energy. Most of the cruelty in the world is just misplaced energy. Anyway: I’ve got to go – work calls!
Love to Mom and Levi, partial love to Zora,
And remember: I love you, Dad (and I pray for you, too)
Phew! Longest mail ever!
To: [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Date: 14 November
Subject: Hello again
Thanks for forwarding me the details about the dissertation – could you phone the department at Brown and maybe get me an extension? Now I begin to see why Zora enrolled at Wellington . . . lot easier to miss your deadline when Daddy’s the teacher I read your one-liner query and then like a fool I searched for a further attachment (like, say, a letter???), but I guess you’re too busy/mad/etc. to write. Well, I’m not. How’s the book going? Mom said you were having trouble getting going. Have you found a way to prove Rembrandt was no good yet?
The Kippses continue to grow on me. On Tuesday we all went to the theatre (the whole clan is home now) and saw a South African dance troupe, and then, going back on the ‘tube’, we started to hum one of the tunes from the show, and this became full-blown singing, with Carlene leading (she’s got a terrific voice) and even Monty joined in, because he’s not really the ‘self-hating psychotic’ you think he is. It was really kind of lovely, the singing and the train coming above ground and then walking through the wet back to this beautiful house and a curried chicken home-cooked meal. But I can see your face as I type this, so I’ll stop.
Other news: Monty has honed in on the great Belsey lack: logic. He’s trying to teach me chess, and today was the first time in a week when I wasn’t beaten in under six moves, though I was still beaten of course. All the Kippses think I’m muddle-headed and poetic – I don’t know what they would say if they knew that among Belseys I’m practically Wittgenstein. I think I amuse them, though – and Carlene likes to have me around the kitchen, where my cleanliness is seen as a positive thing, rather than as some kind of anal-retentive syndrome . . . I have to admit, though, I do find it a little eerie in the mornings to wake up to this peaceful silence (people whisper in the hallways so as not to wake up other people) and a small part of my backside misses Levi’s rolled-up wet towel, just as a small part of my ear doesn’t know what to do with itself now Zora’s no longer screaming in it. Mom mailed me to tell me that Levi has upped the headwear to four (skullcap, baseball cap, hoodie, duffel hood) with earphones on – so that you can only see a tiny, tiny bit of his face around the eyes. Please kiss him there for me. And kiss Mom for me too, and remember that it’s her birthday a week from tomorrow. Kiss Zora and ask her to read Matthew 24. I know how she just loves a bit of Scripture every day.
Love and peace in abundance,
P.S. in answer to your ‘polite query’, yes, I am still one . . . despite your evident contempt I’m feeling quite fine about it, thanks . . . twenty is really not that late among young people these days, especially if they’ve decided to make their fellowship with Christ. It was weird that you asked, because I did walk through Hyde Park yesterday and thought of you losing yours to someone you had never met before and never would again. And no, I wasn’t tempted to repeat the incident . . .
To: [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Date: 19 November
Dear Dr Belsey!
I have no idea how you’re going to take this one! But we’re in love! The Kipps girl and me! I’m going to ask her to marry me, Dad! And I think she’ll say yes!!! Are you digging on these exclamation marks!!!! Her name’s Victoria but everyone calls her Vee. She’s amazing, gorgeous, brilliant. I’m asking her ‘officially’ this evening, but I wanted to tell you first. It’s come over us like the Song of Solomon, and there’s no way to explain it apart from as a kind of mutual revelation. She just arrived here last week – sounds crazy but it true!!!! Seriously: I’m happy. Please take two Valium and ask Mom to mail me ASAP. I’ve got no credit left on this phone and don’t like to use theirs.
‘What, Howard? What am I looking at, exactly?’
Howard Belsey directed his American wife, Kiki Simmonds, to the relevant section of the e-mail he had printed out. She put her elbows either side of the piece of paper and lowered her head as she always did when concentrating on small type. Howard moved away to the other side of their kitchen-diner to attend to a singing kettle. There was only this one high note – the rest was silence. Their only daughter, Zora, sat on a stool with her back to the room, her earphones on, looking up reverentially at the television. Levi, the youngest boy, stood beside his father in front of the kitchen cabinets. And now the two of them began to choreograph a breakfast in speechless harmony: passing the box of cereal from one to the other, exchanging implements, filling their bowls and sharing milk from a pink china jug with a sun-yellow rim. The house was south facing. Light struck the double glass doors that led to the garden, filtering through the arch that split the kitchen. It rested softly upon the still life of Kiki at the breakfast table, motionless, reading. A dark red Portuguese earthenware bowl faced her, piled high with apples. At this hour the light extended itself even further, beyond the breakfast table, through the hall, to the lesser of their two living rooms. Here a bookshelf filled with their oldest paperbacks kept company with a suede beanbag and an ottoman upon which Murdoch, their dachshund, lay collapsed in a sunbeam.
‘Is this for real?’ asked Kiki, but got no reply.
Levi was slicing strawberries, rinsing them and plopping them into two cereal bowls. It was Howard’s job to catch their frowzy heads for the trash. Just as they were finishing up this o
‘Is something funny?’ asked Howard, moving to the breakfast bar and resting his elbows on its top. In response, Kiki’s face resolved itself into impassive blackness. It was this sphinx-like expression that sometimes induced their American friends to imagine a more exotic provenance for her than she actually possessed. In fact she was from simple Florida country stock.
‘Baby – try being less facetious,’ she suggested. She reached for an apple and began to cut it up with one of their small knives with the translucent handles, dividing it into irregular chunks. She ate these slowly, one piece after another.
Howard pulled his hair back from his face with both hands.
‘Sorry – I just – you laughed, so I thought maybe something was funny.’
‘How am I meant to react?’ said Kiki, sighing. She laid down her knife and reached out for Levi, who was just passing with his bowl. Grabbing her robust fifteen-year-old by his denim waistband, she pulled him to her easily, forcing him down half a foot to her sitting level so that she could tuck the label of his basketball top back inside the collar. She put her thumbs on each side of his boxer shorts for another adjustment, but he tugged away from her.
‘Mom, man . . .’
‘Levi, honey, please pull those up just a little . . . they’re so low . . . they’re not even covering your ass.’
‘So it’s not funny,’ concluded Howard. It gave him no cheer, digging in like this. But he was still going to persist with this line of questioning, even though it was not the tack upon which he had hoped to start out, and he understood it was a straight journey to nowhere helpful.
‘Oh, Lord, Howard,’ said Kiki. She turned to face him. ‘We can do this in fifteen minutes, can’t we? When the kids are –’ Kiki rose a little in her seat as she heard the lock of the front door clicking and then clicking again. ‘Zoor, honey, get that please, my knee’s bad today. She can’t get in, go on, help her –’
On Beauty by Zadie Smith / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes