EARLY in The Fraud, Zadie Smith's first historical novel, she enthusiastically sidesteps Charles Dickens. “Dickens is dead!" is the title of an uncharacteristically concise two-page chapter in the first fifth of the new book. After this announcement, the master of sketchy characterisation, concrete details and sentiment repeatedly appears as a younger and more dynamic figure in Smith's achronological narrative about literary London in the 1870s. In this novel, Dickens seems to be as present as the weather. After his death in The Fraud, “on the high street, at sunset, he was everywhere like a miasma".
Smith, a generous and sensitive reader, critic and writer, admires Dickens for his vitality and agrees that he is one of the few writers who could bring about social change through his portrayal of the poor. In contrast to Dickens's limited characterisations and comical monstrosities, Eliza Touchet, the main character of The Fraud — and a historically verifiable figure despite her Dickensian name — comes to a realisation: “A person is a bottomless thing!"
Smith deviates from Dickens's blueprint with her expansive and humanistic view of characters. She sheds his influence by writing about the horrors of British slavery, the ragtag emancipation movement and miserable reparations, also in contrast to other writers of his time, such as William Ainsworth — a prolific and now forgotten writer of powerful prose and a focal point for the literary circle into which Smith breathes life with this novel.
Perpetual motion machines
In an often-quoted review of 2000, the critic James Wood believes that the voluminous, ambitious novels (“perpetual motion machines") of the turn of the millennium have in common a family relationship with Dickens. He touted Smith's rowdy comedic debut, White Teeth, as the epitome of “hysterical realism", a genre in which the conventions of realism are overdone with opinion: “Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, flaunting their glamorous congestion." Smith was characteristically sardonic in her reaction to Wood: “When I was 21, I wanted to write like Kafka. But unfortunately for me, I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who’d briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault. Such is life.”
Unlike the present, dominated by essentialist views on identity, the concept of the “multicultural melting pot" was not met with scepticism or hostility in 2000 when White Teeth was published. Additionally, “literary fiction" was not a pejorative and charged term at that time. The literarily ambitious White Teeth sold more than 2 million copies and was critically acclaimed. Speculations about a £250,000 advance based on the first 80 pages — and the allure of the 24-year-old brilliant and photogenic Cambridge student, style icon and poster girl for multicultural Britain — undoubtedly contributed to sales and the book's mythical status. Subsequently, Smith has written four substantial novels, short stories and numerous essays in which the freedom of her thinking, her brilliance and unboundedness refresh us.
Over the course of her novels, London's northwest neighbourhoods are her primary writerly milieu, even after she departs, first to Rome and later to New York. In an essay preceding publication of The Fraud, she writes that her decision to leave England was also influenced by the literary tradition: “I kept clinging to one piece of data about which I felt certain: any writer who lives in England for any length of time will sooner or later find herself writing a historical novel whether she wants to or not.”
In the historical novel that Smith did indeed write on her return to northwest London during lockdown, she directed her gaze at the architecture, layout and social infrastructure of her old neighbourhood, as well as the worn-out ideas of the commons and the welfare state that took hold in the Victorian era. However, Victorian England is not a self-sufficient island nation in the crucial aspects of wealth accumulation and dispossession.
Eliza Touchet has a theory that England is just an elaborate alibi: “everything the English really did and really wanted, everything they desired and took and used and discarded — all of that they did elsewhere". Consequently, Smith shifts her attention to the factory-like sugar plantations of Jamaica and the penal colony of Australia, where enslaved individuals, convicts on the receiving end of an inherently unjust legal system, and remittance men (the most hopeless sons of upper-class families) were sent. Here, they could sometimes successfully recreate their identities.
It is as if a court case from the 1870s where these lines intersected and piqued Victorian interest had been waiting for Smith as a writer. In the Tichborne case, a ludicrous and unrefined Australian butcher claims a fortune by pretending to be a nobleman who allegedly drowned years earlier. Populist sentiments carry many of the butcher's working-class counterparts during the case. They believe his blatantly deceptive alternative facts and support him. The star witness in his case is Andrew Bogle, a distinguished former enslaved individual who tells the story of his life on a plantation in Jamaica in detail to the housekeeper Touchet (and us) when she pretends to be a journalist.
Indeed, “a human is a bottomless thing!" The Fraud does not cosplay a faded era. Short chapters and Smith's language, empathy, satire, sardonically ironic tone and perfectly modulated sentences throw light on Victorian salons, courtrooms, mores and sensibilities. However, identities such as queer and lesbian are not appropriated or pointed out, and practices like polyamory and sadomasochism are not named. The Victorians were still awaiting Freud and his successors, and Smith grants them the freedom to live without labels.
Smith claims the freedoms to inhabit other lives as a writer, change their points of view and be ideologically inconsistent. In “Fascinated to presume: in defence of fiction”, she urges us to watch over terminology in the pursuit of freedom. Would the conversation about whether a writer is allowed to write about characters with whom she does not share markers of identity have gone differently if we had used, instead of “cultural appropriation", terms like “interpersonal voyeurism", “profound-other fascination" or even “cross-epidermal reanimation"? She continued: “The terms we choose — or the terms we are offered — behave as containers for our ideas, necessarily shaping and determining the form of what it is we think or think we think."
Who, what, where and how much?
The Fraud by Zadie Smith was published by Penguin Books and costs R395 at Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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