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"On Beauty" by Zadie Smith, Penguin ($25.95)
Before reading Zadie Smith's new novel, "On Beauty," it's a good idea to read E.M. Forster's "Howards End."
It's a better idea not to.
Smith is forthright about the fact that Forster's delicate masterpiece inspired this, her third novel - her first being the heavily praised and hot-selling "White Teeth," her second "The Autograph Man." And it's inordinately tempting, when cracking open the pages of "On Beauty," to tease out the playful analogues and clever echoes between it and "Howards End" (1910): Forster uses letters to move the plot along, while Smith employs e-mail; the Smith-created character Jerome Belsey is obviously modeled on the Forster-forged Helen Schlegel; etc., etc.
Yet "On Beauty" is so much more than a simple update of the Forster story - the Forster story being, among many other things, a melodrama about the clash of classes and cultures in London at the threshold of the 20th century, a radiant gloss on the complications of being a thinking person in the modern world. Forster's book is famous for one sentence - "Only connect!" - while it ought to be famous for several: "People have their own deaths as well as their own lives," a character muses, "and even if there is nothing beyond death we shall differ in our nothingness." The novel features a torrent of such lines, lines so memorable that your handy yellow highlighter may well dry up from exhaustion. Best to purchase the multipack.
"On Beauty" tips its cap to "Howards End" but then goes very much its own way, because Smith has a different culture to explicate. In place of Forster's world of upper-middle-class angst and the appalling obtuseness of your typical British businessman, Smith spotlights academia, that arcane realm of sedentary pedants and self-important frauds, that hothouse of fragile egos quivering behind robust reputations.
If you read or reread "Howards End" before reading "On Beauty," you're apt to catch your coat sleeve on the prickly thickets of Smith's homage: Hmm, which of her characters is supposed to be Margaret Schlegel? And which is Leonard Bast? And which is . . .
If, however, you read "On Beauty" first, you can enjoy Smith's narrative finesse and her cool wit and then, after you've turned the last delicious page, you can dig up that withered old paperback of "Howards End" (alas, sophomore English class was such a long time ago) and revel not in what Smith learned from Forster, but in how much she already knew.
"On Beauty" is a hoot. It's comic and caustic, but never mean-spirited. Smith has a lot of affection for the very landscape she gently shreds with her sarcasm and close observation. How close? This close: Smith describes professor Howard Belsey's unfinished manuscript as something "strewn across the floor before his printer on pages that seemed to him sometimes to have been spewed from the machine in disgust." Every writer will wince with recognition at that one.
Or this one, in which Smith describes the atmosphere in a contentious faculty meeting after a pompous professor cracks a tiny joke: "A sprinkle of mirthless intellectual laughter, of the kind one hears at bookshop readings." Smith's specialty is her ability to render the new world - so various, so new, in its vibrant multiculturalism - with a kind of dancing, daring joy. She eats up the new world as if it were a bowl of ice cream draped with velvety-looking ropes of hot fudge, glorying in its mixtures and contradictions and paradoxes and half-baked charlatans and fully engaged dreamers. Smith is nobody's fool, but she gives everybody the benefit of the doubt. Her plots and her people sing with life.
"On Beauty" is about two academic families in New England, the Belsey and the Kipps clans. Howard Belsey, who is white, is married to Kiki, a black woman. She doesn't work at her husband's university but knows all about its shortcomings through his misadventures. Monty Kipps is a celebrated conservative scholar whose wife begins an unlikely but mutually satisfactory acquaintance with Kiki.
By the time you toss in the assorted children, friends and co-workers of the Belsey and Kipps families, you have a big, noisy, vigorous novel about ambition and infidelity and death and ideas. "On Beauty" moves to a hip-hop beat, which is to say its enthusiasm and novelty never seem to flag.
The only serious flaw in the novel is a failing that Smith, oddly, shares with Forster: She can't get female friendships quite right. The long initial scene between Kiki and Mrs. Kipps is off-key, just as is the scene between Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox in "Howards End." Both authors do much better with female-male and male-male relationships; the rhythms and nuances of women's friendships seem beyond their narrative reach.
But both novels delight in the essential goofiness of human life, in the slapdash quality of our strivings and our relentless (and usually doomed) couplings. Yes, tragic events occur in "On Beauty," just as they do in "Howards End," but even the grimmest moments unfold against a backdrop of barely suppressed hilarity. We've all had the impulse to snicker during funerals; Forster and Smith take that behind-the-hand chortle and turn it into a deft comment on the human condition.
The golden moment in "On Beauty" comes about halfway through the novel, when Smith does what a lot of good teachers do: She explains the true meaning of the Forster line "Only connect!" without having to say, "The true meaning of `Only connect!' is . . . "
Smith does this by describing a day in late November when the Belsey children accidentally end up on the same street corner. "It was freezing; the wind was enough to upend a small child," Smith writes. "They should all have gone inside somewhere and had coffee, but to leave the spot would have been somehow to abandon the miracle of it, and they weren't quite ready to do that yet. They each felt a powerful need to stop people on the street and explain what had happened." Smith concludes the scene with a lovely epiphany she attributes to Jerome as he contemplates his siblings: "He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away."
They were just love: And "On Beauty" is just a novel. But it's one of the best of the year, a splendid treat, and Forster, were the somewhat dour scribe alive today and inclined to read it, surely would give Smith a long, slow, deeply knowing and most un-Forsterian wink.
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.