I think this collection of little pieces by Zadie Smith will endure as a beautiful thing. Although it’s born out of the pandemic and the lockdown, it feels like a doorway into a new space for thought ... Smith is a wonderful essayist; she’s a natural. She writes as she thinks, and she thinks crisply and exactly, not in abstractions, but through the thick specificity of people and places, fragments of story. She doesn’t lay down the law, she argues with herself, so that the movement of her writing feels like the zigzag passage of perception inside a quick mind, not in love with its own opinions, uneasy with certainty ... The book’s leanness feels like part of its aesthetic; its thought-space is uncluttered and unfussy, and everything is lightly, delicately done ... There isn’t all that much explicitly about the pandemic, or the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and yet everything feels conceived under the pressure of those things happening, pushing out new meanings from old subjects ... One of the endearing characteristics of Intimations is how much time Smith spends feeling uncomfortable, or confessing her own timidity or passivity, even treachery ... This is a generously grateful book. And all of her royalties, incidentally, go to charity.
A novelist at heart, Smith writes essays that scarcely abide by the current understanding of the form. She doesn’t buttonhole her reader with fervent arguments and rarely brandishes a suitable object for blame. And while one of the pieces in Intimations concerns suffering, Smith seems allergic to the notion of testifying to her own in any detail. She’s ambivalent, sometimes rueful, often self-deprecating. Her first inclination is to laugh at herself ... That’s the scale of Intimations: the human comedy ... To read Zadie Smith is to recognize how few writers seem to genuinely love human beings the way she does, with such infinite curiosity and attention, even when they are behaving monstrously. Or, for that matter, how few are able to do justice to what, for want of a better term, we’ll call common decency.
... ultra-timely essays (several written in the past few momentous months), showcases her trademark levelheadedness ... This cast of mind doesn’t mean that Smith avoids moral stances. In Intimations, she speaks clearly and forcefully about the murder of George Floyd and the legacy of slavery and the systemic sins revealed by Covid-19 ... most withering, on the subject of race ... But despite these jabs, Smith remains unmistakably noncombative. This spirit appears born not of a fear of confrontation but a genuine perplexity (of a searching, brilliant kind) at the nature of experience and people, including herself ... Smith’s gifts as a novelist animate her essays ... In Zadie Smith’s universe—meaning, for my money, the one we’re all living in—complexity is king.
Smith’s slim volume is a balm during an anxious year. We have learned the meaning of essential, and Smith’s prose is correspondingly stripped down. Clear. Precise. Orderly. Though her accomplishment is making her point plain without being obvious, the literary equivalent of the Norman Rockwell painting The Problem We All Live With, which depicts 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by federal marshals. You miss the racist graffiti scrawled on the wall behind her on first glance, but once you see it, you can’t unsee it. No, I won’t spoil Smith’s brilliance for you, but it’s right there in the first piece, Peonies ... an indispensable snapshot of a time when we were all scrambling to put our thoughts in order. I for one, am thankful to Smith for offering us hers.
Smith...is a spectacular essayist—even better, I’d say, than as a novelist ... Smith...get[s] at something universal, the suspicion that has infiltrated our interactions even with those we want to think we know. This is the essential job of the essayist: to explore not our innocence but our complicity. I want to say this works because Smith doesn’t take herself too seriously, but that’s not accurate. More to the point, she is willing to expose the tangle of feelings the pandemic has provoked. And this may seem a small thing, but it’s essential: I never doubt her voice on the page ... Her offhandedness, at first, feels out of step with a moment in which we are desperate to feel that whatever something we are trying to do matters. But it also describes that moment perfectly ... Here we see the kind of devastating self-exposure that the essay, as a form, requires—the realization of how limited we are even in the best of times, and how bereft in the worst.
Zadie Smith is bringing the anxiety of quarantine firmly into the literary fold ... Smith’s struggle—and the struggles of parents across the world attempting to balance work, distance learning, and what might once have been called a personal life—is deeply real, and she neither downplays nor aggrandizes it, acknowledging her own newly acquired class privilege ... Smith’s essay skillfully and effectively relates the virus currently plaguing America to the one that has killed and brutalized scores of Black people since the country’s founding: structural racism ... Ultimately, Intimations feels less like a precise attempt to document the COVID-19 era than a more abstract meditation on time: who is given it, who has it taken from them, and what its sudden presence or absence can lead to ... Intimations functions impressively as a document of the mixed blessing of time as well as a searing excoriation of a society that has always apportioned it unevenly.
Fortunately Smith is as deft an essayist as she is a novelist. Her new collection of meditations on this peculiar time of liberty and captivity beguiles with its meticulous thought patterns, alluring felicities and rhapsodic turns of phrase ... as personal as it is political ... The essays are also nimble ruminations on vignettes from her daily life ... Regarding style, there can be no quibbling with this writer's contemplative and circumspect cadences; this is gleaming, wry, and crisp prose, which wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both every day and lofty matters. Her musings on the plague of racism in the States and the police killing of George Floyd exhibit an actively curious, ferocious mind working at full pelt ... Smith has never been one for brow-beating or knee-jerk disembowelling. She eschews fervent and splenetic argument, the default online chatter mode. She writes as if she's probing her internal monologue responses and flexing her muscles before setting out on her modest epiphanies. Smith revels in the beckoning of uncertainty and the weighing up of possibilities before banishing unbidden intrusions of baggy conjecture to the back door ... Outward-facing, open-hearted and always attentive, her descriptions of people she knows from her neighbourhood strike an even-tempered tone between plaintive and droll. When she's incensed, she can really shift the gears ... For those of us who've spent our quarantine time gobbling up Netflix rather than scratching an itch to pen the great novel we've been putting off for years, we ought to be shamed by the fleet-footed vigour of these missives, yet Smith's lack of romanticism about the writing life is endearing ... reads less like an audit of Lock Down living than a dissection of absence and uncertainty. Her supple, gallant, and pensive writing explores the attachments that enrich and define us and suggests that these are the things that can sustain us as human beings, beyond our present predicament. An act of empathy and civility nudges the reader toward the light, to consider the case for optimism and grace amidst webs of dislocation and darkness.
Smith’s sensitivity to the difficulties raised by her project are articulated with thoughtfulness and a concerted absence of grandiosity ... a slender and moving compendium of reflections ... Smith writes with insight about what motivates our acts of creation, and about what it means to create under conditions in which death is rampant and time is 'out of joint' ... Yet what unites these quietly cerebral vignettes is a pervasive interest in and empathy for the lives of others (Smith writes lightly and with appealing self-deprecation about her own feelings of distress). Her curiosity and attentiveness are inexhaustible, and her book is richly populated by concern for friends, fellow-feeling for acquaintances and a resistance to delivering emphatic condemnations of the lives of people whose silent anxieties and private wounds we are unable to comprehend.
... slim and polished ... as I read it, I couldn’t help but wish she’d waited five years to do so ... [Smith's] characteristic lucidity and novelistic sense of character. And when the subject is her own interiority, the essays fairly gleam with precision ... These essays have an attractive shine of relatability to them...But the enormous insight Smith is capable of marshaling toward her own thought process is not quite there on the page yet. There is something of the journal entry to these essays, a sense of taking notes and observing for a bigger project that has not yet arrived. Of putting down details from a close view to use when enough time has passed for perspective ... And when Smith turns her gaze to current events, to the politics of the pandemic, the results can feel downright facile. In 'The American Exception,' she attempts to reckon with why America’s response to the pandemic has been so lacking on every level. Smith’s sentences in this essay can sometimes sing, but this question has been turned over and over and over so often by so many different thinkers over the past few months that by the time Smith takes her turn, the result feels almost empty. I know by now that my country’s elected officials have failed the country. I know that they are using the rhetoric of American exceptionalism to justify their failure. I know that people are dying as a result. What else you got? ... what Zadie Smith knows best is the form of the novel itself, and Intimations is at its liveliest and most provocative when she turns her attention to the question of what it means during this moment in time to write ... that gentle shrug is, more or less, the animating ethos of Intimations. Well, we have to have something to do, don’t we? It might as well be this book as anything else.
... a brief but scenic route through the author’s brain ... Some of the six pieces collected here are less essay than episode. Smith will pick up an idea, check it out, put it down, pick up another ... Smith writes both like Zadie Smith and an extraterrestrial imitating Zadie Smith. She’s an omniscient narrator of her own experiences, most of which are intensely outward-facing; she’s an inveterate people-watcher ... in every piece—a moment when Smith revises herself or catches herself in a mistake; when the pinball of her thinking hits a bumper and rockets off in a new direction ... consistency is for machines, and this collection—cooked up quickly, with a few lumps left in the batter—makes a joyful case for its opposite.
There’s nothing here to quibble with. I understand why editors at our leading magazines would turn to our most gifted artists to weigh in on everything that’s happening. But clarity or fresh insight on a still-unfolding catastrophe is a tall order. It’s a relief that punchy turns of phrase and scathing oversimplification—the dominant modes of most contemporary chatter—are not of interest to Smith. But Intimations doesn’t argue much. It’s an echo of the reader’s internal monologue, the stuff you probably already think bouncing back at you, improved by Smith’s prose. Smith is a good student of people ... mith is a writer with style: staccato sentences and occasional outbursts, with wry exclamation marks. There’s passion in the lines, but she’s a circumspect thinker. This is a good combination, something all writers should aim for, but I wanted more: a surprise, a revelation, a gasp ... we’re all so lonely and could do worse for company than Zadie Smith.
... six short, beautifully structured essays written largely in her characteristically gleaming prose ... instead of social insight, which Smith admits is not yet available, she chooses self-organization. The turn inward is entirely logical, but the structuring impulse does not bode well ... Its essays are short, tight, and glossy: pleasurable to read, but coy and cagey with their fundamental subject, which is death ... structure helps Smith turn from death ... her consideration of racism as deadly contempt is the only idea that Intimations sees through from beginning to end.
Intimations is the third and slimmest of her essay collections, at 100 pages, but its psychic heft is substantial ... In six essays that feel as intimate as a long walk with an old friend, Smith takes on some of the most pressing issues of our time, including police brutality and economic injustice. The book is grounded in inquiry far more often than in certainty ... If Intimations opens with an inquiry into the nature of the new plague upon us, it ends with a searing indictment of the plague that has haunted this land since colonization ... Smith has taken a mirror and reflected us back to ourselves during the earliest moments of this crisis. It is up to us to change if we don't like what we see.
There’s something endearingly old-fashioned about her resolve not to be rushed. These are not flashy hot takes for social media, but slow, thoughtful reflections ... Smith lucidly captures the see-saw of hysteria and banality that has marked our days, freed from their ordinary scaffolding ... the highlight essay is 'Screengrabs,' a series of vignettes about people Smith knows in New York. Her skill as a novelist comes to the fore ... Smith provides a reminder that we can use this crisis to imagine a better one, and that might inspire future conversations with our grandchildren.
The pieces vary in tone ... Smith’s loftier mode...tends to feel less convincing ... She’s more engaging in the glimpses of day-to-day life under the new normal ... If Smith takes pains to show how lucky she has it, there’s a productive shift of mood in 'Suffering Like Mel Gibson,' which voices caveats about the discourse of privilege ... the essay ends with one of the more provocative insights of this thoughtful book: that to admit the reality of one’s own troubles, in whatever form they take, might actually make it easier, not harder, to address those of others.
... another example of the high-quality work a talented artist is capable of producing during this difficult time ... In this collection of wise, often biting, snapshots of life in the time of COVID-19, we can be grateful that Smith has allowed us to eavesdrop on her reflections ... For an author like Smith, allusions to writers that include Nabokov, Kierkegaard and Sontag flow easily. Yet there are occasional lighter moments ... There’s a sense in the pages of Intimations that these brief 'hints' --- as the volume’s title implies --- represent only an initial attempt to grapple with some of the most profoundly troubling issues the United States has faced in decades. If that’s so, then we eagerly can look forward to the time she revisits them.
... compelling ... A major voice of contemporary literature, Smith gently and thoughtfully takes on a broad range of issues that are personal to her but speak universally to many of us ... The most compelling observations in Postscript: Contempt As a Virus bring us back to the acute uneasiness of the present moment as reflected in behaviors by British prime minister Boris Johnson’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, who violated shelter-in-place orders in Great Britain, and also the brutality of Floyd’s murder ... Smith demonstrates once again that she is a powerful albeit quiet voice for our challenging times. Highly Recommended.
Rueful, angry, deftly-crafted and potent responses to ominous times ... an incisive collection ... Smith intimately captures the profundity of our current historical moment. Quietly powerful, deftly crafted essays bear witness to the contagion of suffering.