Conflicts that were once safely contained in the common room have spilled over into the real world. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

January 1, 2021   6 mins

How can you resist a novel whose entire premise is a smutty pun? Zadie Smith’s On Beauty — published in 2005 — pokes fun at E. M. Forster’s Howards End, while mirroring it in structure, plot and theme. Its main character is an academic called Howard; and the main driver of the plot is his hapless compulsion to get his end away, with resultant ructions in his marriage, family and career. But dirty jokes are eternal, and so are adulterous academics. They’re not the reason — not by themselves — that On Beauty is one of the books that helps make sense of 2020.

On Beauty is a campus novel, and it’s a book about identity. Howard Belsey is white and English, teaching at the fictional (but very Harvard-ish) Wellington College; his wife Kiki is American and black, and so are his three children. His great rival in his field — which is Rembrandt studies — is Monty Kipps, who is black and Trinidanian-British and (this is perhaps the most important part) a conservative Christian, while Howard is an atheist and a liberal. “Howard,” we learn, “had always disliked Monty, as any sensible man would dislike a man who had dedicated his life to the perverse politics of right-wing iconoclasm”. It is not exactly irrelevant that Monty has published his Rembrandt book while Howard’s is a perpetual work-in-progress.

Their animosity is played out on the field of aesthetics (Howard teaches his students that “prettiness is the mask that power wears”, while Monty says things like “poetry is the first mark of the truly civilized”); it is driven by their ideological differences; and, when Monty joins Howard’s department, it is all forced through the meatgrinder of office politics. By the end of the novel, Howard isn’t holding onto his anti-Monty beliefs from principle—if principle was ever the whole story behind them—but because his career depends on them prevailing. (The same is true for Monty.)

This is, of course, as things have always been on campus, and it has never mattered very much. Part of the joy of the campus novel, historically, is that the closed world of the university provides a small canvas for the satirical humiliation of small men with petty ambitions living lives of minor hypocrisy — think of Lucky Jim or The History Man. But over the twenty-first century, beefs that were once safely contained in the common room have spilled over into the real world.

Partly that’s down to technology: Howard is a technophobe who won’t use a mobile phone, but his 2020 equivalent is on Twitter all day firing off 37-part BUCKLE UP threads with the intention of destabilising his enemies. The recent scuffle at Cambridge over free speech, which came down to whether opposing viewpoints needed to be “respected” or merely “tolerated”, played out across social media and in the press. The ability to follow — and participate in — academic drama in real time makes all of us bit-players in a campus novel, all the time.

But it’s also because the seemingly arcane business of theoretical analysis turns out to matter very much to how we think about ourselves. Howard’s Marxist analysis of art as power, while not exactly false, asserts a deterministic relationship between who we are and what we feel. At the same time, his children are all living experiments in identity. 15-year-old Levi adopts a kind of universalised political blackness that would deny his middle-class advantages, with an ersatz Brooklyn twang: his gently satirised adventures in identity make him a forerunner of British adherents to the US Black Lives Matter movement, who talk as though Birmingham, Alabama and Birmingham, UK were politically interchangeable. (The people he attempts to make common cause with see through him, of course.)

Howard’s daughter Zora follows her father through the university system with uncomfortable closeness. And most shockingly to Howard Jerome, his eldest, rebels by converting to Christianity and falling in with the Kipps family. Smith describes gorgeously the pleasure that can come from giving up one’s habitual beliefs: “When Monty suggested that minority groups too often demanded equal rights they haven’t earned, Jerome had allowed this strange new idea to penetrate him without complaint and sunk back further into the receiving sofa.” There’s an almost erotic deliciousness sometimes in submitting to the views of the other, and for Jerome, Monty’s refusal to speak according to the script is thrilling.

The battle for Jerome’s soul only heightens the professional rivalry between Howard and Monty, which reaches a climax over (of course) a question of free speech. Monty has proposed to deliver a lecture series called “Taking the Liberal Out of the Liberal Arts”. Howard — accusing Monty of homophobia, sexism and racism — demands that Monty should give the department a preview of the lectures’ text so they can excise any material deemed counter to the institution’s internal “hate laws”.

Monty rebuffs him, on the obvious First Amendment grounds: “If it will make him feel better — I know how much the liberal mind likes to feel better — I hold myself completely responsible for the contents of the lectures I give.” But there’s another, perhaps even more compelling, argument he doesn’t even need to make, because his skin can say it for him: if Howard’s analysis of power is correct, why should a white man be able to dictate how a black man talks about race?

You can tell that Howard is going to lose the departmental vote on this when a colleague asks: “Is the liberal consciousness […] really so slight that it cannot survive a series of six lectures that come from a perspective other than its own?” The scene feels like the forerunner to every conversation that’s been had over the last 12 months about no-platforming, hate speech and intellectual freedom — not, obviously, because Smith is a soothsayer, but because she delineates a tendency that has since grown to monstrous proportions.

The question of who gets to speak, and for whom, is a pointed one for the novelist. In late 2019, Smith published the essay “Fascinated to Presume”, which was either a defence of fiction or a farewell to it: “what insults my soul is the idea—popular in the culture just now, and presented in widely variant degrees of complexity—that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally,” she wrote. 2020 responded by beginning with a concerted campaign to destroy an author for having the temerity to write Latino characters while being white.

The novel at the centre of that furore (American Dirt) is no On Beauty. Still, the bitter reaction to its very existence — led, depressingly, by other novelists, who seemed like Howard determined to judge the book only as the bearer of a system of power — felt like a rebuke to the entire concept of fiction. As Smith had said in her essay: “The old — and never especially helpful — adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane.”

But to write fiction is necessarily to invent your way into the other, to think what might be thought by such-and-such a person in such-and-such a situation, no matter how remote from you. Smith is cagy about moral arguments for the novel — art should be pleasurable, not medicinal. Nevertheless, “Fascinated to Presume” points out that to forbid imagining beyond your immediate identity it to forbid the possibility of community: “without an ability to at least guess at what the other might be thinking, we could have no social lives at all.”

The first section of On Beauty is called “Kipps and Belsey”, and its epigraph sums up the dysfunction between Howard and Monty: “We refuse to be each other.” By rejecting the possibility of sympathy, they seal themselves into a relationship of mutual destruction. On Beauty, though, asks that we find some compassion for both. This is not necessarily easy: Howard is priggish; Monty is domineering; both would be for it if this novel were set in the #MeToo era. Both of them are wrong. Both deserve at least the justice of being understood.

Of course, On Beauty is a novel of its time, and one detail that feels very 2005 rather than 2020 is that Monty was able to rely on his academic colleagues’ underlying commitment to free speech. The “liberal consciousness” no longer seems to have the same confidence in its own resilience, as evidenced by the backlash to the Harpers open letter on free speech or the hounding of columnist Suzanne Moore at the Guardian for her dissent from the orthodoxy on gender identity. Individuals who find themselves holding unpopular opinions in liberal institutions today are at least as likely to encounter shunning, denunciation and career death as they are principled support.

The room to be wrong — whether that’s allowing someone else to be wrong by your lights, or allowing that you yourself could possibly be wrong — is vanishingly small. Smith’s novel is a window into another way of thinking, where difference can be a pleasure rather than pure threat. It’s also a declaration that pleasure matters. Calls to “decolonise the canon” have a certain justice, but they fall back too hard on the knee-jerk denigration of the “dead white male”. Sure, some are overrated; but what good is a politics that forces you to chuck E. M. Forster in the bin? In On Beauty’s revision of Howards End, Smith meets the other as an equal — irreverently, affectionately — and makes something new.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.