Last week, we used the first half of the novel to explore the ways in which Smith constructs London as a matter-of-fact multicultural city. Deep in the fabric of the place – and of the novel – is difference, constantly shifting and reorganising, but never monadic or monolithic. This week we focused on the ways in which class is just as deeply embedded.
The first part of the novel is told in third-person from the viewpoint of second-generation Irish immigrant, Leah. The opening scene of the novel establishes that, living in a basement flat four doors down from the council estate where she was raised, she has not quite escaped her working class roots, despite the middle class accoutrements of her daily life. She was the first of her family to go to university – and she chose to study philosophy among the privileged children of the wealthy bourgeoisie at Edinburgh University. She recalls the mortification of being a working class autodidact who spoke in class about ‘a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone’ (33); later, her friend Keisha (who will change her name to Natalie), recalls she and her boyfriend similarly ‘sound[ing] the T and the S’ in Albert Camus (193). I suspect if you’ve not gone through this you don’t get how agonising and confidence-destroying it can be – as a working class kid you often feel you do not really belong at university, and moments like this reinforce that anxiety. It is a measure of how material wealth is connected to cultural capital, and of what it is like to grow up in a culturally impoverished environment (and it is why the current government’s war on libraries and on state education is so iniquitous – and with so many politicians coming from money, they just fundamentally do not get it).
The different treatment different classes receive is also flagged up when, in part two (which is told from the viewpoint of Felix, who will become the victim of knife crime), when Felix’s dad’s neighbour Phil notes:
‘They always say “youth” don’t they? …Never the boys from the posh bit up by the park, they’re just boys, but our lot are “youths”, our working class lads are youths, bloody terrible isn’t it?’ (112).
This is reiterated in the first chapter of the novel’s third part, told from the viewpoint of Natalie (formerly known as Keisha). Remembering how she and Leah met thanks to a near-drowning in the outdoor pool in the park:
‘They had a guard up on the hill, in Hampstead, for them. Nothing for us.’ (173)
And again, when Nat reflects on the different educational experience of wealthy fellow student and later husband Francesco De Angelis, who looks ‘like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren’ (204):
Some schools you ‘attended’. Brayton [Leah and Nat’s school] you ‘went’ to. (206)
When Leah and Nat were growing up, neither of their mothers (Pauline and Marcia, respectively)
was in any sense a member of the bourgeoise but neither did they consider themselves solidly of the working class either. (177)
This sense of not quite belonging, of being trapped between identities, marks the lives of both women and their daughters in multiple ways (Smith explores this in terms of being between classes rather than between races/ethnicities/cultures – which is is common in British Asian cinema). While Leah and Michel do reach the middle class, there is an element of precarity to their lives; in contrast, Nat and Frank are comfortably well off, thanks to his family’s wealth and her career as a barrister, even more so after she moves from legal aid work defending working class people to practicing corporate law. Leah is acutely aware of the growing class gulf between them, which is highlighted every time she and Michel are invited to a dinner party, ‘where she and Michel … provide something like local colour’ (85). And Natalie and Frank often take over telling Leah and Michel’s stories:
Natalie’s version of Leah and Michel’s anecdote is over. The conversational baton passes to others, who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of wider culture, debates in the newspapers. (86)
At one point, Frank jokingly asks Leah, ‘Why is it that everyone from your school is a criminal crackhead?’, to which she replies, ‘Why’s everyone from yours a Tory minister?’ (61).
Leah passes the old estate every day on the walk to the corner shop. She can see it from her backyard. Nat lives just far enough away to avoid it. (63)
Or take this scene, which captures so many of the insecurities and anxieties of not having come from money and now having a little:
On the way back from the chain supermarket where they shop, though it closed down the local grocer and pays slave wages, with new bags though they should take old bags, leaving with broccoli from Kenya and tomatoes from Chile and unfair coffee and sugary crap and the wrong newspaper.
They are not good people. They do not even have the integrity to be the sort of people who don’t worry about being good people. They worry all the time. They are stuck in the middle again. They buy always Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay because these are the only words they know that relate to wine. They are attending a dinner party and for this you need to bring a bottle of wine. This much they have learnt. They do not purchase ethical things because they can’t afford them, Michel claims, and Leah says, no, it’s because you can’t be bothered. Privately she thinks: you want to be rich like them but you can’t be bother with their morals, whereas I am more interested in their morals than their money, and this thought, this opposition, makes her feel good. Marriage as the art of invidious comparison. (80)
Here, as elsewhere in the novel, an extra layer is added by the narrator’s voice (which is of course not to be confused with Smith herself), which implies an omniscient perspective but which also sounds like someone from a different class background – the final sentence does not sound a lot like Leah. The narrative voice, sometimes right up close to the character, sometimes quite distant, here is rather slippery: is Leah ironically observing her own foibles, or is the narrator passing judgment on her?
Michel starts trading penny shares online,
dreaming of a windfall that will transport them to another urban suburb more to his taste, which means no more African, less Caribbean. (90)
This is part of the much larger logic of class mobility and of house prices in the city. When Nat and Rodney, her boyfriend from church whose mum was a dinner lady and dad a bus driver, are studying for their A-levels, the narrator tells us of their ambitions:
They were going to be lawyers, the first people in either of their families to become professionals. They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization. (202)
Around about that time, Nat recalls Leah’s mum’s enthusiasm about moving house:
‘It’s practically Maida Vale’ (197).
And when it comes to house prices:
The mistake was to think that the money precisely signified – or was equivalent to – a particular arrangement of bricks and mortar. The money was not for those pokey terraced houses with their short back gardens. The money was for the distance the house put between you and Caldwell [the estate they came from]. (252)
Leah’s moment of crisis is finally brought about after she and Michel allow Nat and Frank to persuade them not to attend the Notting Hill carnival, but to instead go to a party in a flat overlooking the carnival. They watch rather than participate; the mass of people to which they used to belong are reduced to a spectacle for the wealthy, to their entertainment value, and are kept as far away as possible.
In a similar vein, Nat is agonisingly aware of how she is changing into someone else. When Frank blames Nat’s mum, brother and sister for their own poverty – Jayden could get a job, Cheryl could stop having children by various fathers – she stands up for them:
‘They don’t refuse to help me, Frank – they can’t!’ cried Natalie Blake, and launched into a passionate defence of her family, despite the fact she was not speaking to any of them. (228)
She realises, too, that she has turned Rodney, ‘in many ways himself a miracle of self-invention’ like her, ‘into a comic anecdote to be told at dinner parties’ (194).
Later, in a supermarket queue behind a working class mother trying desperately to find the money she needs to pay for her groceries, and having to ask the cashier to take back this and that item, Nat realises that she
had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand. (276)
To wrap up our discussion of class in the novel we took a look at a passage from part two of the novel, chapters 125–8 (pp.242–5), in which Nat joins her first law firm and runs into her cousin Tonya, to think about class signification, difference and experience.
A key part of the novel’s consideration of multiculturalism and of class is its emphasis on the flux and constant becoming of urban identity – that it is not monolithic and fixed, but like the city itself fluid and always in transformation, constantly emerging as something new. Keisha – who in her teens has not yet changed her name to Natalie – first realises how unfixed identity is, how prone to change, when Leah starts hanging out in Camden and developing a taste for
Baudelaire or Bukowksi or Nick Drake or Sonic Youth or Joy Division or boys who looked like girls or vice versa or Anne Rice or William Burroughs or Kafka’s Metamorphosis or CND or Glastonbury or the Situationists or Breathless or Samuel Beckett or Andy Warhol or a million other Camden things, and when Keisha brought a wondrous Monie Love 7-inch to play on Leah’s hi-fi there was something awful in the way Leah blushed and conceded it was probably OK to dance to. They had only Prince left, and he was wearing thin. (185)
This sudden change, and the accompanying dislocation of their friendship, leaves Keisha
wondering whether she herself had any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television. (185)
Similarly, while transcribing a song she and her friend Layla are writing for their church group, Keisha looks in the mirror across the room:
Two admirable young sisters, their hair still plaited by their mothers, sat on the edge of a makeshift stage, one singing and the other transforming music into its shadow, musical notation. That’s you. That’s her. She is real. You are a forgery. Look closer. Look away. She is consistent. You are making it up as you go along. She must never know. (188–9)
As she and Leah drift further apart – as she loses the condition at school of ‘being Leah Hanwell’s friend’ and is ‘now relegated to the conceptual realm of “those church kids”’ (191) – Keisha plumbs the depths of adolescent angst:
She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world. (192)
At the end of a trip down from Edinburgh to visit Keisha – now called Nat – at Bristol university, Leah tells Nat ‘You’re the only person I can be all of myself with’, which makes her cry:
not really at the sentiment but rather out of a fearful knowledge that if reversed the statement would be rendered practically meaningless, Ms Blake having no self to be, not with Leah, or anyone. (208)
Soon, Nat breaks up with Rodney and becomes ‘crazy busy with self-invention’ (209). By the time she graduates and begins training to become a barrister, she has chased after experience, fashioned a self. But she never seems to realise that Leah – and everyone else – is caught up in self-creation, bound in various ways to their roots but also always headed into becoming. This is suggested when Frank, with whom Nat did not become involved at university, suddenly turns up, also training to be a barrister:
And there was indeed something intimate about the way they spoke to each other, heads close, looking out across the room. Natalie fell so easily into the role, she had to remind herself that this intimacy had not existed before tonight. It was being manufactured at this present moment, along with its history. (216)
Some years later, Nat is still not sure she is, and in rapid succession completely fails to recognise herself in three descriptions of her given by her brother Jayden (264), Leah (268) and Layla (277–8). This leads her to muse, in the single paragraph chapter 170 called In drag:
Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic. (278)
Identity, it seems, is a collection of roles she plays, all partly pre-scripted by the expectations of others (or her anticipation of others’ expectations) and the signifiers of costume, demeanour, language and so on deemed appropriate. Perhaps she has being reading Judith Butler. She certainly has a well-developed sense of the quotidian performativity required by the complex urban environments she inhabits and through which she moves. Maybe that early intuition about being an accumulation and reflection of the socio-cultural realm is not so far wrong; maybe all subjectivity is is the chaotic non-linear determinism of constant becoming.
In the closing pages of the novel, as Nat roams north-west London in the company of Nathan Bogle – he was at school with her and Leah, he had an actual try-out for professional football team, but has long since drifted into a life of petty crime – it eventually dawns on her that he was involved in the fatal stabbing of Felix (with which the first and second sections of the novel ended). Twice Nathan comments on some of the bad things he does to get by, adding ‘you know that ain’t the real me. You know me from back in the day’ (305) and ‘You remember me. You know who I am’ (316). He clings to the image of a whole self, a true self, that once existed and somewhere beneath the mess of his life still exists. He is stuck in that combination of false memory and denial.
Frustratingly, this encounter leads her to tell the depressed Leah, who is wondering why she has the life she has, why she was one of the ones who succeeded in getting away from her working class roots, that
we worked harder. … We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out. People like Bogle – they didn’t want it enough. I’m sorry if you find that answer ugly, Lee, but it’s the truth. This is one of the things that you learn in the courtroom: people generally get what they deserve. (332)
It is a horrible, arrogant and self-deceiving speech, and it is hard to tell how much Nat believes it. It is certainly a change of tune. And by the novel’s own logic, this hardening of attitude (which echoes the opinions of some of the more privileged characters, with whom she has hitherto disagreed) is a deadly mistake. Just as Nathan was stuck in the past, so this speech’s performance of certainty seeks to draw a line under her past, to deny it, and thus to fix a monolithic identity in place.
Moments later Nat phones the police to inform on Nathan.
The final sentence of the novel – which might be addressed to the police, or to Leah about something else entirely – fortunately returns some uncertainty and ambiguity to her:
‘I got something to tell you,’ said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice. (333)
This was the final week of the module in terms of teaching – week 24, which I will not blog about, is devoted to final assignment preparation. All being well, I will next year blog about my new second-year module, Genre and the Fantastic, which I am starting to plan in the gaps between wrapping up this year’s teaching and marking.
Recommended critical reading
Banting, Keith, Will Kymlicka, Richard Johnston and Stuart Soroka ‘Do Multiculturalism Policies Erode the Welfare State: An Empirical Analysis’. Multiculturalism and the Welfare State. Ed. Banting and Kymlicka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 49–91.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: 2014. 87-122.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 191–251.
James, David. “Wounded Realism.” Contemporary Literature 54.1 (2013): 204–14.
Knepper, Wendy. “Revisionary Modernism and Postmillenial Experimentation in Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 111–126.
Malik, Sarita. “The Dark Side of Hybridity: Contemporary Black and Asian British Cinema.” in Daniela Berghahn and Claudia Sternberg, eds, European Cinema in Motion: Migrant Diasporic Film in Contemporaary Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010. 132–151.
Pope, Ged. Reading London’s Suburbs: From Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Especially 161–202.
Tew, Philip. The Contemporary British Novel. 2nd ed. London: Continuum, 2007.
–. Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Wells, Lynn. “The Right to a Secret: Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 97–110.
For other contemporary British Afrodiasporic fiction, try Two Fingers and James T. Kirk’s Junglist (1995), Andrea Levy’s Never Far from Nowhere (1996), Courttia Newland’s The Scholar: A West-Side Story (1997), Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock (1999), Courttia Newland and Kedija Sesay’s IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret (2005), Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2010) or Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, The Magistrate and the Mathematician (2014).
Afrodiasporic British cinema includes Pressure (Ové 1976), Black Joy (Simmons 1977), Dread Beat an’ Blood (Rosso 1979), Babylon (Rosso 1981), Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995), Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shame (McQueen 2011) and My Brother the Devil (El Hosaini 2012).