Charlatan is the first historical novel by Zadie Smith (48), starring Victorian England, a housekeeper and a slave. ‘What someone ‘thinks’ of Charles Dickens doesn’t matter, of course, he’s dead. But I can tell you what I think about him.’
The British-Jamaican Zadie Smith (48) was very young when she broke through with her debut novel around the turn of the century. White teeth, about three families of different origins in contemporary London. This will be ‘one of the most important writers of a new British generation’, it was suspected de Volkskrant − and so it happened. Almost a quarter of a century and many literary successes later (‘About beauty’, ‘I changed my mind’, ‘Swing Time’) Smith was in The Hague last weekend to talk about her new book during the Crossing Border music and literature festival Charlatan to be interviewed. The performance was a short stop on a European tour.
She did not want to give interviews before her arrival, except to de Volkskrant, by email. Smith isn’t exactly fond of the press. The fame that comes with her success has always bothered her, she recently said The Guardian. But yes, she understands that it is part of it. “My job involves writing at home for seven years and then being on the road for six months. As my father would say, “It’s not like being sent into a coal mine, is it Zadie?” And so it is.”
In Charlatan Smith tells the life story of the intelligent Eliza Touchet, who in 19th-century England was sentenced to life as a housekeeper for her cousin William Ainsworth, an almost forgotten novelist of more than thirty mostly mediocre novels. On his literary evenings, with guests such as Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, Eliza can pour the wine.
She soon becomes fascinated by a controversial (true) lawsuit involving a suspected charlatan who lays claim to a large family estate. The key witness in the case is Andrew Bogle, a black man who grew up in slavery on a Jamaican plantation and went to work in England after his release. Smith devotes more than a hundred pages to his history, in the middle of the book, as if to show: this too is the story of Victorian England – only the literati of yesteryear hardly bothered to hear it, let alone describe it.
Charlatan is your first historical novel. This genre seems to be on the rise in recent years. Why do you think that is?
“I can’t speak for others, but I had a pretty clear reason for writing a historical novel. In recent years I’ve noticed that in discussions about important ideas and issues, we often all use the same terms, the same language, the same points of reference – mostly from the Internet – and when you only have one language at your disposal, the parameters of any discussion are already established and the conclusions are inevitable. Language is not neutral: language determines the rules of the game.
“When I write essays, I have to look for ways to break people’s reflexive thinking. In other words: I have to look for other words. When writing fiction, I felt that I had to take people completely out of their familiar environment, to a strange place that is far away from them, in order to get them to think about certain ideas and discussions in a fresh way. And what could be stranger and more remote than the past?”
Your novel is based on true events. How much freedom can you take as a writer of historical fiction? Do you think authors should be transparent about their sources?
“For me it’s all about accuracy. I wouldn’t choose a true story if I didn’t want to tell it. At the same time, imagination always plays a role in writing. When an author works at her desk on a memoir in which she describes how she, as an 8-year-old, talks to her parents in the kitchen, you understand that this is a form of fiction, right? Writing is not photography, and photography does not convey the pure truth either.
“What I find quite strange about a question like this is that we apparently have to distrust an incredibly old mechanism like the novel (‘Account for your sources!’), as if it were a dangerous technology that manipulates the mind, and at the same time we feel hopeless being vulnerable in the face of a much more ingenious device that really manipulates our minds: our smartphone. Writers must be transparent about their sources, while we are influenced day and night by invisible capitalists in Palo Alto, without any transparency – we don’t even know who they are. In any case, a novel will have my name on it and in the book…”
How should we relate to great artists who had ‘wrong’ views, such as Charles Dickens on slavery?
“I can’t tell people what to think. The great thing about being an adult is that you can decide such things for yourself. Of course, what someone ‘thinks’ of Charles Dickens doesn’t matter – he’s dead. But I can tell you what I think about him.
“I see him as someone with almost superhuman strength of mind. I see him as the only writer through whom the laws of a country have ever become a lot more progressive. I see him as a control freak. I see him as someone who was harsh to his wife and children. I see him as someone with a talent that most writers can’t even dream of. I see him as someone whose political beliefs were essentially quite sentimental and always stemmed from the injustices he himself had seen. I think this is obviously a limited form of political thinking.
“I see him as someone who has never seen a Jamaican plantation, could not imagine it and was not interested in it. I think this was a major flaw on his part. But I also know that when he went to America and saw slavery on plantations there, he was deeply affected by it, and from that moment on he no longer wanted to lecture south of the Mason-Dixon Line (in states that wanted to maintain slavery, ed.). I think this is typical of him: he had to see things with his own eyes to understand them.
“I see him as someone who opened a shelter for poor women and prostitutes and someone who financed it from his own pocket. I also see him as someone who tried to control all the women in that house, just like he did with his children and his characters.
“In short, I see him as someone with good and bad sides, like almost every person on earth. I think it is up to each individual reader to judge as he or she sees fit, fully realizing that you too are constantly being judged by others.”
Can literature still bring about change in society in this age of de-reading?
“Literature is a wonderful thing. Literature is a challenge and a puzzle. Literature is something for which we can use our exceptional ability to think and feel, as readers and as writers. Each novel has a different effect, a different purpose, a different intention. Some novels are clearly intended to influence ‘society’, they do not want more than that. This does not apply to others.
“If you ask me personally what I hope to achieve with my novels on a social level – I hope that my novels do much more than just ‘bring about change’, but I will answer the question with the words you provide me – I would say this : every emancipation movement, every movement that strives for justice for people, needs a vision of those people. If that is a uniform vision – where people are tarred with the same brush or put into boxes – then the political thinking that emerges from that language will also be uniform.
“When I think about the heroic young people who are now standing on the barricades, I think I can help them most by providing a picture of the individuals within the collective for which they are fighting – or ‘the people’ – so that they can better understand them. can understand and have a better chance of success in their struggle. That’s all. It could of course be that my and many others’ novels achieve more than that, but this is the least I hope to achieve.”