There is much to love about On Beauty, the latest novel by Zadie Smith. The elegantly insightful descriptions of Rembrandt’s portraits, the remarkable cast of characters, and the admirable ability to weave in and out of the practical and the ideal render the novel more a work of art than a work of literature. While reading On Beauty, you feel both the aesthetic pleasure of going to a museum and the presence of someone you especially like deconstructing that very pleasure. It is therefore difficult to grasp why On Beauty remains unfinished. Perhaps Smith’s deluge of plot and characters would have worked well on a canvas, but the novel fails to make a lasting impression.
For anyone who knows E. M. Forster, On Beauty is Zadie Smith’s take on Howard’s End. Howard’s End transforms into an expensive Haitian painting. The Schlegels become the Belseys, focused more on stripping away the pretenses and false ideologies of Art and Literature than on preserving the forms themselves. The Wilcoxes (now Kipps’s) are still practical and traditional, now fighting against affirmative action and attempting to take the “liberal” out of liberal education.
Those who have not read Howard’s End need not worry; the wonderful interaction that occurs between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes is missing. The novel is about two families clashing over different ideologies and a painting that a member of one family leaves a member of the other. Yet the families only come together briefly, in unsatisfying spurts that are few and far between. Perhaps this is why the novel ultimately feels so unfinished – each family and
even each character within it remains bottled up in his or her own existence, lending no momentum to the overall story.
Not that you mind delving into the delightful mind of Zora Belsey as she explores the idea of beauty being fittingness, that is “when your chosen pursuit and your ability to achieve it – no matter how small or insignificant both might be – are matched exactly, are fitting. This, Claire [the professor] argued is when we become truly human, fully ourselves, beautiful [when we swim when we are meant to swim, kneel when we feel humble, write a poem that exactly conveys our intent], “
One does not mind sitting in on the lectures of Dr. Howard Belsey, the hopelessly intellectual head of the Belsey household, either. Through the lens of Rembrandt’s most famous portraits, Howard rips apart the Western notion of the human as being central, as having any meaning beyond that which is artificially given him.
Why is On Beauty unsatisfying then? Smith creates these wonderfully fleshed out individuals, provokes great dilemmas about education and college, and then leaves you hanging. The potential for a great story is there, without the story ever beginning. The unsentimental Howard Belsey would of course criticize my desire to extract a rhyme and reason from the lives of these characters. My life does not have a sensible plot, if it has a plot at all. By leaving their stories unfinished, perhaps Smith is simply rendering the Belseys and Kipps’s more human. Like the subjects of a portrait, the characters exist apart from our intentions of what they should do or say. This may not be fittingness, but it does have a touch of beauty.