When was the last time you saw A Room With A View? For me it’s been years. I forgot most of it. I forgot how funny it was. Or maybe it’s funnier to me now in different ways. TIFF kicked off its 7th annual Books On Film series last night with a screening of A Room With A View followed by a discussion with Zadie Smith. Zadie teaches E.M. Forster, her novel On Beauty (one of my favourite books of all time) was sort of an homage to Howards End. And she says she watched A Room With A View for the first time when she was about 11. I would have been a couple of years older. And if that was you too, if you can remember who you were and what you thought about then, and you hadn’t yet seen My Beautiful Laundrette, wouldn’t you be surprised now to know that it was not Julian Sands’s George who went on to become the greatest but Daniel Day-Lewis, who played Cecil (one of Zadie’s students described him as a “proto-hipster which…EXACTLY)? For Zadie too, it was only later that she realised Julian wasn’t much of an actor. And only later that we realised that Maggie Smith and Judi Dench do most of the acting in that film.
Listening to Zadie Smith speak – about language and books and culture and writing – is going to come back to me in bits and pieces but I know it will be one of the highlights of my year, to have listened to her talk about work for 45 minutes and assess her own work during that time. At one point she was asked about the television adaptation of NW and she recalled that while watching with her husband, after noticing that the show had made a cut in the narrative that made the story work better, she turned to him and said, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Which reminded her that a novelist has to “get rid of the dainty feelings” about her work. Because it can’t be precious. Writing, as she describes it, is labour – and she didn’t mean it as a comparison to, like, digging in the mines or anything, but as a perspective. If you think of it as labour, you might be inclined to be less delicate with it. And with yourself. For Zadie, work isn’t performed in a trance after inspiration arrives on clouds or wings. It’s hard. It’s unsexy. Even for her.
Have you read her interview with George Saunders yet? George Saunders, improbably (because it’s amazing to think he hasn’t done it until now), is releasing his first novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, next month. (If you haven’t already, his collection of short stories, Tenth Of December, will be something you keep coming back to after your first read.) Zadie and George have a long conversation in Interview about the work he put into Lincoln – she thinks it’s Nobel-worthy – and about “staying in your lane”. It’s fascinating to me what each considers to be her strength and his weakness and how they work within their skills.
Yours in gossip,