The Covid-19 pandemic appears not just as a background in Zadie Smith’s collection of essays titled Intimations. Rather, it infects and pervades every subject matter that the author addresses. The book begins with a seemingly unpremeditated and light-hearted observation on tulips and the author’s fondness for peonies instead. Within a matter of few paragraphs, Smith graduates to a discussion on the preset gendered labels that women’s lives are spun around. This is succeeded by a meditation on the oppositional nature of submission and resistance. It is as we near the close of the first essay that the narrative frame of the book is explicitly revealed: the impending ‘unprecedented April’.
A thin book made of just six short essays—Intimations is by no means a light read. Pandemic and its uncertainties create a haunting atmosphere in the book with themes of isolation and suffering, crisscrossing through. Smith packs into this slim book a whole range of fleeting yet pregnant thoughts. I particularly resonated with the third essay in the collection, titled ‘Suffering like Mel Gibson’ which weighs in on the total nature of suffering. Smith captures the underlying sentiment of the essay best when she writes, ‘Suffering is not relative; it is absolute. Suffering has an absolute relation to the suffering individual—it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like privilege.’ This observation speaks volumes about the myriad kinds of stress and strains that the pandemic and the accompanying safety restrictions have brought about.
In her next essay, ‘Screengrab (After Berger, Before the Virus)’ Smith engages with the collective experience of the pandemic. She draws brief sketches of people in their day-to-day lives, till disruption of the most unsettling kind, halts the march of life. Commenting on the unequal cost of a global catastrophe, she shares how for Ben, her masseur, losing out even on a day’s work would spell disaster. The style of the youth, marked by liveliness and uniqueness, as embodied by Cy-the-IT-guy, is ‘radically interrupted’ by the pandemic. From lack of PPE kits to flats being set on fire, ‘Screengrab’ outlines a constellation of responses to Covid-19 pandemic. These range from Myron’s (a character from Smith’s story ‘Words and Music’) privileged assertion: ‘I am not scared of this shit’, to Barbara’s (the seventy-year-old downtown resident) confidence that the sense of a community is of utmost importance during such grim times. The collective memory of the pandemic is varied and it is these varied effects and affects that Smith’s creativity cumulates and archives.