I realise my somewhat ambivalent view of human selves is wholly out of fashion,” wrote Zadie Smith in the introduction to her 2018 essay collection, Feel Free. By which she meant that the notion of the individual as containing multitudes – not to mention contradictions – jarred sharply with today’s obsessive identity wars, in which tribal affiliation is king. Or, as she put it, a current moment, in which “millions of more or less amorphous selves will now find themselves solidifying into protestors, activists, marchers… experts, critics”.
Her point was that such a moment is almost entirely inimical to the art of writing fiction, which depends for its lifeblood upon the idea of the self as mutable and contingent. “I am Philip, I am Colson… I am Virginia… I am Chimamanda – but how easily I might have been somebody else, with their feelings and preoccupations, with their obsessions and flaws and virtues,” she wrote. “This to me is the primary novelistic impulse: this leap into the possibility of another life.”
Smith has been a man of Chinese-Jewish heritage, a drug addict, a Bangladeshi war vet, an adulterous husband, and inhabited countless further possible lives throughout a near-25-year writing career. In her most recent novel, The Fraud, published next Thursday, she takes another, different sort of leap: into the past.