September 2023


Zadie Smith’s ‘The Fraud’

By Sean O’Beirne
Cover image of ‘Fraud’
The acclaimed English writer’s latest book employs its 19th-century setting to interrogate the form of the novel

For years, Zadie Smith has been thinking hard about whether literature itself is a kind of fraud. In her essay “Two Paths for the Novel”, she described traditional literary fiction as something made in the 19th century and characteristic of it, a form both classificatory and melodramatic, eager to give precise reports on every phenomenon, from the condition of whole societies to individual persons – but with shocks! Reversals! A big finish! But Smith also never lost her belief that the 19th-century form could still deliver extraordinarily valuable information about ourselves and other people. The methods, the “procedures”, of traditional fiction are “vital”, she said in an interview with Michael Silverblatt, they still give us “an education of the emotions and of the heart”.

So, after all her frustration with, and love for, traditional literature, the interest of this new novel is partly: what will Smith do next? Where is she in her long, committed practitioner’s argument about whether to change the form, or use what we already have? The Fraud (Hamish Hamilton) is written in unusually short chapters, and mixes up some of its chronology, but it is, mostly, a big restoration of the 19th-century form, and of the hope that this form can educate our hearts. Smith has quite literally gone back to the 19th century; the action of The Fraud takes place there, among gentlemen with whiskers and ladies who gather up their reticule just as the carriage arrives. The book’s heroine, Mrs Eliza Touchet, is sometimes presented as someone too eager to know everything, right away, but more often she is shown, without irony, as a lonely woman, forced to live with her foolish cousin, William, and his family, in “bondage”, and very interested in other, much worse, types of “human bondage”. She gets the chance to talk to an old African man called Andrew Bogle, an ex-slave, now giving evidence at a trial in London, and as she learns the brutal facts of his former life (on a sugar plantation in Jamaica), she really is able to make a new “correlation”: “Her mind raced forward, faster and faster … the two islands [Britain and Jamacia] were, in reality … profoundly intertwined … this was a truth that did not have to be sought out or hunted down … It was and had always been everywhere, like weather.”

But interestingly, in addition to this and other instances where people see a necessary truth, Smith fills the book with examples of necessary fraud, or fraud that should be forgiven. “Sweet” William is a fraud, supposedly a writer, but always making false estimates about what is important (“My grandfather was educated here!”). Eliza is a fraud to him (she pronounces his awful new novel “a triumph!”). Even Andrew Bogle is a fraud, giving false evidence for yet another fraud, a butcher, Arthur Orton, who claims to be the long-lost aristocrat Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne fortune. Bogle’s fraud, especially, is shown as nothing but a proper reaction to persecution and cruelty. He tells Eliza, “I will survive by any means necessary. It is what my people have always done, if you understand me.”

Smith is making the case that in life, and art, we’ll always need more truth and enough lies. That is very wise, but I wish the old “procedures” – the literary demonstration of that wisdom – had been done better here; The Fraud doesn’t get the form right. Unlike a historical or political narrative, the traditional literary narrative must deliver its general, social information along with continuous, detailed information about individuals. It always argues that both these types of information – the social and the individual – are as important. And Eliza Touchet, as she goes from a protest meeting to a courtroom to a meal with Andrew Bogle, appears again and again not to be a person, but a sort of touring intelligence, who only does things so the novel can deliver more social information (one chapter is called simply, “Reform, 1834”). Smith, in several of her novels (White Teeth, On Beauty, NW), kept the amounts of social and individual information in near-perfect proportion. In On Beauty there are plenty of shrewd observations about cultural life in a big American city, but Smith also tells us that when Claire laughed, the rest of her face did not join in the “natural release of the act”. This time, it seems Smith wanted to tell so much social news she could not keep the faith – which she so often has – that the look on someone’s face is as vital, absolutely vital, information about what we are, as the fact that a reform bill passed in 1834.

Sean O’Beirne

Sean O’Beirne is a bookseller and critic, and the author of the short fiction collection A Couple of Things Before the End.

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