Swing Time is all about the double. In Zadie Smith’s fifth and Man Booker long-listed novel, countries, cities, friends, and narratives mirror one another however their reflections distort like shattered glass. Rooted, as most of Smith’s novels are, in a North West London estate, Swing Time follows two girls who meet in a dance class. Twin images, they have the same skin colour – “as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both”[1] – and share a disenchantment with their home lives and a passion for the history of dance. Titled after the 1938 American music and dance comedy starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, Swing Time is all about movement – between friends, cities, countries – and the slow dance from childhood to adulthood.

Swing Time opens and closes with walking. In the tradition of the nineteenth century bildungsroman (or coming-of-age novel), the narrator tells the story of her childhood in retrospect, from the perspective of adulthood. Swing Time’s prologue begins with our unnamed narrator disgraced, fired from her job, and back in London, her home city.

“I turned to leave; the doorman dealt with the woman and hurried out from behind his desk to open the front door for me. He asked where I was going; I said I didn’t know. I walked out into the city. It was a perfect autumnal London afternoon, chill but bright, under certain trees there was a shedding of golden leaves. I walked past the cricket ground and the mosque, past Madame Tussauds, up Goodge Street and down Tottenham Court Road, through Trafalgar Square, and found myself finally in Embankment and then crossing the bridge. I thought – as I often think as I cross that bridge – of two young men, students, who were walking over it very late one night when they were mugged and thrown over the railing, into the Thames. One lived and one died.”[2]

The narrator’s walk across the city is sparsely described. Smith doesn’t need to linger on descriptions other than factual details. After all, this is the protagonist’s city; she doesn’t need to describe it, instead she walks it. The protagonist’s walk through the city recalls the flâneur: the nineteenth century urban wanderer, featured in the works of Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Balzac. Lauren Elkin describes the flâneur as a “figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet.”[3] This concept of walking as a mapping of the city is integral to our relationship to spaces, particularly urban spaces.

Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l’Europe, 1876

The city that a flâneur maps is both a physical and symbolic space, divided by class, race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. It is a space in which social politics are played out, as can be seen throughout the histories of many countries. Berlin, perhaps the most famous example of a divided city, was physically divided by a wall, but some divisions are harder to map. In Belfast, for example, segregated areas and communities remain from The Troubles. The Falls Road, predominately republican, and the Shankill Road, predominately loyalist, run almost parallel with murals, flags, and curb paint proudly stating their political allegiances. Despite apartheid ending in the 1990s, Cape Town remains a segregated city: “the feeling of division is permanently carved into the city’s urban form, the physical legacy of a plan that was calculatedly designed to separate poor blacks from rich whites.”[4]

In her novels, Zadie Smith examines the subtle, less easily mapped, tensions between spaces existing side-by-side or on top of one another in London. These are spaces possessing a social politics intimately familiar to London residents, but invisible, not demarcated by physical walls or even necessarily by architecture, but by the identity of residents and their interactions. In her previous novel, NW (2012), characters’ identities are rooted in location. In the novel, a middle-class playground is infiltrated by working-class teenagers and becomes privatised:

“Listen, I don’t do like you lot do round here… You can’t really chat to me. I’m Hackley, so…

“Oh, NO. Said the Rasta… Listen, you can try and mess with these people but you can’t mess with me, sunshine. I know you. In a deep way. I’m not Queen’s Park, love, I’m HARLSDEN.”[5]

The seemingly neutral space of a playground becomes a place of class warfare with a divide apparent in the Rasta’s “them-versus-us” attitude: the Hackley boys might mess with Queen’s Park middle-class but they can’t mess with a Harlsden Rasta. The city is a space where identities are constructed and reinforced through interactions with “other” communities. Conflict ensues when these competing spaces overlap.

In Swing Time, class is a spatial issue. Whereas the novel’s protagonist uproots herself from her working-class background by physically and mentally leaving her estate, Tracey is unable to move beyond the place of her childhood. While our narrator is continually in motion, always walking or travelling, Tracey is static; however much she might move, she remains in the same place:

“The next day, I took a morning walk around the barren perimeter of Tiverton Rec, the wind whipping through the caged fence, carrying away sticks throw wide for dogs, and found myself walking on, in the opposite direction from the flat and past the station

[…]

Tracey’s tower came into view, above the horse chestnuts, and with it reality […] Impatient, I left the path and crossed diagonally through the grass, heading for the covered walkway. I was about to enter the stairway when I heard music, stopped and looked up. She was right above me, on her balcony, in a dressing gown and slippers, her hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing.”[6]

Like the nineteenth century, bourgeois figure of the flâneur, the freedom to move without restrictions is a privilege. While Tracey is fixed in her and the protagonist’s childhood estate by her class, wealth, and her gender as a mother, the novel’s protagonist’s only tie is to her past as she finds herself circumnavigating Tracey and her childhood spaces: “I can always find the Heath – all my life I’ve taken paths that lead me back, whether I wanted it or not, to the Heath.”[7]

In NW, identity is rooted to geographical space. Characters are faced with the choice of either leaving with the intention of bettering themselves or they can stay put: live, and die in the place they were born. Smith represents this choice as the idealistic dream of capitalism: because class and wealth is rooted in geographical location, moving out of a space is represented as the only way of moving up the social ladder. In an interview with Slate, Smith speaks about this relationship between class and geography. She describes herself as middle-class despite being born into a working-class estate and family: “for me working-class life is a daily experience and once you’re removed from it … people in England feel differently. They feel like it’s a mark of birth, and it’s never removed.  I was born working class, but I’m not working class anymore.”[8]

In her novels, Smith explores this dilemma of identity and space. Natalie, the most ambitious character of NW, rises above her social status by changing her name from Keisha. Natalie is repeatedly associated with the racial epithet “coconut” due to her fabricated white, middle-class identity: “Look at this beautiful house! Leah blushes as an illegal word thrusts itself into her mind, Shar’s word: coconut”[9]. Like Swing Time’s protagonist’s flâneur-esque walk, Natalie makes a physical and spiritual journey back to her roots following a personal crisis. Natalie’s walk is a material and symbolic reworking of past space as she crosses her childhood home, the Caldwell Estate, and travels across NW. During her walk, Natalie’s constructed middle-class identity falls away as she reverts back to her Keisha identity: “I got something to tell you,’ said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice.”[10] Yet, there is no sense that Natalie/Keisha has returned to an original or “authentic” identity. Instead Smith presents identity as a disorientating layering of multiple identities based on context as Keisha/Natalie uses her Caldwell persona to disguise her Natalie persona which in turn was created to hide her Caldwell voice. For Smith, there is no “true,” stable identity. Instead we are constructed and deconstructed by the spaces we occupy.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

This relationship that we have to our spaces – that we are moulded by them as much as they are by us – has been a major focus of twentieth and twentieth-century art. Edward Hopper is perhaps the quintessential painter of urban loneliness, and his painting, Nighthawks (1942), has become an iconic image of modern isolation. The painting shows a man, a couple, and a worker contained by light and glass in a diner, the iconic American setting. No one is talking or looking at one another. Each figure is disconnected from the others. The viewer, positioned on the street, outside the glass and watching the scene, realises that they are just as disconnected from the painting’s figures.

Nighthawks embodies the contradictions of living in a city: surrounded by people, yet completely alone. As cities become more and more fragmented – by new developments, social housing, gentrification, and globalisation – urban loneliness continues to be a major artistic theme. In her video for the song, “Green Light”, Lorde is alone in New York City. We see her leave a club, take an Uber, put in earphones and dance through the streets. Singing about the end of a relationship, the video captures the overwhelming loneliness and joy of a city at night. The video is a twenty-first century homage to Hopper.

SZA’s “Drew Barrymore” similarly captures the contradictions of a party: feeling alone while rubbing shoulders with friends at a party. The song’s video opens with a shot of the cityscape before showing SZA in various locations in the city: an apartment, the Laundromat, parties, and sitting on some steps. We see her smiling and laughing with friends while she sings, “I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth/ We get so lonely, we pretend that this works/ I’m so ashamed of myself think I need therapy.” The city is as much a space of internal fragmentation and conflict as it is an external one.

St. Vincent’s video for “New York” is more abstract in its imagery (we only see the images and objects that represent the city for St. Vincent), but, likewise, it’s a song about overwhelming urban loneliness: “New York isn’t New York/ Without you, love […] You’re the only motherfucker in the city/ Who can handle me.” The song captures how our relationships to cities and spaces are constantly in flux. Henri Lefebvre defines this relationship as “representational space […] space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols […] space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate. It overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects.”[11] Our emotion or mental projections onto a city shape it as much as it shapes us.

In her book about urban isolation, The Lonely City, Olivia Laing writes:

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others.”[12]

In Swing Time, Smith captures this urban contradiction, noticed by the novel’s protagonist, drunk and being driven through New York City at night:

“I nodded and smiled, too drunk to manage much more. I had my face wedged between the walnut and the window and from here I had a fresh view if the city, from the top down. I’d see the roof garden of a penthouse before I saw the few, stray people still out at this hour, splashing through puddled sidewalks, and I kept finding in this perspective uncanny, paranoid alignments. An old Chinese lady, a can collector, in an old-fashioned conical hat, pulling her load – hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cans gathered together in a huge plastic sheet – under the windows of a building I knew to contain a Chinese billionaire, a friend of Aimee’s

[…]

I felt sick. I hung my head out like a dog into the New York night.”[13]

Like Lorde hanging out of a car, or SZA sitting alone in the dark, or St. Vincent surrounded by representations of New York, Swing Time’s protagonist occupies the role of the flâneur. These women are not the figures of Nighthawks, they are the viewers; standing on the street outside, alone, and looking inwards. Elkin describes what she calls the flâneuse, or female flâneur:

“she goes on foot. She gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind facades, penetrating into secret courtyards. I found her using cities as performance spaces, or as hiding places; as places to seek fame and fortune or anonymity; as places to liberate herself from oppression; as places to declare her independence.”[14]

At the end of Swing Time, after the narrator’s life crumbles, she chooses to walk: “Afterwards he wanted to get on the tube, at Waterloo, it was the best stop for me, too, but instead I left him and chose the bridge. Ignoring both barriers, walking straight down the centre, over the river, until I reached the other side.”[15] No longer a mirrored reflection of a double narrative, the protagonist is alone but she isn’t lonely. Back in the city, she has renewed purpose and she going to walk there, like a true flâneur.

 

[1] Zadie Smith. Swing Time, (Penguin, 2016): 9

[2] Smith. Swing Time: 2-3

[3] Lauren Elkin. Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, (Chatto and Windus, 2016): 3

[4] Oliver Wainwright. “Apatheid ended 20 years ago, so why is Cape Town still a ‘paradise for the few’?” The Guardian 30th April 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/apr/30/cape-town-apartheid-ended-still-paradise-few-south-africa

[5] Zadie Smith. NW, (Penguin, 2012): 281

[6] Zadie Smith. Swing Time: 453

[7] Ibid.106

[8] Isaac Chotiner. “Zadie Smith on Male Critics, Appropriation, and What Interests Her Novelistically About Trump”, Slate 16th November 2016. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2016/11/a_conversation_with_zadie_smith_about_cultural_appropriation_male_critics.html

[9] Zadie Smith. NW: 63

[10] Ibid. 333

[11] Henri Lefebvre. The Urban Revolution, trans. Robert Bononno , (The University of Minnesota Press, 2003): 39

[12] Olivia Laing. “How art helped me see the beauty in loneliness,” extract from her book, The Lonely City, published in The Guardian 28th February 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/28/the-lonely-city-olivia-laing-edward-hopper-andy-warhol

[13] Zadie Smith. Swing Time: 139-140

[14] Lauren Elkin. Flâneuse: 22

[15] Zadie Smith. Swing Time: 450