Couplets: Reading Zadie Smith and Leslie Jamison in the Pandemic

Franklin Strong
4 min readMay 2, 2021

The normal thing, at the end of any year — at least any year I’ve been paying attention — is to look back on the writing that best captured the moment and recognize that at least some of it was written by Zadie Smith and Leslie Jamison.

2020 was no exception. In early summer, Smith released Intimations, a book of essays that captured the mood of those first few months of lockdown — my favorite of which was “Peonies” but maybe the most notable of which was the uncharacteristically blunt “The American Exception,” in which she turned Donald Trump’s oafish assertion that before COVID “we didn’t have death” into a meditation on American denialism, ending with a forceful call for universal healthcare:

As Americans never tire of arguing, there may be many areas of our lives in which private interest plays the central role. But, as postwar Europe, exhausted by absolute death, collectively decided, health care shouldn’t be one of them.

Jamison, in turn, published the gorgeous “Is it Strange to Say I Miss the Bodies of Strangers,” a project that started as an exploration of Turkish baths but, when social distancing took over all of our lives, became a mournful tribute to the many pre-pandemic ways we had of “sharing our very bodies, sweating and exhaling into the same thick air we were all breathing.” Of her last visit to a bath, Jamison wrote:

A few weeks later — once the virus filled our hospital wards and the city plunged into quarantine — everything about that night would come to seem not only impossible but unthinkable: that closeness and casual touch, all that mingled breath and sweat. That night would eventually seem like the distillation of what we lost. But back then, it still belonged to us, our bodies shrugging and sighing, our toes curled and our foreheads beaded, our bodies leaking tears of ache and release. We were part of something together, something big and silent and many-headed. It held us all.

The thing is, each author wrote something before the pandemic that is just as essential for understanding what’s happened since last March. I think of these earlier essays as forming a sort of couplet, a rhyming pair, with the pieces they wrote in 2020. The later essays resonate more fully, hit a bit more squarely, when you start with the earlier pieces.

In 2019, Jamison wrote “A Street Full of Splendid Strangers” for The Atlantic. In it, Jamison describes the attraction she felt for Garry Winongrand’s crowd photography as she was divorcing her husband, writing that the photos show a “fascination with strangers — this faith in the strange rub of molecules between anonymous bodies, and the fantasies we spin from the faces of others.”

It’s a gorgeous, desirous essay. Jamison writes about “leaking tenderness towards the unknowable strangers” on the subway. She quotes Walt Whitman: “Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you.” The longing underscores the tragedy of what came after. Reading it, you feel more profoundly the loss of those streets of strangers, of those unmasked faces, of that rub of molecules.

Then there’s Zadie Smith. I’ve been thinking about her essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons” since it appeared in 2014. As with “The American Exception,” the theme is denialism, but in this piece the topic is climate change and the tone, as the title suggests, is mournful.

“It’s amazing the side roads you can will yourself down to avoid the four-lane motorway ahead,” she writes. Smith imagines trying to explain the inexplicable to future grandchild: how did we let all of this happen? How did we fail to act on climate change given all that we’ve known about its consequences?

“This is why (I shall tell my granddaughter) the apocalyptic scenarios did not help,” she concludes. “The terrible truth is that we had a profound, historical attraction to apocalypse.”

When you read that sentence and think about the parallels between American (and British) inaction on climate change and the disaster of our Covid-19 responses — the short-term thinking, the dumb politicization, the rejection of community and cooperation as values worth aspiring to — it’s easy to understand the frustration Smith expresses in “The American Exception.” It’s easy to move with her from elegy to exasperation.

But apart from that, isn’t that sentence something? A profound, historical attraction to apocalypse. Can any phrase better explain the past year, or the past four years, or the past four decades?

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Franklin Strong

PhD in Comparative Literature. Latin American lit, African American lit, religion, politics, feminism, teaching, Cuba, Spain, Texas.