On Beauty

Zadie Smith (Penguin, 2005)

In this transatlantic story of romance and culture clash, Zadie Smith tells of Howard Belsey, a middle-aged English academic who teaches in the U.S. Early on in the book (pages 31-32 in the American 2005 edition to be exact), Howard enters a London photobooth to avoid a confrontation with a street kid.

Why this flush of shame, when it is someone else who has been rude, pushing you roughly with their shoulder—why the shame? It was more than shame, though. it was also the physical capitulation—at twenty Howard might have sworn back at him or offered him out; at thirty, even at forty; but not at fifty-six, not now. Fearing an escalation (What are you looking at?) Howard dug into his pocket and found the requisite three pounds for the nearby photo-booth. He bent his knees and parted the miniature orange curtain as if entering a tiny harem. He sat on the stool, a fist on each knee and his head low. When he looked up, he found himself reflected in the sheet of dirty perspex, his face enclosed by a big red circle. The first flash went off without any planning on Howard's part: he had dropped his gloves and, upon looking down to find them, he was then forced to spring back up as he heard the machine begin, his head just that moment raised, his hair obscuring his right eye. He looked cowed, beaten down. For the second flash he lifted his chin and tried to challenge the camera as that boy might—the result was something yet more insecure.There followed a completely unreal smile—sad, frank, abashed, almost confessional, as men often appear in their final years. Howard gave up. He stayed where he was, waiting to hear the boy leave the phone-box and walk away. Then he retrieved his gloves from the floor and left his own small box.

Contributed by Brian

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