In ordinary circumstances the link between a novel published last autumn on the fashionable topic of multiculturalism and the memoirs of a late-Victorian man of letters might be thought rather tenuous. Nevertheless, reading the reviews of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time as they poured from the presses three or four months ago, I found myself returning, with a kind of homing instinct, to Andrew Lang (1844–1912) and his paean to the decisive hold exerted on his imagination sometime in the late 1850s by W M Thackeray’s novel The History of Pendennis:
Marryat never made us wish to run away to sea. That did not seem to be one’s vocation. But the story of Pen made one wish to run away to literature, to the Temple, to the streets where Brown, the famous reviewer, might be seen walking with his wife and umbrella. The writing of poems ‘up to’ pictures, the beer with Warrington in the mornings, the suppers in the back-kitchen, these were the alluring things.
Swing Time attracted a mixed response from reviewers and readers. Certain critics – among them Houman Barekat in these very pages – diagnosed a brand of moral box-ticking and hazarded that Smith was a good deal keener on ventilating issues of the kind that appear in leading articles