I adore Zadie Smith. Which explains why I’ve been waiting to use this amazing passage from her glorious novel “On Beauty.” The central family in the book attends a free outdoor concert of Mozart’s Requiem. (One of the main characters in the book is a professor who rails against “beauty” and doesn’t like Mozart, but he’s dragged there reluctantly. He also cheated on his wife.) Here’s how the wife describes the experience of the music:
Mozart’s Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit. The pit is on the other side of a precipice, which you cannot see over until you are right at its edge. Your death is awaiting you in that pit. You don’t know what it looks like or sounds like or smells like. You don’t know whether it will be good or bad. You just walk towards it. Your will is a clarinet and your footsteps are attended by all the violins. The closer you get to the pit, the more you begin to have the sense that what awaits you there will be terrifying. Yet you experience this terror as a kind of blessing, a gift. Your long walk would have no meaning were it not for this pit at the end of it. You peer over the precipice: a burst of ethereal noise crashes over you. In the pit is a great choir, like the one you joined for two months in Wellington in which you were the only black woman. This choir is the heavenly host and simultaneously the devil’s army. It is also every person who has changed you during your time on this earth: your many lovers; your family; your enemies, the nameless, faceless woman who slept with your husband; the man you thought you were going to marry; the man you did. The job of this choir is judgement. The men sing first, and their judgement is very severe. And when the women join in there is no respite, the debate only grows louder and sterner. For it is a debate — you realize that now. The judgement is not yet decided. It is surprising how dramatic the fight for your measly soul turns out to be.
I’ve read a lot about the Requiem, but something about this prose is so affecting, so intense, so specific yet universal, that it almost made me gasp. It is beautiful writing, which is fitting for a novel so titled.
The Fresno Philharmonic and Fresno Community Chorus tackle the monumental work at the Shaghoian Hall tonight, Saturday and Sunday. I’ll be there tonight. Can’t wait.