One lucky sod now escaped through the squeaky double doors -- a feckless novelist on a visiting fellowship -- but she did not retire unobserved.--Zadie Smith On Beauty.
The unnamed visiting novelist makes no other appearance within the novel. She is mentioned just before the anticipated, great set-piece debate at a faculty meeting over freedom of speech/censorship and political correctness* between two of the main protagonists in the novel (two male, British art historians -- Rembrandt scholars -- employed at a prestigious liberal arts college in New England near Boston <-- this understates all their familiar, racial, and political relations and rivalries). And she is only noticed by the Dean's secretary (herself not a very consequential character in the novel). We are told nothing else about her--not even the place she is visiting from.+
The presence of this novelist does solve a problem of perspective in the novel. The novel is often written from inside the characters' minds or takes up a (shifting) perspective alongside a particular character describing reactions and events from their individual point of view. But sometimes the intended perspective is left a bit ambiguous; there are instances in the novel where the reader is offered brief reflections from no point of view fully owned by any depicted character (see, for example, here). For, the perspective of the novel becomes unified if one attributes the represented, narrative perspective to this lucky sod who becomes the 'author' of the narrative.
The novelist's departure from the scene of action suggests that we are to imagine this nameless author as herself projecting and imagining the represented action. She is herself a spectator with a very limited or partial perspective; she cannot possibly have been a witness to all the events described. She must have relied on testimony and imaginative, sympathetic projection into the circumstances of the characters presented.
The previous paragraph may seem rather fanciful (and the significance of the mention of this 'lucky sod' has been interpreted differently). But the reflexive, insertion of a narrator, who, herself is a spectator with a very limited or partial perspective, who relies on her power of imagination is a device that Smith (Zadie, that is) had also used [recall] (with less subtlety) in The Embassy of Cambodia, where the device is explicitly marked.
Moreover, identifying this lucky sod with a counter-factual Zadie Smith projected into the novel illuminates another feature of the novel: the main action of the novel shifts between the very detailed descriptions of and maps changes in concretely named, neighborhoods (and cemeteries, pubs) of Northwest London, and the fictional, Wellington College projected onto an imaginary place in New England (get it?) near Boston. While this fictional Wellington undergoes the seasons (and the passing of the years), it is presented and experienced by some of the novel's characters as changeless place. (Of course, the novel also reminds us that Wellington is built on slave labor--which is shown to be part of the suppressed memories that constitute the place.) Wellington is thus outside space and time: a no-place (u-topia), despite having a name and identity. Smith's roots are in, and she is, of course, herself a fine chronicler of, NW London.
I close with a promissory note: the pretense of authorial reflexivity is not just a post-modern, literary game. On Beauty presents and encourages aesthetic and moral-political reflection on and engagement with different modes of artistic depiction (with Dr. Tulp's Anatomy Lesson, De Staalmeesters, and, especially, Hendrickje Bathing playing central roles.) By inserting herself into the life of the novel, Smith acknowledges something of the moral, leveling criticism (voiced by one of her protagonists, Howard, whose attempts to live coherently in light of his own theories we see come undone in all kinds of ways,) of the projection of artistic independence, of the very idea of inventive genius that stands outside political economy and power relations (even if she also shows in the final scene that at least some art is the product of forces other than consumer demand).
That is, Smith is pretending as if she has learned from her own characters, characters that we have to take to be imaginatively projected by her fictional counterpart, who has worked out and presents the comic and creative interplay between these characters's ideas and actions (not to mention bodies occupying places). And, thus, she gently, but decisively -- to quote the essayist, Zadie Smith -- by "directed play" leads the reader to imagine what it would be like for an author to be on equal footing with her characters, while effacing, momentarily, that she does so, perhaps not with Nabokov's 'total control', but certainly on her peculiar terms.
+Here I avoid further reflection on that 'lucky,' because it's clearly her will that removes the novelist from the scene.
*One perceptive commentator, Susan Alan Fisher, who also notes the significance of the mention of the feckless novelist, describes it as a debate over affirmative action, but, that's false. (The merits of affirmative action play a role in the debate, but that's not the principle that's being debated.) My interpretation also deviates from hers.
**I thank my students for discussion, especiallywho called attention to the lucky sod passage.