October 2005

Arts & Letters

‘On Beauty’ by Zadie Smith

By Zora Simic

Howard and Kiki Besley are the fraught couple at the centre of Zadie Smith’s new novel. Claire Malcolm, poet and interloper in their 30-year marriage, tries to make sense of them: “He was bookish, she was not; he was theoretical, she political. She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice.” On Beauty is too populated with vivid characters, contradictory ideas, transitory emotional states and hard-won truths to succumb to the didactic potential of its title. What we get instead is an amusing and poignant novel in which Smith stakes a formidable claim for fiction as the best form of capturing life’s messiness.

In doing so she acknowledges a clear debt to E.M. Forster – and to Howard’s End in particular. But it would be a mistake to describe this book as an exercise in homage. As she proved in White Teeth, Smith is fascinated with the contemporary moment and its polyglot possibilities. As much as the eternal questions (what is love, what is art, what is family) preoccupy her, so do the current ones, beginning with the relevance of the university. As a campus novel based around a fictional elite uni – Wellington, a casually disguised Harvard – On Beauty makes for good, acerbic fun. Smith swoops in and out of classrooms, faculty meetings and frat parties with a keen sense of the ridiculous. After the hit-and-miss detour that was The Autograph Man, she has produced a stunning novel that is exactly the sum of its finely rendered parts.

From the front page

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In This Issue

Queensland. What is it?

To understand the place you must first understand the Bundaberg Bear

The miracles of Guus

Can a thoughtful Dutchman who is worshipped in Korea take the Socceroos to the 2006 World Cup?

Jet lag

Hit me

The thin veneer of his characters’ self-command makes him exciting to watch. Russell Crowe and the art of violence.

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Online exclusives

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

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‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

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Editor Bevan Shields’ attempts to handle the backlash over his masthead’s treatment of Rebel Wilson points to the dismal and fragile state of news media