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.

Cover: October 2005

October 2005

From the front page

Image of prime minister Gough Whitlam addressing reporters outside Parliament after his dismissal by governor-general John Kerr on November 11, 1975.

Palace fetters

An elected Australian government could still be dismissed by the Queen

David Gulpilil at the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival on June 8, 2016.

The many faces of David Gulpilil

Gulpilil’s surrealist performances reveal our collective unconscious

Still from ‘Contempt’

The death of cool: Michel Piccoli, 1925–2020

Re-watching the films of the most successful screen actor of the 20th century

Image of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg

Cluster struck

A second wave of COVID-19 cases is dragging the country down


In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Evolution baby

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Sundays in paradise

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The dishwasher unstacker

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The people vs Woolworths


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The death of cool: Michel Piccoli, 1925–2020

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A debut hip-hop album that calls for a reckoning with Indigenous sovereignty and invites the listener to respond

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The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

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Melbourne-born, New York–based filmmaker Kitty Green’s powerfully underplayed portrait of Hollywood’s abusive culture


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‘The Rain Heron’ by Robbie Arnott

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‘The Trials of Portnoy’ by Patrick Mullins

The finely detailed story of the legal fight in Australia against the censorship of Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’

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‘The End of October’ by Lawrence Wright

A ‘New Yorker’ journalist’s eerily prescient novel about public-health officials fighting a runaway pandemic


Read on

David Gulpilil at the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival on June 8, 2016.

The many faces of David Gulpilil

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Motorists waiting near a police checkpoint in Albury, ahead of the NSW-Victoria border closure on July 8, 2020.

On edge

Closing the borders is an exercise in futility

Image of Olivia Laing’s book ‘Funny Weather’

Small, imperilled utopias: ‘Funny Weather’

Olivia Laing’s book takes hope as an organising principle, asking what art can do in a crisis

Image of Labor’s Kristy McBain and Anthony Albanese

A win’s a win

The Eden-Monaro result shows that Morrison’s popularity has not substantially changed voting patterns – and Labor has still not cut through


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