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Ian Britain

The quirky kind of pleasure’ provided by coincidence; the ‘rightness’, whether logical or poetic, of connections between seemingly unconnected people, particularly connections that are inadvertent or may remain unknown to the people concerned; the ‘pleasing symmetry’, in retrospect, of various experiences we share with another human being, even when the experiences concerned were painful ones and their circumstances tragic: these are but a few of the broader observations, incidental but also integral, strewn throughout Two Lives (2005), Vikram Seth’s recent memoir of his great-uncle Shanti and Shanti’s German-Jewish wife, Henni. Integral not only to their nephew’s story of their fortuitous coming together in Nazi Germany and subsequent lives in England, but also to the life experiences of Seth’s readers, including (in my own case, certainly) the experience of reading the book itself. Such riches as are to be found in this story of ‘strange journeys’ and ‘chance encounters’ may also be found, Seth observes at the end, ‘behind every door on every street’. For me, the coincidences, inadvertent connections and serendipitous symmetries I found in the author’s trajectory and mine came to border on the uncanny.

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Philistinism and anti-intellectualism enjoy each other’s company so much that it can be bracing to be reminded that it is possible to be both an intellectual and a philistine. That, at least, was a charge levelled at the British Fabians by some former members of the Fabian Society – and by some historians too quick to take those apostates at their word. The Fabians had unimpeachable intellectual credentials, but their preoccupation with policy, the mechanics of municipal and national government, and strategies for getting their policies implemented (initially by ‘permeating’ existing political parties, and later, in the case of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, through the Labour party) was such that they could appear ascetic and unmoved by the pleasures – and the potential – of literature and the arts.

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Meanjin edited by Ian Britain & Overland No. 181 edited by Nathan Hollier

April 2006, no. 280

Like Monaco, journals are sunny places for shady people. Black sheep and dark horses have often found a first sanctuary there. Precarious principalities, they are built on the shifting sands of subsidies, sponsorships and subscriptions. But their lifeblood is won or lost at the roulette wheel of submissions and commissions.

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Taboo – or not taboo? That is the question you soon start asking yourself if you bother with the text of this book and its purported revelations on the subject of ‘male beauty’. It is a stimulating question, but you end up wondering if the publishers, at least, mean you to go to such bother when they’ve hardly gone to any themselves, in the way of editing, to ensure some cogency in their celebrity author’s arguments. There’s little here, in fact, that you could call argument, in the sense of a coherent succession of reasoned propositions: nothing so solid or stable to argue against; nothing so stolid or boring. When not beguiled by the next image of upwardly nubile flesh, sumptuously reproduced from the work of the world’s great visual artists, you’re more at risk of being left stupefied by the next authorial assertion. Oh, yes, it will be provocative, but the provocation often lies in its brazen countering of the assertions that have preceded it. Silly you for craving consistency.

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As mouths go, it must be one of the most fabled of the century past. The lips, as widely parted as they could be, suggest the contours of a distended heart. There is an upper gallery of teeth, slightly imperfect, and glazed by spittle mingling with the crystal darts and droplets of a powerful jet of water issuing relentlessly from above the face. A mottled tongue is ...

What do the fab four of this book have in common? Not simply that they are Australian and expatriate, that they are writers who have achieved a degree of celebrity and performers who have made skilful use of television.

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