Hanif Kureishi’s sharp new novel is not only a riff on the Naipaul-French saga, but also an exploration of his own fascination for writers and their habits
As I write about Hanif Kureishi, one of the sharpest contemporary writers in the English language, what is the real intention of my writing about him? Is it to take stock of a writer I admire, something I do here by hanging a brief discussion about him on the peg of the publication of his latest novel, The Last Word? Or is it to engage in something more sinister, more self-serving?
And if indeed I have enjoyed most of Kureishi’s works, how does my attempt to use Kureishi as a way to get a spotlight on me—through this article you’re reading now—diminish my task at hand: to put the subject, Hanif Kureishi, under the spotlight?
In essence, that is what the story of The Last Word (Faber, 286 pages, £18.99) is about: an asymmetrical wrestling bout between a writer and a Writer, one man trying to suss out what makes the other extraordinary, while the other man, in the words of PG Wodehouse, ‘[quails] at the prospect of having the veil torn from his past, unless that past is one of exceptional purity’. This is a novel that hums with the energy of a chamber comedy as it investigates how writers look at other writers. Or, how the young biographer Harry Johnson and the literary giant Mamoon Azam deal with each other as the former goes about his task of writing the biography of the latter.
Harry is commissioned to write the biography because his rakish, dipsomaniacal editor believes he’s the man for the job. He has published a well-received biography of Nehru ‘spiced with interracial copulation, buggery, alcoholism and anorexia’ which ‘even the Indians liked’. Harry can, with a biography of Mamoon, hit the big time and perhaps follow in the footsteps of star biographers like Brian Boyd (Nabokov), Ray Monk (Wittgenstein, Oppenheimer) or even the late Enid Starkie (Rimbaud). Except his task, unlike that of the other biographers mentioned above, is a bit different and more difficult as he deals with a Writer who is not dead.
We know who the real hero of this novel is. Since if Harry doesn’t write the biography, he will be ‘so fucked you’ll have to get work as an academic. Or even worse… You’d have to teach creative writing.’ (That’s a wink at the reader from the author. Not only because at the 2008 Hay Festival Kureishi had slammed university creative writing courses by saying, “The writing courses, particularly when they have the word ‘creative’ in them, are the new mental hospitals,” but also because he himself is a professor of creative writing at Kingston University in London.) So Harry does go to live with Mamoon and his his trionic wife Liana in the English countryside to glean as much as he can about the great writer for what he hopes will be a great biography.
But it is Mamoon, this literary Ozzy Osbourne, who, on being counselled by his clueless-about-all-things-writerly wife Liana, agrees that with his long and illustrious career flat-lining, and with his earnings fast dwindling, the best thing would be to have a ‘controversial new biography’. This biography would be an ‘event’, a ‘big bang’, ‘accompanied, of course, by a television documentary, interviews, a reading tour, and the reissuing of Mamoon’s books in forty languages’. It would finally turn Mamoon into a brand like ‘Picasso’ and ‘Roald Dahl’.’
Unlike most biographies in India, of literary figures or otherwise, Harry’s would not be a hagiography of course. As his editor unfurls the strategy to him, ‘…the Great Literary Satan is weak and woozy now like a lion hit with a monster tranquiliser. It’s his time to be taken. And it’s in his interest to cooperate. When he reads the book and learns what a bastard he’s been, it’ll be too late. You will have found out stuff that Mamoon doesn’t even know about himself. He’ll be dead meat on the skewer of your insight. That’s where the public like their artists—exposed, trousers down, arse up, doing a long stretch among serial killers, and shitting in front of strangers.’
Kureishi makes no attempt to hide the real-life template that he uses to paint his case study. Kureishi’s hooded- eyed Mamoon, the literary giant of Indian origin with an overprotective guard-dog of a second wife, is wearing a Vidia Naipaul Halloween costume throughout the novel. Mamoon’s love for cricket, especially for the 1963 West Indian cricket, gives you the broadest of hints. Mamoon’s declaration that Jean Rhys is the ‘only female writer in English you’d want to sleep with. Otherwise it’s just Brontës, Eliot, Woolf, Murdoch! Can you imagine cunnilingus with any of them?’ is a dead giveaway.
And we pretty much see Naipaul’s face stretching out like a death mask from the page when we read Mamoon exclaim while he and his wife are driving into town to pick up some local cheese, ‘Look at that ugly lazy black bastard.’ But as Kureishi points out, the great provocateur was now bored by this pose as he was by everything else.
And in this ‘if A is C then E is F’ universe that Kureishi props up like a riff from another song, Naipaul doesn’t exist. In this alternate universe, Harry is a randier version of Patrick French who authored the warts-and-all ‘authorised’ biography The World is What It is.
Kureishi, one can see, is having fun— and, going by the British reviews of The Last Word, he has managed to get extra mileage thanks to this running Naipaul-French Doppler effect. But the ‘riffing with the real’ is just a prop. Kureishi’s is a more serious, lasting and acute investigation—of his own fascination as a writer for writers.
As a Pakistani-English youngster growing up in the 60s in Bromley, south east London, Kureishi was not only a voracious reader, but he was also curious about writers. When he began writing in the 70s—first as a pornographic writer and then as a playwright— he wanted ‘to find out what was going on in the literary arena, what other writers were thinking and doing— how they were symbolising the contemporary world, for instance— and what I, in turn, might be able to do.’
At the cost of being beholden to their writings, serious readers tend to discount the very presence of writers as they exist outside the terrain of their texts and book readings. The book and the writer are, however, not only inextricably bound, but the writer is at the source of everything that one values in a book. And yet, paradoxically, it is the writer in his flesh and blood, in his ordinariness as he exists, being more than just a writer, who breaks the spell. As Kureishi observes wryly, ‘A writer is loved by strangers and hated by his family.’
And here lies the other theme of The Last Word: how does one capture the extraordinariness of a great writer as one gathers details about his life that make him seem almost ordinary?
As many of us who have met writers at literary events or have watched them perform, there’s a dissonance between the writer as we know him through his book and the writer as we encounter him ‘over there’. But as Kureishi writes in his memoir-of-sorts, My Ear At His Heart, ‘…if I discovered a writer I liked, I’d look out for anything written about him. He or she, as well as the work, then became the subject, the source of the words. If he liked hats, I would think about getting a hat; reading about Scott Fitzgerald always inspired me to go to the pub. The fact is, the place writers and artists hold in the public imagination exists beyond their work.’ And to join these two seemingly disparate worlds inhabited by the subject— writer, actor, sports person, politician, it doesn’t matter—is the job of the biographer. As Naipaul said in a 1994 speech, “The lives of writers are a legitimate subject of inquiry; and the truth should not be skimped. It may well be, in fact, that a full account of a writer’s life might in the end be more a work of literature and more illuminating— of a cultural or historical moment— than the writer’s books.”
That Kureishi got his hands on the manuscript of an unpublished novel written by his father some 11 years after his death—this manuscript lies at the core of the 2004 My Ear At His Heart—may have played a role in his choice of a theme in The Last Word. By reading his father’s novel, An Indian Adolescence, Kureishi was keen to discover things about him. By remembering his father, Kureishi tried to make sense of his father’s (thinly-disguised autobiographical) work of fiction. Mamoon-Harry’s story is as much not the story of Naipaul-French as Kureishi Sr’s story was about Hanif’s father’s.
As Kureishi makes Mamoon Azam tell Harry Johnson at one point, ‘I have lived this long and still cannot answer the unanswerable questions. People come and ask me for universal truths, but this is the wrong address. You’ll only get universal truths here, the ones that make literature.’ Mamoon here echoes what Naipaul once told Patrick French, which the latter quotes in his introduction to The World is What It Is: ‘I was not interested and I remain completely indifferent to how people think of me, because I was serving this thing called literature.’
But Harry does, in the end, get more than universal truths out of this Buddha of Literature for his biography.
In the bargain, Kureishi gets a riveting work of literature out of this fictional exchange between two writers.
Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. His latest book is Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata