The author's latest novel is a fascinating and flawed exploration of how a writer can grow old without losing the anarchy and rage that motivates his workby Pico Iyer / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
VS Naipaul: “Kureishi hardly bothers to conceal how much he’s drawn on Paul Theroux’s compulsive, racing memoir of life with Naipaul” © David Gamble/TopFoto
How to become a grown-up without forfeiting the radical energies of youth? How to maintain a serious commitment to your art, while honouring the sex and madness that really give it juice? Such questions haunt and quicken Hanif Kureishi as he grows older on the page. The writer who made his name with stories like “With Your Tongue Down My Throat” (emblazoned across the cover of Granta magazine in autumn 1987) and films that explored the mish-mash carnival of the new London, like Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, has been wise enough to see that shock value gets you only so far; his recent work is ultimately about the search for deeper forms of transgression.
Look at Intimacy, one of his bravest (because barest) novels, from 1998. Its Kureishi-like narrator is at once a proud product of the 1960s and the decade’s most disenchanted critic. “I wonder if we haven’t been a particularly privileged and spoilt generation,” he observes, sounding a bit like Martin Amis in The Pregnant Widow. “It is easy to laugh at bourgeois happiness,” Kureishi’s narrator notes earlier in the novel. “What other kinds are there?” The man’s conundrum is that he knows he can’t summon the responsibility to be a classic patriarch—he’s about to walk out on his wife and two kids, as Kureishi did just before he wrote the book—yet he realises that irresponsibility gets you nowhere. “I resent being bombarded by vulgarity, emptiness and repetition,” he pronounces of TV, which once had turned him on. “I am turning off; rebelling against rebellion.”
This longing for more lasting ways to overturn the system has grown interestingly entangled with the father-son relations that have always lain at the heart of Kureishi’s work. And ever since therapy entered his life and his writing, the writer of films such as My Son the Fanatic (and The Mother) has also trained his gaze ever more intently within, acknowledging the Oedipal tangle from the other side, as a dad himself.
It almost makes sense, then, that Kureishi would be fascinated by VS Naipaul, a thinly veiled version of whom prowls around the centre of his new novel, The Last Word. Naipaul is not only a father figure for…