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 every post-colonial writer, but an emblem of the kind of undistractible Ubermensch who will sacrifice everything—everyone—for his art. On the surface, the ageing writer in his tweeds, alone in his country cottage, fulminating against everything contemporary and disorderly, could not seem further from Kureishi, the Londoner who has styled himself as the child of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and grown up in a city where east and west are not divided, but all over one another.
Yet Kureishi is shrewd enough to see that Naipaul is a fearless rebel of his own kind, who has taken on and toppled the literary establishment he inherited. More than that, the most idealistic side of Kureishi, who turns 60 this year, cherishes writers as “sometime Christs of the page,” as he puts it in his new novel, even if they have to be bold, extreme and perverse to effect our salvation. For him, Naipaul is a model of a rational, detached observer who never denies the importance of anarchy and rage.
Kureishi’s The Last Word is never going to be mistaken for Graham Greene’s clipped and rather cursory late collection of stories that goes by the same name. It is a raw and weirdly unstoppable page-turner that reads like a broad Gothic farce with a coiled Pinteresque power-struggle at its centre. Its premise is a simple one: a young, rather feckless, up-and-coming English writer from London, Harry Johnson, is urged by his manic editor Rob (indistinguishable from the Bill Buford of legend, the editor who relaunched Granta in 1979) to write an “extreme biography” of a formidable and reclusive Indian writer, Mamoon Azam, now immured in his rural cottage with his new, much younger wife Liana. Almost as soon as he arrives, Harry finds himself in a den of manipulators in which the old lion, ranting against immigrants, toys with him, while Liana says things like “Please, darling, such a tall strong blond boy with—oh, wow—thick legs and fine arms…”
Anyone who’s seen Sir Vidia and Lady Nadira Naipaul in the world will recognise the central couple here, an irresistible target for tragi-comedians everywhere, especially as Sir Vidia contrives to be as outrageous and cavalier in his public pronouncements as he is precise and exactingly honest on the page. Not many writers would declare, as Naipaul did in 2011, that, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” Only a few years after Naipaul married his much younger wife, a columnist in her native Pakistan whom he wed barely two months after the death of his English wife of 41 years, he devoted large parts of a novel, Magic Seeds, to a serious man of letters who loses himself in a devouring series of dirty weekends with a sex kitten.
Kureishi hardly bothers to conceal how much he’s drawn for his new novel on Paul Theroux’s compulsive, racing memoir of life with the master, Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998), and on Patrick French’s unsurpassable “authorised biography,” The World Is What It Is (2008), in which the most devastating assessments of VS Naipaul’s perfidy are delivered by VS Naipaul himself. In The Last Word Naipaul’s first wife, whom he called “Patsy,” becomes “Peggy,” and his celebrated Argentine mistress Margaret becomes a Colombian mistress Marion. As Harry hears the older writer howling in the night—and watches a ghost of the writer’s first wife appear in his room, only to morph into a vision of Harry’s own late mother—one recalls how Theroux wrote of Naipaul’s “haunted” country lair, that “it seemed to me the weirdest place I had ever been.”
Harry is nothing like Patrick French, an exceptionally accomplished writer who had already published one biography of a complex man of empire (Francis Younghusband) before he took on Naipaul, and who seems to see in Naipaul an embodiment of the unapologetic seriousness and passionate candour you don’t often find on the English literary scene. (“It could be said that I killed her,” Naipaul calmly told French of his first wife, on the record. “It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.”) Kureishi’s protagonist, by comparison, is a rather clueless sort who explains of Liana, “When she calls me mediocre and uncreative, as she does most days, I shake with fury and cry alone.” His hosts can almost be seen licking their lips.
At the same time, Harry remains a Kureishi protagonist, which means that he’s the product of a psychiatrist father and a rebellious mother who “condemned her husband for not believing in the 60s’ idea that madness brought wisdom.” So even as he’s earnestly questioning sources by day—“How was he at cunnilingus?”—by night he’s stealing out of his subject’s cottage for walks on the wild side, often with his hosts’ mistreated maid. And as he and Mamoon’s wife begin to circle around one another, too, Kureishi seems to be teasing out one of the most intriguing implications in Theroux’s book, which is that Naipaul was deliberately setting up his acolyte with his sexually starved first wife, in part so he could write about their betrayals. Even as the younger writer openly venerates the older man’s gravitas—and literary recklessness—the older man cannot conceal his envy of his biographer’s sexual ease and confidence.
It’s rich and charged material, and yet much of the time Kureishi seems barely able to summon any interest in his subsidiary characters. Harry is made to say things to Liana like “You are a succulent woman, juicy as a dolphin, and at your sexual peak too.” The Italian wife is turned into a sexually frustrated houri flinging paperweights at her husband and talking of dancing to Abba. Harry’s fashion-plate blank page of a girlfriend, Alice, declares to Mamoon, straight-faced: “Perhaps I did mention, to help me locate you, that you are a maestro like the maestro Valentino, beloved of many, including Liana.”
It’s hard to believe that a playwright and screenwriter as seasoned as Kureishi could commit lines such as these. His characters go in and out of focus as if he were waking up occasionally, only to nod off again. Mamoon, who often delivers classically pained and weary bons mots, is found shouting at Harry, as they play tennis: “My nuts are not even sweating! Make me run! Don’t you want to kill the jumped-up wog who has stolen your white women?” Whenever several characters are on stage in this bizarrely theatrical novel, it turns into knockabout slapstick. As soon as two characters are alone, however, really boring into one another, we draw closer to Kureishi’s central awareness that something real and intense can be exchanged as soon as people are in bed together (or on the couch).
And almost every time the Naipaul character comes onto the scene, the narrative snaps to attention (“I knew that I had to be at my best whenever I was with [Naipaul],” Theroux confessed). It’s as if the old master casts a spell over the page, much as Naipaul can do in life; when Mamoon tells Harry, early on, “I will always be the stranger in your book,” it has the power of an ancient curse. All his evasions and provocations serve only to underline the devotion he’s defending. “It is hard work, betraying others in order not to betray oneself,” he says. And: “People come and ask me for universal truths, but this is the wrong address. You’ll only get universal questions here, the ones that make literature.”
Kureishi’s admiration for Naipaul shines out in his portrayal of Mamoon, as he towers above the stick figures who stumble around him, and Harry recalls how Mamoon had begun to publish his uncompromising work at a time when people would say to him, “Why would you think anyone could be interested in these bloody Indians!” Again and again the book describes the man as a “radical transgressor—for whom accurate language was always revolutionary”; he’s a “hero and holy transgressor.” While Harry wonders, privately, and in anguish, to what extent a biographer should deface the impeccable art with details from the shoddy life, Mamoon begins to sound like the sonorous Olympian voice of Kureishi’s deepest assumptions: “One falls in love, and then learns, for the duration, that one is at the mercy of someone else’s childhood.”
There’s no doubt that a Naipaul figure filtered through Kureishi is less interesting than a Kureishi sharpened and given fibre by a Naipaul. And there are moments when Mamoon, too, becomes a cartoon (he “was keen to kickbox and learn some capoeira moves”). Having made his Naipaul a Muslim, Kureishi makes little of it; sometimes he has him educated at Oxford, sometimes, seemingly inadvertently, at Cambridge. And when he describes Mamoon as writing for Playboy and Esquire, one realises that he’s describing Kureishi territory, not Naipaul’s. Yet his central character never loses his ability to surprise us—in other words, to breathe—and seems to recognise that by refusing to conform to expectation, he’ll always be alive, commanding and almost corrosively magnetic. The Last Word is a curious tribute to the “terrorist” that Kureishi has said he prefers in art to any nice, emollient “masseur.”
Pico Iyer’s most recent book is “The Man Within My Head” (Bloomsbury)
The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi (Faber & Faber, £18.99)