At the start of Hanif Kureishi’s new novel The Last Word, a young, ambitious writer is on his way from London to Taunton to meet one of the most prestigious literary authors around.
Harry Johnson will write the biography of Indian-born novelist, essayist and playwright Mamoon Azam, a writer he has admired all his life. Accompanied by his innovative and respected, yet possibly alcoholic, publisher Rob Deveraux, Harry knows he is in for a tough time: Mamoon is known for his bluntness. As Harry settles into the house Mamoon shares with his wife Liana, the connection between the two writers deepens, strengthens and bristles; the job impacts not just on the relationship between Mamoon and Harry, but on their other relationships, too.
The Buddha of Suburbia
Kureishi’s début novel The Buddha of Suburbia won the Whitbread Award for the best first novel, and he says it is interesting how similar The Last Word is to his breakout hit: “It’s odd how you end up doing similar things when you try and do something new. Both novels are about a young man and an older man and what you might call their Oedipal relationship. But for The Last Word the idea of having these two men talking was a very good setup for me, especially with them both being writers. I spend my life thinking and talking about writing and creativity, that is one of the big subjects of the book—what it is to be creative, and what it is to be a writer.”
The pair have long, intense and often fraught debates, and their difference in ages ensures a disparity in opinion, despite their similarities—they are both equally flawed in their views on love, sex and sexuality. “I can’t think of anybody who isn’t flawed in that way. I don’t think it would be interesting to write about someone who is a saint. A lot of what they say is just provocations; a lot of conversation, in a way, is about doing something to someone else. One character is going to write a book about the other one—that book will become an important version of their life, so their conversations are bigger than chats, they are battles. It is a real battle between them; they’re going to kill each other if they’re not careful. “
The Last Word is Kureishi’s first book in six years, but he has been keeping busy. At the end of 2013 “Le Week-end”—a film he scripted—was released, starring Jim Broadbent and Jeff Goldblum, and this year Faber will also publish Love and Hate, a collection of his essays and stories, ahead of his 60th birthday in December.
When publication of The Last Word was announced in August, many commented on how the plot seemed to echo the relationship between Nobel Prize-winner author V S Naipaul and his biographer Patrick French. As to whether that story proved to be the initial inspiration for him or not, Kureishi is clear: “I can’t say there were any particular people in mind. It wouldn’t have been interesting to me if I had just tried to draw a picture of something that happened to somebody else.
“You have to inhabit an idea yourself; writing a book or a film takes a long time, so you really have to feel like it is life or death for you. I just wanted a situation where I could then think about women and writing and sex and race—all the things I’ve been thinking about my whole life. This setup is an excuse to write the book I needed to write, because you can explore certain things: what do these characters think about marriage and relationships? (Which means you spend months and years thinking, ‘what do I think about marriage and relationships?’) A story is an excuse to think about something.”
The Last Word
Asked if he would rather be the biographer or the subject, Kureishi quips that he would rather be Mamoon’s put-upon wife, Liana. “She’s a great girl, a great character. I loved writing her. I love writing about middle-aged women and looking at what it means to be a woman married to a man for a long time. Especially with a big egotist like Mamoon: he would be a nightmare to live with. I wouldn’t want to be married to him, but on the other hand he is a very successful, interesting man. You would have an interesting life with him.
“But Liana realises that she’s stuck with this man—he’s not going to go away, and she isn’t going to marry anyone else. Her sexuality has come to an end and that’s a big blow to her, as it would be to anyone. So she enjoys talking about that with Harry, who is good at creating intimacy with women. Harry goes from woman to woman, it is a terrible weakness, and I hope he learns. I hope Liana teaches him something. I like her uninhibited extravagance; I like her neediness. The fact is you are not just one character in a book, you’re the whole thing. The whole book is what they call a selfie.”
In many places The Last Word is very tongue-in-cheek about the publishing industry, exposing the ridiculousness at even the most respected publishing houses as authors young and old struggle to become “brands”. As, Mamoon asks Liana: “Brand, did you say, darling habibi? Would I have to become like Heinz ketchup or a Mont Blanc pen?”
“Writing is an art, but it is also a business,” says Kureishi. “I’m trying to be an artist but I’ve also got to send my kids to school. The writing schools often teach about just being an artist, but that’s not the half of it; that conversation about being a brand is what is happening, that’s what it has become.” As Professor of Creative Writing at Kingston University, I wonder if Kureishi enjoys teaching? “I do, but it drives me absolutely crazy because I am so impatient with my students. I want to kill them. But I have to learn how to be patient and let them take their time with things.” It must be terrifying to have you as a teacher though? “They are fucking terrified yeah, you can see their little eyes scattering about with terror when I start yelling at them. They shake with fear, but it makes them raise their game, it’s good for them to get a bollocking.”
Despite the heavy issues it covers, The Last Word is in many places laugh-out-loud funny, and Kureishi’s writing has a trademark dry wit. He says that “doing comedy is really hard—actually being able to make people laugh and make it enjoyable is what you spend your whole life trying to do. Someone said to me about Le Week-end, ‘that was a bit of fluff,’ and I thought, thank God for that! That’s all you want, to do something light—like a Matisse drawing or a song by The Beatles. That’s really hard to do.
“As an artist, all you try and do is erase all the effort that it took to do it; all you want at the end is this one line. I’m interested in love, race, sexuality, aging—the most important things—but I also want to reach an audience and give people a good time. I mean, we’re in show business. I wanted this to be—as with Le Week-end—entertaining for the public, not just therapy for me.”
The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi is out now, published by Faber. Photograph credit Kier Kureishi.