Hanif Kureishi was the latest guest writer at the Maison de la Poésie last night, as part of the Tandem Paris-London cultural collaboration.
Sitting in the foyer before the talk I heard Kureishi say, referring to the person sitting next to me:
There’s a man reading one of my books, very unusual!”
"There’s a man reading one of my books, very unusual!" Is it? People talk about the death of the novel but it’s hard to estimate how much we are reading novels these days, unless it’s your business to know. If you look around on public transport 5 out of 6 people are on their smart devices, but given there’s now a Kindle app they could well all be reading his latest – “The Last Word”, published last year.
Perhaps most famous for his screenplays “My beautiful Launderette” and “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid” and his novels “The Buddha of Suburbia” and "Intimacy” he is as prolific a playwright as a screenwriter and novelist.
Of Pakistani and British heritage, growing up in the South London suburb of Bromley, it is hardly surprising that the principal themes in his stories are linked to immigration and mixed-race relationships. After being constantly asked where he was really from as a boy, he started questioning the meaning and thus began his interest in philosophy and psycho-analysis. He explored existential questions about belonging and the writer in him was born.
When asked why he became a writer rather than a journalist, as others in his family, he said that he became fascinated by people’s obsession with the notion of “the immigrant” as though immigrants could be grouped altogether and not identified as specifically different communities. He realised he wanted to tell stories of particular individuals, rather than discuss immigration as a social phenomenon: “We need better descriptions, more stories, more words. “
The “Last Word” is set in a country house, a confined space, something he’d always wanted to explore, “where characters are locked-up and where you know they are going to end up killing each other”, he specifies with laughs from the audience.
Kureishi reads philosophy and psychoanalysis to explore the nature of destruction, among other things; he wants to understand the central question of violence, mostly inflicted on oneself. He is also amazed at the thought that you can cure someone of a depression or neurosis for example, by having a conversation with them.
Reading fiction gets in the way of his “signal” as a writer, which he describes as a very libidinous activity, a thought he chooses not to develop further.
In the end what matters is giving the reader a good time”
In the end what matters is giving the reader a good time and as a professor in the writing department at Kingston University he asks his students: “Is anyone going to pay to read this?” Engagement with an audience is vital he says and with this he recognises that as a writer he balances commerce with art.
He recounted being a victim of fraud, having had his life savings stolen by a double-dealing accountant and he famously and somewhat controversially doesn’t shy away from using semi-biographical material as inspiration in his writing. In "Theft", one of a series of essays in “Love and Hate”, he describes “a conman at the height of his psychotic delirium.”
As a Londoner still, albeit West London now, he sees it as an island state, revealing that he’s as likely to come to Paris as he is to travel outside his own cosmopolitan capital.
I asked him how he would compare the lives of young, non-privileged school leavers in London today with those of the characters he portrays in “My Beautiful Launderette”, set in Thatcher’s 80s. His response doesn’t reflect well on the current state of things. Even those who have worked hard to get university degrees come out with huge debt – and debt he likens to a form of control. “Young Londoners can’t afford to rent flats let alone buy them”.
This is true, but are they still buying novels?