Hanif Kureishi is getting the last word on postmodern biography

To say this is not a book based on V S Naipaul is taking the mickey.

The Last Word
Hanif Kureishi
Faber & Faber, 286pp, £18.99

Hanif Kureishi’s new novel has attracted a great deal of pre-publication notice, not because it’s a new novel by Hanif Kureishi (whose recent work has, in truth, not been particularly newsworthy) but because the story revolves around a young writer commissioned to compile the autobiography of a crotchety and celebrated literary elder. The relationship between the two men closely mirrors that between V S Naipaul and Patrick French, whose 2008 authorised biography of the Nobel laureate, The World Is What it Is, was remarkable for its unflattering candour.

Kureishi’s grandee, Mamoon, is an Indian-born novelist turned English country gent with “a wide chest, goatee beard, black eyes” who is notorious for his brusqueness, his flamboyantly protective younger wife, his right-wingery and his uncompromising views on foreigners – despite being one himself. His first success as a writer is with “an amusing and well observed novel about his father”. Mamoon’s biographer, Harry, has written a biography of Nehru.

V S Naipaul, meanwhile, is a Trinidadian Indian with a wide chest, goatee beard, black eyes and so on. His first successful book was A House for Mr Biswas, a novel about his father. Patrick French has written about the founders of Indian independence. Although the similarities between Mamoon and Naipaul are too abundant to catalogue, Kureishi has claimed that his novel is not based on real people – which tips disingenuousness into taking the mickey.

Where once biography was a simple two-up two-down, it has these days been extended into a house of many mansions, and The Last Word could be seen as just the latest addition. To think of it, though, as an exercise in postmodernism or even as a roman-à-clef would be misleading: however many attributes Mamoon shares with Naipaul and however much the relationship between biographer and subject borrows from real life, the book is a fully imaginative endeavour.

So, in the fictional world, Mamoon needs money. His second wife, Liana, has expensive tastes and yearns for a flat in London as well as their pile in Somerset. Liana, an opera buffa figure with more than a hint of Nancy Dell’Olio about her, does not understand that a grand literary reputation does not mean equally lofty sales figures. Mamoon is “the sort of writer of whom people asked ‘Is he still alive do you know?”’. A biography offers the chance to confirm his continuing existence, shape his legacy and, above all, whip up interest in his books.

For Harry, “a nerdy connoisseur of sentences” who is nevertheless irresistible to women, Mamoon represents both a career-defining opportunity and a fraught one. As his publisher, Rob Deveraux (a boorish drunkard whose depiction must have elicited some nervous laughter in the Faber offices), puts it, if Harry doesn’t do a good job “you’ll be so fucked up you’ll have to get work as an academic”.

When Harry goes to stay with his subject in the country he finds himself beleaguered. He can hardly get Mamoon to talk to him (“You’re in the remembering business while I’m in the forgetting game”, Mamoon points out) while Liana flits between hectoring, flirting and neediness. Harry has to mine his material from the diaries of Mamoon’s callously treated first wife, Peggy (op cit Naipaul’s first wife, Patricia) and a later Colombian lover Marion (ibid Margaret Murray) with whom Mamoon had an unconventional sex life. To take his mind off his work, Harry has his fiancée, Alice, and Julia, a chav with a heart of gold who helps around the house.

The mystery in this country-house set-up is the game of cat and mouse between Mamoon and Harry, which Kureishi lays out with great aplomb. Who is really the subject and who the writer here? This is a novel conducted in dialogue and Mamoon gets the best lines, not least about writing itself: “Only women or poofs write now – otherwise, these days, no sooner has someone been sodomised by a close relative than they think they can write a memoir.” There are numerous instances when you sense Kureishi is using Mamoon to say the things he would really like to say in his own voice.

This verbal jousting, which eventually leads to a half-twist, takes the place of plot – drama is limited to Mamoon beating Harry about the head with a walking stick. Writing for both Mamoon and Harry – and presumably Kureishi, too – is a visceral business and the patter between all the characters has a sharp edge. It is not so visceral, however, that Kureishi forgets to be thoroughly entertaining or steer his conversations with great variety and skill. Biography, as he notes, “is a process of disillusionment”; fiction though, as he shows here, can be every bit as perceptive but also much funnier.

 

V S Naipaul in 1968. Photo: John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era