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Booker Prize nominee Gabriel Krauze: “I always had this instinct for wildness”

The debut novelist on his criminal past, generational trauma, and how falling in love changed him.

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The opening chapter of Gabriel Krauze’s novel, Who They Was, which was published this month, ends with what appears to be an act of comic juxtaposition. The narrator, who shares the author’s name, has been telling us about a violent robbery that he committed with his friend, Gotti – a “mad ting”. The incident is recounted in detail, some of it technical and almost tender (“black cotton Nick tracksuits on so there’s no sound of clothes rustling”), some visceral (“it’s like my entire body has turned into the pumping of my heart”), some shocking (“I snap her finger back, it folds straight over so the tip touches her wrist in one go”). Then, as Gabriel is heading back to the estate in south Kilburn, north-west London, where he lives, he remembers that he needs to get plenty of rest for “my 9 a.m. uni lecture”. 

The reception to Krauze’s novel – one of the eight debuts included on this year’s Booker Prize longlist – has focused on the author’s supposed paradoxes. A headline in the Times identified “The Russell group uni gangster (with grade eight piano)”.  The Daily Mail called him the “London gangster” who never missed “a lecture”. Krauze, who was born in London in 1986, completed an English degree at Queen Mary University (“it was so banging”) while devoting energy to what he calls “other things”. He wrote his undergraduate thesis in the breaks between selling drugs in Folkestone. During his second year, he spent time at Feltham young offenders’ institution. 

But while Who They Was contains jostling registers – London street slang and poetic description, present-tense adrenaline and lingering self-scrutiny – Krauze told me recently that nothing about the novel was “intended” to seem comic, and the swings from stealing jewellery to piping up in Nietzsche seminars (“I start breaking down the concept of the Dionysian and the Apolline”) are done with as little fuss as he could manage. Krauze, who has a shaved head and wears gold prostheses on his teeth, was sitting in the living room of his flat, in Blake Court, one of the towers on the estate where the book is set. “I wasn’t living a ‘double life,’” he explained. “I was just living my life. That was reality for me.”

I have known Krauze on and off for almost 20 years. Though I can recall at least one incident – a routine central London dust-up –when he was a useful person to have by my side, mostly we would just go clubbing and watch arthouse films on VHS. Some people I knew would shake their head in bafflement at this “rude boy” who was also a kind of genius, a spotty teenager whose snaking sentences mixed patois and polysyllables and seemed to hover somewhere between freestyle and Radio 4. But Gabriel was no more divided then than he is now. Looking back, I think he is one of the most congruent, self-possessed, and emotionally honest people I have ever met. He didn’t code switch. I saw no evidence of play-acting or bad faith. When we watched the philosophical two-hander, My Dinner with Andre, he was almost certainly wearing a baseball cap and a gold chain. 

But the critics’ amused condescension when the bookish and the streetwise come together ignores a number of famous exceptions. A great deal of writing has concerned itself with the earthy or low-life, and the acquaintance has frequently been first-hand. There are the examples of Charles Dickens, working in a blacking factory before he redefined the English social novel, and D H Lawrence, the divinely inspired son of a barely literate Nottingham collier. Cursory knowledge of T S Eliot’s life in London – and his early poems, with their pubs and cheap hotels – should have prevented any sense of surprise that he enjoyed the music-hall singer Marie Lloyd. Saul Bellow grew up poor in 1920s Chicago, and his brother became a gangster. But his friends at school were obsessed with literature, and Bellow ended up as the kind of writer who, as the poet Craig Raine once observed, would use the word “tergiversate” on one page and “slugger” the next. Krauze, the son of Polish immigrants who moved to London in the early 1980s, presents no greater contradiction, though his preferred reference points are Isaac Babel and Caravaggio (“I’m not comparing myself to Caravaggio”).

Who They Was works hard to minimise irony and distance by aiming for total immersion in the mind of its author’s younger self. There is no retrospective commentary or “overarching framework” or “overtly redemptive direction”. At one point, the narrator says, “I don’t feel no way about anything I’ve done so far”. Krauze said that it was important “not to use the worldview that I have now,” not to impose the sense that, in his 2020 vision, “it’s not cool to fucking rob people’s Rolexes”. He said he had to be sure that the book reflected exactly “how I was, and how I used to think, between the ages of 18 and 24, innit”.  

Krauze’s argument that the book is “not a fucking glamorisation” rests on a kind of granular unpleasantness. It had always been his habit to “obsessively keep records”. Following what he calls a “nuts” conversation with his barrister – in which they tossed around literary reference-points for his predicament – Krauze wrote down everything he could remember on the sheet of his probation report. He ended up with a huge pile of notes – a “mad tapestry,” as he calls it – and in 2016, he set about turning it into a book. “I thought, ‘I’m just not going to do anything else,’” he said. At first, he hit upon a style that was “mad-flowery, almost 19th century, just shit,” but then he found the balance he was seeking, and wrote a draft in five months.

Krauze said he has been surprised by the book’s reception, partly because it’s “quite unconventional as a work of literature,” and also because it could have been “ignored, forgotten, or misunderstood” due to the “constant concern with voices that are very obviously marginalised”. He says that his subject matter is marginalised in a way that induces less guilt. But while people talk about London gangs – “every now and then, a journalist will write a book” – he says that “you’ll never get close to knowing what it actually is like to be a gang member in London”. That was his aim in Who They Was.

The idea of Krauze as a sort of border-straddler has its roots in a narrowly social reading of his life. His friends from south Kilburn do not talk about Toni Morrison and Primo Levi. He is surely right to say that he was “one of the few people” in his year at private school, where he had a scholarship, who witnessed a stabbing aged 13. But Krauze thinks that if you approach his experience through a class lens, you miss the role of temperament. He stressed that his twin brother, Daniel Pioro – a violinist who has appeared at the Proms – was never involved in any criminal activity. “I always had this instinct for wildness,” he says. “It wasn’t like I suddenly started getting in trouble when I was 18-years-old, in my gap year. Obviously there was bare shit in my life before.” (He didn’t last long at the school.)

Both of Krauze’s parents are artists – his father is the illustrator and cartoonist, Andrzej Krauze – and as a small boy, he would often draw violent battle scenes, with geysers of blood spewing from chopped-off limbs. When his primary-school teacher addressed her concerns with his mother, she replied that Gabriel almost never watched television. 

He thinks that narratives about inner cities fail to understand that “young men banding together is going to continue unless suddenly everyone lives in a utopia,” and wants to offer an “alternative understanding”. Crime may happen because of poverty, but it also happens “because of instinct, the instinct to be an outlaw – to reject society’s expectations, to reject family”. (One of the classic studies in this field, Robert Lindner’s Rebel Without a Cause, points to the central factor with the subtitle “The Story of a Criminal Psychopath”.)

Krauze doesn’t resist the idea that he held membership of “different worlds,” but the attraction to these worlds originated in the same part of him. That thesis he wrote while selling drugs wasn’t about George Herbert, it was about murder in Hamlet, and he read a lot of philosophy that helped him think about themes such as suffering and free will. When I suggested that openness to artistic experience and a tendency towards violence might have a common root in deep emotional sensitivity, Krauze agreed. He says that he finds his own psychic pain a complicated thing to discuss “because of the amount of people I probably traumatised,” but he admitted that recently he has been reading about epigenetics – the study of generational trauma. He described his strong physical reaction to learning about the events of the Warsaw Uprising, a failed operation mounted by the Polish resistance against occupying German forces in 1944. “What happened to my own people made me want to cry,” he said. Though he suffered no abuse or neglect growing up, he confesses to an inborn sense of struggle – the legacy of coming from a troubled place and being descended from people who had experienced atrocity.

In gang culture, he says, “no one will admit that they’re traumatised. For me, it took years.”  He cites the influence of a woman he met who was “completely unimpressed by everything about me, my lifestyle, the aggression, the traumatised aspect of me or whatever, that part of myself that just believed the world is a brutal place”. He said the experience of falling in love with her changed him “almost overnight,” and his book is the fruit of his changes. But he is keen to depict his former confusion without providing the reassuring sense when the reader “puts the book down, that everything is OK, what they read is just a well-crafted piece of fiction, powerful or whatever, and they can get on with their lives”. 

And so Krauze’s life continues. He is no longer “involved in criminality,” but he continues to bear the impact of the experiences that formed him. As we sat in his living room, drinking cups of tea, or lingered on the outdoors walkway, looking out over South Kilburn Estate, discussing Godard and guns and the Booker Prize, Krauze felt no more pressure than ever before to choose between his gold teeth and his paperbacks, or to pretend that he doesn’t love Shostakovich as much as rap, or to reject his complex unity in favour of bizarrely stubborn cliches about how a writer might look and talk and carry themselves, or what they might have witnessed and endured.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.