Arts: You call it fiction, I call it egotism

Blake Morrison accused Hanif Kureishi of pillaging his private life and passing it off as fiction in his new novel. Look who's telling stories, replied Kureishi.
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Hanif Kureishi is reading rather hurriedly, rather nervously, from a script whose pages, when he turns them, keep banging against the microphone, shocking himself and the audience. He's dressed in crumpled denims and a jacket that looks as if it may have started life as a tartan picnic rug until some enterprising seamstress saw other, grander possibilities in it - something more shapely, perhaps, to adorn the shoulders of a rising, photogenic novelist. She even added bright, eye-catching metallic buttons for good measure.

His face, gently tapering, looks olive-skinned and extremely smoothly shaven in this artificial light; his sideboards are the narrowest and the cruellest I've ever seen. The front of his curly hair is oiled and shaped up into a fairly defiant quiff of sorts. It looks like the upward drift of a complicated smoke ring. In order to prove that he's communicating with us and not lost in some profound inner reverie, his head keeps jerking up and down, up and down - the words are a mouthful of seeds that he lifts and spits forth, one by one.

It's the opening pages of a short (he wrote it in one month, and then took another month to rewrite), newly published novel, Intimacy, that's he reading from, and it's all about the dilemma facing the man who decides that he must leave his wife and family because his life has become intolerable to him, a continuous act of self-betrayal.

"What am I free for?" pleas the desperate, and desperately confused, first-person narrator. Vast black curtains rise up behind Kureishi, dwarfing him and underpinning the mood of the extract.

As he continues to read, another man, slender and middle-aged, seated at a low table in front of a tall, unwinking glass of water and sombrely dressed in a black corduroy suit, pays fierce, almost unblinking attention to him as if he feels somehow morally responsible for what this fairly reckless and impulsive man is saying out loud.

As soon as Kureishi finishes, hurrying away from the lectern with visible relief, Blake Morrison, his interrogator for the evening, gets stuck into him. Not aggressively so though, because Morrison doesn't work like that. He has a seemingly harmless, mild and fairly self- effacing manner which compliments very well his unforced, mid- Yorkshire accent. He canoodles and wheedles. He never shouts because shouting gets you nowhere.

Morrison writes fact, he explains with a coy half-smile - he strokes one hand with another as if it needs soothing - whereas Kureishi writes fiction. And there are boundaries between these two things, he adds. Kureishi listens carefully, fist pressed tight against his mouth. But some reviewers have read your book as a personal confession, adds Morrison, and you left your own wife and children just as the book's narrator does. So is it really a novel or not?

Of course it's fiction, says Kureishi. "Its about a bloke's state of mind, over a single night. He's going mad. Just because it's written in the first person doesn't mean that it's an act of personal confession. It's an artificial construct. Confessions suggest you're doing it for yourself."

"But what about that sentence which goes something like: `There are certain fucks for which you'd have your partner drown in a freezing sea?'"

Kureishi fingers the back of his neck, then throws his head back imperiously, more pugnacious, more sure of himself now.

"Look, its quite irrelevant where it all comes from. Some stuff came from me, lots from other people. I can't remember which was which. The important thing is what happens between the reader and the book, whether it actually means something to them."

"But didn't your sister complain about being used?" harried Morrison with infinite gentleness and persistence. Kureishi scoffed at the very thought of it.

"On the contrary, she complained about being omitted. And anyway, different people are bound to remember things differently. In the course of the innumerable press conferences that my mother now gives, she claims that she used to like Dickens and Shakespeare. It seems to me that she was principally watching Emmerdale Farm during those years, but we are all entitled to our views ... all our lives are fictions, aren't they? What did your sister say when you wrote that book about your father?

Morrison spluttered with mild indignation. "But I was writing non-fiction! I had an obligation to tell the truth. You seem to have a very different contract. You feel that you have the freedom to do what you like. But let me ask you one thing: is there any detail of any single person's life that you wouldn't put into print? Do you ever leave things out?"

Kureishi smiled. Something apposite had occurred him. "Evelyn Waugh used to say that you could write anything about a person provided that you added that they were attractive to the opposite sex." Then he gave an almighty fudge of an answer to Morrison's specific inquiry.

"We have to use our lives. They're figures in our world. We make things up all the time, of course. This is being alive. As a novelist, you take bits of people and mix them all up. To me, it's the freedom to imagine around people that's important. You can't tiptoe through the world!"

And anyway, wasn't Morrison himself being a bit economical with the truth? That the book about his father, for example - wasn't that really, when all was said and done, a marvellous piece of story-telling? Hadn't he shuffled things around, polished things up - just as any writer of fiction would? Now it was Morrison's turn to look a little less sure of his ground. "Well, in order to make a story, you have to do a certain amount of rearranging ..."

"But surely it's more than that! Your way is much more misleading then mine because it denies the elements of invention altogether. Your contract is not worth the paper it's not written on."

"My sister would accept it though. I'll even give you her telephone number, if you like!"

And so the mighty battle between the respective claims of fiction and non-fiction raged on, with each man giving, and then seizing back, a little precious ground as late evening moved inexorably towards night, when even literary combatants must lay down their paper swords and sleep the sleep of the questionably just.

`Intimacy' is published by Faber


Jay is leaving his partner and their two sons. This passage is from the beginning of the novel, on the eve of his departure:

`It is the saddest night, for I am leaving and not coming back. Tomorrow morning, when the woman I have lived with for six years has gone to work on her bicycle, and our children have been taken to the park with their ball, I will pack some things into a suitcase, slip out of my house hoping that no one will see me, and take the tube to Victor's place. There, for an unspecified period, I will sleep on the floor in the tiny room he has kindly offered me, next to the kitchen. Each morning I will heave the thin single mattress back to the airing cupboard. I will stuff the musty duvet into a box. I will replace the cushions on the sofa.

`I will not be returning to this life. I cannot. Perhaps I should leave a note to convey this information. "Dear Susan, I am not coming back..." Perhaps it would be better to ring tomorrow afternoon. Or I could visit at the weekend. The details I haven't decided. Almost certainly I will not tell her my intentions this evening or tonight. I will put it off. Why? Because words are actions and they make things happen. Once they are out you cannot put them back. Something irrevocable will have been done, and I am fearful and uncertain. As a matter of fact, I am trembling, and have been all afternoon, all day.

This, then, could be our last evening as an innocent, complete, ideal family; my last night with a woman I have known for ten years, a woman I know almost everything about, and want no more of. Soon we will be like strangers. No, we can never be that. Hurting someone is an act of reluctant intimacy. We will be dangerous acquaintances with a history. That first time she put her hand on my arm - I wish I had turned away. Why didn't I. The waste; the waste of time and feeling. She has said something similar about me. But do we mean it? I am in at least three minds about all questions.

`I perch on the edge of the bath and watch my sons, aged five and three, one at each end. Their toys, plastic animals and bottles float on the surface, and they chatter to themselves and one another, neither fighting nor whingeing, for a change. They are ebullient and fierce, and people say what happy and affectionate children they are.' This morning, before I set out for the day, knowing I had to settle a few things in my mind, the elder boy, insisting on another kiss before I closed the door, said, "Daddy, I love everyone." '