Having myself been accused of writing a roman-à-clef, and having had my novel A Vicious Circle dropped by its original publisher, I picked up The Last Word with particular interest. Hanif Kureishi’s seventh novel has been widely bruited as being “about” V S Naipaul, the oldest and grandest of post-colonial novelists. Harry, a middle-class white Englishman with literary aspirations, is sent to interview Mamoon Azam, an eminent cricket-loving British Indian novelist now living in the Somerset countryside and on his second marriage, to a glamorous Italian. From this, much comedy and drama ensue.
I especially dislike the roman-à-clef genre as something which philistines use to whip up spurious excitement over fiction: but this has not prevented the illiberal and self-obsessed from using our libel laws to bully the fourth estate. But Sir Vidia must already feel the scenario to be over-familiar. There has already been a pretty repulsive memoir by Paul Theroux of his 30-year friendship with Naipaul, and in 2008 a biography, The World is What it Is by Patrick French, presenting the Nobel laureate as a bigot, snob, adulterer and sexist – apparently with the novelist’s approval. Yet this, like Harry’s “intimate biography”, contains some eye-popping smut. Would Kureishi’s novel have Naipaul calling his learned friends?
Mais non. Naipaul has not batted an eyelid, which speaks volumes either for his lack of narcissism, his sense of the difference between life and art, or his dignity. Three cheers for a genuine artist and boo to the rest. If, however, you know little or care less about Sir Vidia, what possible interest could Kureishi’s novel hold for you? Quite a lot, it turns out.
The debatable land between the biographer and subject has already been explored in novels from AS Byatt’s Possession to William Golding’s The Paper Men, and it is a rich one. Fiction and biography both grope towards the truth of individual existence, and though we may all be tired of fiction about fiction, it’s worth being reminded why it still matters. In one of Kureishi’s better aphorisms we are told that “a writer is loved by strangers and hated by his family”; having previously been accused of anatomising his own marriage in Intimacy, we might expect to find a giant chip of ice glinting in the author’s heart in The Last Word.
Harry, through whose eyes we see the whole story, begins as deeply respectful towards the “significant artist” whom he is travelling through a state-of-the-nation countryside to meet. The “Great Literary Satan” has a wife with expensive tastes, failing health and falling sales, even though his work, “too cerebral, unyielding and harrowing to be widely read,” is in every good bookshop in the world. He needs to become a brand, and the biography is part of a strategy. Harry’s rascally publisher, Ron, knows it’s both an advantage and a nuisance to write a biography of someone who is alive. Predictably, the novel provides both, together with a twist or two.
For what fun Mamoon is! His assessments of other writers are “more like road rage than literary criticism”, and his insistence in linking an artist’s libido with creativity provides much comedy.
Yet where this novel steps away from satirising a literary monster and his absurd marriage, it describes the business of an artist approaching death with a brio which makes this Kureishi’s best novel since The Buddha of Suburbia, perhaps because it returns to the original themes of family, race and identity. The climax is a setpiece in which Mamoon toasts some boring dinner guests with “total self-destruction” and “happy apocalypse”. More heart-rending is Mamoon’s cry that: “A bad review is the least of our problems … I fear the game is almost up for the truth. People don’t want it: it doesn’t help them get rich.”
Kureishi is, of course, someone the reader enjoys arguing with. You may disagree that “people admired Britain only because of its literature” while cheering Harry on. Mamoon is mean, drunken, bigoted, vain and yet touched with genius; Harry himself seems to blend with his subject, his command of English collapsing into florid convolutions .
Far from being a roman-à-clef, The Last Word becomes a vehicle for Kureishi’s own persona – as all serious novels are. It is flawed by silliness about sex, but not by malice or the clod-hopping attentions of libel lawyers. But the assertion at its heart, that a writer can be an artist, telling the truth, makes this book important as well as enjoyable.
Amanda Craig’s novels include A Private Place and Hearts and Minds (Abacus £8.99)