Hanif Kureishi

Confessions of a tease
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The Independent Online

How would you illustrate Hanif Kureishi's reputation as a writer in the last years of the Nineties as he prepares to publish his latest book of short stories, Midnight All Day, early in November? As it happens, the perfect answer lies close at hand, in the Tate's Turner Prize shortlist show. Look at Tracey Emin's notorious unmade bed, lapped with its scummy tide of soiled knickers, empty bottles, used condoms and discarded pharmaceuticals. It seems an uncannily good match for the versatile author whose cold-eyed "confessional" fiction has - within two years - transformed his public image from genial young(ish) scamp to heartless middle-aged roué.

How would you illustrate Hanif Kureishi's reputation as a writer in the last years of the Nineties as he prepares to publish his latest book of short stories, Midnight All Day, early in November? As it happens, the perfect answer lies close at hand, in the Tate's Turner Prize shortlist show. Look at Tracey Emin's notorious unmade bed, lapped with its scummy tide of soiled knickers, empty bottles, used condoms and discarded pharmaceuticals. It seems an uncannily good match for the versatile author whose cold-eyed "confessional" fiction has - within two years - transformed his public image from genial young(ish) scamp to heartless middle-aged roué.

Both identities tell only a fraction of the tangled truth. In teasing works of art, Kureishi has apparently opened the door to his bedroom and disclosed nasty tales of infidelity and desertion within. Yet what looks like solid biography often turns out to be a deceiving hall of mirrors. He has always adored mischief and provocation, "a bit of a flap". He still does. We should take his scandals with a handful of salt.

The fuss began with the ostensible story of another Tracey - Tracey Scoffield, former editor at Faber & Faber, the mother of Kureishi's twins Sachin and Carlo, and the reputed subject of an icily brilliant novella called Intimacy that Faber published (without informing her) in May 1998. Over a single night of heart-searching, Jay, the writer-narrator of Intimacy, decides to forsake partner, home and children for a much younger woman - as the author himself had done, with his current partner Monique, not long before.

"There are some fucks for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a freezing sea," Jay infamously proclaimed - in a line Kureishi liked so much that he recycled it into this spring's National Theatre play Sleep With Me. Nearly every detail of Jay and Susan's life seemed to dovetail with biographical reality, from the Oscar screenplay nomination (won by Kureishi for My Beautiful Laundrette in 1986) and the relatives in Lahore, right down to the layout of the writer's study in west London.

Understandably enough, Scoffield, her friends - and almost every female journalist in town - erupted in fury. "He says it's a novel," she said, "but that's an absolute abdication of responsibility. You may as well call it a fish." To compound his sins, Kureishi gave an interview that somehow pushed his quiet Bromley childhood sharply downmarket. His father Rafiushan - a Madras-born Muslim and thwarted writer who worked for 35 years at the Pakistani embassy - had died five years before. But his English mother Audrey and sister Yasmin were shocked to find their suburban comfort and culture demoted - as they saw - into some sort of back-street penury. "Does being famous mean you can devalue those around you and rewrite history for even more personal gain?" asked Yasmin. In fact, she had publicly challenged her brother's use of their background before - when she wrote an essay about Audrey for a Virago anthology. Then, Yasmin called into question Hanif's depiction of the mother figure as a listless doormat in his first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Time, perhaps, for a gentle reminder of how fiction works. Nothing in the elegant prose of Intimacy requires us to believe in, or approve of, the narrator, still less to treat this dark night of the soul as a manifesto for the absconding man. The book's critics seemed not to grasp the concepts of authorial irony or the unreliable narrator - without which, you can't read much of classic literature.

From one angle, indeed, Intimacy looks like the most swingeing portrait of feckless, lecherous middle-class masculinity yet painted in a culture full to the brim with self-exonerating lads-behaving-badly books. In one unforgettable, Tracey Emin-ish moment, Jay masturbates grimly into a pair of his unloved wife's frilly knickers as he dreams of his girlfriend. In the mirror, he sees "a grey-haired, grimacing, mad-eyed, monkey-like figure... I know I am more likely to weep than ejaculate".

The row helped push the book's sales over 100,000, and to launch a movie adaptation. Another round of recrimination may begin next month, when Kureishi - who will be 45 in December - publishes his second volume of stories, Midnight All Day. Its mercilessly-observed characters - 40-ish arts and media types with new girlfriends, old worries, drug habits and a mid-life crisis that looks set fair to become a whole-life crisis - once more yield up juicy titbits for any biographical bloodhound.

In the story "That Was Then", a disgruntled ex complains to her former lover that he has "used my sexual stuff" in a novel. "Why did you take parts of me and put them in a book?" she accuses. The cornered author replies with what may, or may not, turn out to be Kureishi's final word: "I took the parts of you I needed to make my book. It wasn't a fair or a final judgment but a practical transformation... Someone in a piece of fiction is a dream figure picked from one context and thrust into another... A tiny portion of them is used."

In another story, an arts bureaucrat glances with longing and anxiety at his pregnant girlfriend's bump as he watches the child of his broken marriage act in a Christmas play. (Kureishi and his partner, Monique, now have a 14-month-old son.) And in "The Umbrella", a media philosopher pleads for protection from the rain with his unforgiving former wife because he wants save a natty chocolate-coloured suit. (Since you ask, Kureishi does indeed possess such a garment.)

The shame is that this horribly interesting little circuit of rage, revenge and literary slight-of-hand accounts for just a "tiny portion" of Kureishi's own talent. He can still be the generous and open-hearted Chekhov of Bromley, as well as the slyly embittered Philip Roth of West Kensington. Released at the same time as Intimacy, the film My Son The Fanatic - scripted by Kureishi from his own story, and directed by Udayan Prasad - showcased the warm and funny connoisseur of character whom these quarrels have pushed into the shade. It gave one gem of a part to the great Indian actor Om Puri as a secular, bacon butty-loving cabbie with a pious Islamist son, and another to Rachel Griffiths as his street-walking lover.

The movie stretched its sympathies all the way from West Riding prostitutes to Muslim fundamentalists. Kureishi spent time among the angry Asian youth of Bradford in the wake of the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie. He retains the sharp, clear, non-judgmental eye of the first-rate reporter. Yet, even in this film, hints of self-examination still abound. "I have done nothing wrong," whines the jolly cab-driver Parvez when his wife packs to leave. "Oh, yes," she replies. "One unforgivable thing. Put self before family."

From the start, the equation of self and family proved the thorniest of puzzles for Kureishi. His well-born father, who met his mother on a blind date at Victoria Station in 1950, had sacrificed his own artistic ambitions for the safety of home. At some point, the son inwardly refused ever to strike a like bargain. Besides, Bromley in the age of David Bowie - its other famous contemporary son - felt more like a springboard than a resting-place.

A teenage rebel, Jimi Hendrix fan and incongruous Black Panther acolyte, Kureishi suffered real and wounding racial insults - even in the gentle Kentish suburbs of the Sixties. One teacher used to call him "Pakistani Pete". In the playground, skinheads turned Powellite taunts - and fists - on him.

The mixed background, the gnawing aspirations, the proud marginality, the love-affair with pop - all of that turned into Kureishi's dramatic trademark when the philosophy graduate left King's College, London, and began writing for the theatre. Even the titles of plays such as Outskirts and Birds of Passage tell of their uneasy pleasure in breaching boundaries. Success came fast - at 22 his work appeared at the Royal Court - but soon Kureishi hit the ceiling of the small-scale, subsidised stage. In a typically decisive move, he posted the Channel 4-commissioned script of My Beautiful Laundrette through director Stephen Frears's letterbox in Notting Hill. So another act began, more glamorous - and more risky.

The film's delirious spin on multi-cultural, Thatcher-battered Eighties Britain upgraded Frears, thrust Daniel Day-Lewis straight into stardom - and made its writer's name as well. For such an alleged narcissist, Kureishi has a fine record of creating career-boosting jobs for other people. But the sequel, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, suffered too much from a kind of Brixton frontline chic in its louche cocktail of sex and sociology. The critic Pauline Kael shrewdly called its underclass capers "as stylised as Hollywood musical". Then an ill-conceived debut as a film director, London Kills Me, collapsed into a droopy, druggie puddle - but Kureishi's literary star had started to ascend.

The Buddha of Suburbia begins with a line that already features in textbooks and theses: "My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost." Yet, in retrospect, the pathos of the book's disappointed father looms larger than the gate-crashing bohemian antics of the son - an impression deepened by Roshan Seth's exquisite performance in Roger Michell's TV adaptation.

A faithful (though discreet) disciple of Anton Chekhov, Kureishi has always peopled his work with yearning, baffled Uncle Vanya-type figures. Their frustration and immobility stand as an Awful Warning to the younger generation. In the light of Kureishi's more recent art - and life - we know how desperately he heeded it.

"It isn't people's greed and selfishness that surprises me," says a character from Midnight All Day, in a speech Chekhov might have written. "But how little people ask of life. What meagre demands they make, and the trouble they go to, to curb their hunger for experience." Perhaps the critics who once hailed Kureishi as the cheeky poster-boy of multi-racial Britain should have paid more attention to this simple - or rather, complex - humanity.

In any case, the role of trend-surfing likely lad yielded diminishing returns. By 1995, when Kureishi purloined one of Prince's titles for his second novel The Black Album, the strain of keeping up with youth culture had already begun to show. When he co-edited the Faber Book of Pop with the music writer Jon Savage, it looked more like the end of a personal era than just the latest chapter.

So his inward turn, towards the terrors and desires of middle life, was hardly unexpected. Yet it reacted with a new clarity and intensity in this writing - first in the stories of Love In A Blue Time, then in Intimacy itself - to deliver an almost visceral punch. Almost overnight, it seemed, something had deepened - and darkened - in his prose. His new collection circles intently round those fortysomething themes of doubtful love, corrosive loss - and fragile hope. It tells of botched endings and tentative beginnings, in a language of astringent purity. "To live was, in some sense, to believe in the future," decides one character. "You couldn't keep returning to the same dirty place."

Kureishi can hold a believable future, in the shape of his new baby by Monique and his twin sons. He can touch the past as well - in the trusty old desk and study with its pens and postcards just so, where he starts work early in the morning. "There are also cobwebs and spiders," he said recently. "My girlfriend would love to have people in to fumigate the place." Someone in the new book, intriguingly, worries that "love could be torn down in a minute, like taking a stick to a spider's web".

What Kureishi lacks, perhaps, is the sort of wide-angle project that might blow away the claustrophobic sadness of his current work. He first won acclaim because he turned such an amused and incisive eye on the comic oddities of modern British life, in all its cobwebby corners. He could, and maybe should, look outwards again. It will be soon time to shut the bedroom door.

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