The Last Word, by Hanif Kureishi, Faber, RRP£18.99, 304 pages
Biography is a game of relative truths: rich pickings for an investigative novelist. In his new novel, Hanif Kureishi takes to a subject that has fascinated fiction-writers since Henry James’s The Aspern Papers. Harry Johnson – young, blond, expensively educated – is commissioned by his publisher to write a (preferably sensational) biography of a literary grand old man, Mamoon Azam.
Harry has a lively libido, frustrated literary hopes and a girlfriend with a severe shopping habit; Mamoon has a giant literary reputation, a faltering bank balance, a yen for immortality and a wife with a severe shopping habit. Harry’s credentials for the job, we’re invited to believe, are that he has published a biography of Nehru “lightly spiced with interracial copulation, buggery, alcoholism and anorexia”, as befits the contemporary art of life-writing. He dreams of becoming a great novelist himself.
Installed in Mamoon’s English country home, Harry quickly finds that in the face of the great man’s evasiveness the person to please is Liana, Mamoon’s current wife and anxious gatekeeper; that secrets lie with housekeeper Ruth and her daughter Julia; and that when he is joined by his girlfriend, the willowy fashionista Alice, things will start to get interesting.
So begins a mighty stream of talk. Kureishi makes light work of the nitty-gritty of his subject’s life – how the shy scholarship boy from Madras survived the early years of loneliness and emotional chill in Britain to rise to the heights of literary eminence, with predictable sentimental baggage littering the path – because he is more interested in the ways in which people talk to each other, both succeeding and failing to make contact.
Kureishi has a deft touch with the themes we’re expecting – the nature of truth, the perils of memory, the private versus the public man – and so neatly sidesteps some of the clichés of his storyline. Harry discovers the competing truths about Mamoon’s life through a circle of others – mainly women. He finds agonised outpourings in the explosively detailed diaries of Peggy, Mamoon’s late and much betrayed wife; he travels to New York for more sessions of emotional spillage from Marion, a longstanding and ultimately betrayed lover; he goes to India to talk to family members and “those Mamoon had supposedly snubbed, insulted, exploited, or fucked”; he discovers the (all too predictable) role of the housekeeper Ruth. He talks and talks to Liana, with all her greediness and petty ambitions. With all the treachery of the quester-after-truth, Harry manages to pass Mamoon’s lurid (and possibly fictitious) sexual history from one woman to another.
As for Mamoon and Harry, they do what such men do, using conversation as a form of peacock display, sexual and intellectual competition thinly veneered by civilised discourse. “You’re in the remembering business,” Mamoon says to Harry, in one lengthy talk-session, “while I’m in the forgetting game – and forgetting is the loveliest of the psychic luxuries, a warm scented bath for the soul.” Then comes the thrust: “I have to say, I particularly like it when you remember things which never happened.”
Kureishi’s great strength is his way with dialogue: his screenwriting credits outweigh his output of fiction. It’s a talent that produced My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985 – a brilliant cultural milestone in Britain’s adjustment of its self-image as a multicultural nation, which rightly propelled Kureishi to early stardom – and most recently Le Week-End, a gently incisive film about middle-aged yearnings. But in The Last Word he too often falls into the trap of speechmaking. Characters sound suspiciously alike: their author addresses us through them more or less indiscriminately. He cannot resist a bon mot (“What was marriage but sex plus property – property being the thing … ”) and he has fun rattling the bien-pensants (Mamoon “didn’t want to be deprived of the jouissance of racism just because he had brown skin and had suffered it himself”).
A low thrum of misogyny runs through the story – it’s a significant theme in Kureishi’s work, and his handling of it has got him into trouble in the past. Justified here by Mamoon’s Muslim background, it is played out in still more talk: “The young female body is at the centre of the world, and usually at the centre of most elections – abortion, single mothers, maternity leave, prostitution, incest, abuse, the hijab … ” Mamoon informs Harry, while Harry later counters: “The fear, if not hatred, of women, of course, is at the centre of many religions.” Although this is counterpointed by some lively sexual descriptions and the general assumption that a session in Bond Street with a warm credit card will cure any female malaise, the women hold much of the power here too: Alice’s skills as a masseuse get her closer to Mamoon than all the hours of Harry’s clever talk.
If Mamoon becomes an invention of the frustrated young novelist, “someone who had lived only so that Harry could write a book about him”, this sets up an interesting competition with Kureishi himself. Can he do what Harry couldn’t: bring Mamoon to life? As the plot is hurried to a finale that holds few surprises – just like life – what Kureishi makes us think about is that process is everything, that the journey itself is far more interesting than its supposed end. That living, in the end, trumps biography.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor