HANIF Kureishi’s new novel is exemplary only in its oddity, Geordie Williamson writes in this review for The Australian. Reading it is like happening across a grazing hippogriff on your morning walk through the park: whatever novelty the moment has soon gives way to disquiet – surely this is not part of the natural order of things.
A bucolic country house farce in the spirit of PG Wodehouse, The Last Word is nonetheless built from gossip of such ferocious spitefulness that would have blown Plum Wodehouse right out of his tartan spats.
Yet however exaggerated, extravagant and improbable its narrative progression, the work does retain clear lineaments of a real-life encounter – that between Nobel prize-winning novelist and nonfiction writer VS Naipaul and his young biographer Patrick French.
It connects life and art so blatantly that the reader feels ashamed for both parties: Kureishi, for an act of lese-majesty that only reveals his middling rank; and Naipaul, for being obliged to suffer the equivalent of a fictional kneecapping in front of our eyes.
The outline of Naipaul and French’s relationship has been well rehearsed. The elderly author granted his Boswell (French was a talented and industrious writer in his own lights) a series of brutally frank interviews, permitted open contact with old lovers, enemies and friends, and made his papers available, along with some grimly incriminating diaries belonging to his first wife.
The result, The World is What It Is, published in 2008, was extraordinary: what Ian Buruma, writing in the The New York Review of Books, called “almost the invention of a new genre: the confessional biography”.
Kureishi has taken this story and produced a work from a very old genre indeed, the novelistic takedown (a literary subgenre reborn in the modern era with Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, which went to town on Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole). Though its swipes at Naipaul are designed to give the work frisson, they’re not meant to be the main event. Instead the story of an up-and-coming writer named Harry, packed off by Rob, his boozy, drug-addled editor, to Somerset (Naipaul lives in adjoining Wiltshire) to visit an elderly Indian-born author, Mamoon Azam, risen to eminence in his adoptive Britain but now in decline, in the hopes of writing an unvarnished version of his controversial life, is intended to explore broader relationships between master and pupil, genius and mere talent, sexuality and creativity, and the eternal struggle between fiction and fact.
But our knowledge of the reality hovering behind these pages continually obtrudes. Kureishi’s narrative toys with Naipauline connections so obviously, and with such evident delight and disdain, that any more abstract investigations are cancelled out.
Harry may be a lesser writer than French – handsome, frivolous, priapic and obsessed by his mother’s suicide when he was a boy – but the material he uncovers, using equal amounts of guile and charm, is essentially that given freely by Naipaul to his biographer.
A first wife, sad and alcoholic, treated with horrific indifference by an author of growing reputation; a second who was younger and pushing; and, in the middle, a long-time lover who submitted to Mamoon’s sadomasochistic demands only to be cast aside: all these are lifted straight from Naipaul’s life.
If Kureishi creditably gives Mamoon equal voice here, during torrid interview sessions in which the old lion is evasive and abusive, grandly aloof and intellectually incisive, he is also painted as impotent, crotchety and absurd: a monster shriven of the gifts that forgave his worst acts.
That Mamoon turns out to be wilier and stronger than Harry initially suspects puts a few tricky knots in the latter parts of a fairly frayed story. As a novelist, however, Kureishi is a great screenwriter (his other career since the early success of My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985).
Dialogue is witty and assured, yet also empty of distinct character – speeches forlornly await a flesh-and-blood actor to animate them. Various essayistic asides on the state of the nation are mean-spirited and cynical, Martin Amis without the stylistic glitz, and the analytic substructure of the novel (doubtless inspired by Kureishi’s long professional relationship with therapist Adam Phillips) jar with the more playful elements of the plot:
Still, what he [Harry] and Rob admired about Mamoon … was his talent as a provocateur, his ability to create anarchy and fury and then sit back to gaze out over the ruins. On occasions Mamoon was more Johnny Rotten than Joseph Conrad. Harry had begun to think that, as his father had suggested, he had been too passive. His fears had kept him too safe. He’d make some mayhem; it was time to go gonzo, and up the stakes.
In Kureishi’s previous novel, Something to Tell You (2008), this brand of psychoanalytic slapstick was a pleasure to read, the therapeutic yawp of people returning to the world in all its madness and passion.
Here such insight is used mostly to wound, and the outcome is simply enervating.
For all its interpretive brio in recording the battle of wills between subject and life-writer, Kureishi forgets that, in reality, French’s passivity was never passive: he rather employed a kind of jujitsu of objectivity, allowing Naipaul’s own words to define him, whether for good or ill.
Some will enjoy this novel on the basis that Naipaul/Mamoon had it coming, that a few bits of rotten fruit launched at the pillory is what a man of such an angry and divisive nature deserves. Others’ sympathy, for exactly the same reasons, will be wholly with the devil.
But what The Last Word waits too long to acknowledge – indeed not until its final lines, in a wave of the wand meant to dispel all that has passed before – is that “Mamoon had counted for something as an artist, that he’d been a writer, a maker of worlds, a teller of important truths, and that this was a way of changing things, of living well, of creating freedom”.
My sympathies are firmly with the devil.
Geordie Williamson is The Australian’s chief literary critic.
The Last Word
By Hanif Kureishi
Faber and Faber, 352pp, $29.99
For the original report go to http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/sympathies-with-the-devil-of-an-uncomfortable-quasifiction/story-fn9n8gph-1226827015782