The Last Word
by Hanif Kureishi
Faber & Faber
Hanif Kureishi's writing - whether for stage, screen or page - has always walked a fine line between life and art, fact (for want of a better word) and fiction. His short novel Intimacy, later adapted into a controversial film, was infamously rumoured to narrate the break-up of a long-term relationship with the mother of two of Kureishi's children. His sister has also complained publicly that her brother has exploited his background, family and upbringing for his work.
Tempting as these biographical parallels so often are, joining the dots between singer and song is a tricky and perilous business. Kureishi's work is clearly personal. The protagonists of his masterpieces My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia are so very like their creator that one would be an idiot not to hear some echoes. But personal books are not necessarily autobiographical, a distinction Kureishi draws himself, however vaguely. Arguably his most moving work is the non-fiction memoir about his father. Of course, how much is real and how much imagined, how much the product of memory and how much researched, is still unknown.
The Last Word, Kureishi's seventh novel, has decided to have some fun with all this work-life imbalance. Take that title, which hints that Kureishi is offering something conclusive, definitive and, dare one say it, authoritative?
The story also whisks actuality and the imagination together into a frothy concoction. A young, ambitious man of letters, an ironic, priapic type called Harry Johnson, is commissioned to write the biography of Mamoon Azam, a revered, ageing and somewhat neglected Indian-born novelist. Literary circles spun, briefly, to the apparent origin: the real-life relationship between Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul and his biographer, Patrick French. This dynamic duo offer, so it was whispered, a dead ringer for Harry's merciless desire to expose Azam's prejudices: his love of Margaret Thatcher, sexual cruelty, upwardly-mobile second wife and even his tweedy rural attire.
Of course, just when you think it is safe to feel certain about such hints, Kureishi sends short judders through the seemingly stable ground beneath your feet. So that title, The Last Word, is a nicely weighted phrase, whose multiple possibilities complicate first impressions. As the novel progresses, it doubles as a hymn to ageing: a writer surveying his late period, mainly in the gloomiest of terms. And just when we have been seduced by the notion that we are reading the thinnest of veiled Naipauls, the idea slowly dawns that the entire venture is a massive double bluff and Kureishi is really writing about himself, his own advancing years as a not-so-enfant-but-still-quite-terrible, and his posthumous reputation.
For a few pages, however, I wondered whether The Last Word might have needed a final draft. Dan Brown has been mocked, rightly, for the clanking brevity of his prose - that introduction to Robert Langdon as "Renowned Harvard symbologist". Yet in setting the scene for his characters, Kureishi gives Brown a run for his money. The opening scene, in which Harry's bibulous agent explains the economic benefits of writing Azam's biography, is full of Brownian motion: Azam is a "distinguished writer", "a novelist, essayist and playwright", whose second wife is a "spirited Italian woman in her early fifties".
Yet even as the story idles along with its author, there are flashes of brio. Rob Deveraux, Harry's unscrupulous agent, is a worthy creation after an Amis fashion. Knocking back cans of beer, and spraying food and gossip everywhere, he peddles a fine line in "sociopathic" sexist lingo: "Let's go out and rip some rectum, yeah?" It's the laddish precision of that "yeah" that makes the sentence credible, and reminds you why Kureishi is respected as a screenwriter.
Harry is tasked with "extreme biography" - to dish dirt in a bid to establish Azam among the immortals such as Beckett and Greene. The Last Word has a lot of literary name-dropping and quotation, as if Kureishi is reminding us that he can do this prose fiction lark as well as anyone else. Here is Azam in scurrilous form on Orwell and E.M. Forster: "Neither of these writers, the poof and puritan, has described a beautiful woman. What sort of writer cannot do that?"
The drama intensifies once Harry arrives at Azam's stately pile in Taunton. Harry finds himself chasing his subject up and down corridors, both encouraged and reprimanded by second wife Liana depending on her husband's mood. This literary critical farce doubles as an opportunity to fill in gaps in our leading men, who have more in common than at first appears.
Still grieving the death of his mother, Harry emerges as a near sex addict, burying his vulnerability in, well, almost anyone he finds. This is bad news for his fiancée, a smart fashionista called Alice, but again grist for Kureishi's erotic prose.
Sex also defines Azam and his work: "I'm sorry to be trivial … I told Rob, 'I'm just a hollow man'. The novelist is the same - a trickster, deceiver, conman: whatever. But mostly he is a seducer." Before Liana appeared with her demands both erogenous and economic, there were various tortured and unhappy liaisons: with his first wife, Peggy, whose diary provides a vital, if deceptive archive for Harry; and also with Marion, who jump-started Azam's libido in New York.
Azam greets Harry's presence with the stoical dislike of a patient waiting for a doctor to probe his nether regions. He knows it's probably in his best interests, but that doesn't mean he is going to endure his investigation quietly. When he isn't dozing off or refusing to speak, Azam pours scorn on the very notion of existence as narrative: "My life, as I lived it, has been a Marx Brothers film, a series of detours, mistakes, misunderstandings, missed opportunities, delays, errors and f*** ups." Just as often, he invokes grandiose ideas to deflect Harry's interrogation: "I have lived this long and still cannot answer the unanswerable questions. People come and ask me for universal truths, but this is the wrong address. You'll only get universal questions here, the ones that make literature."
The jousts between these two men ensure that The Last Word is vigorous and enjoyable, even if it is at times a little overwrought and at others frustrating: Azam the sphinx without a secret parrying Harry, who is all too willing to expose his Freudian underbelly. "I wish you weren't trying to peel me as you would an onion," Azam tells his tormentor. "I have a passion for ignorance." Certainly the vivid to-and-fro convinces more than the female chorus of Liana, Alice and Ruth, who are all too often reduced to stereotype and near-sexist caricature: the ambitious matron, the elegant wife and the earthy, oversexed serving wench respectively.
The novel's strength and weakness is the fast-moving undertow of masculine, even macho uncertainty as Harry and Azam attempt to find their places in the world, albeit from different ends of life's journey. Each envies the other (Azam has wisdom and a body of work, Harry youth, possibility and girls). But you suspect that they wouldn't trade places. It is one of many ironies played out that each knows the other better than they know themselves: Azam has been there, done that, but as Harry reminds him on almost every page, he has forgotten exactly what that was.
Their dialogue - about sex, art, money, success, love and the ever-after - feels like one being played out inside Kureishi himself, without any resolution. Whether he is recalling his youthful aspirations or confronting his posthumous reputation, one question rings out, as asked at the end of the very first chapter: "Are you ready for the rest of your life to begin?"