‘I like that idea. How do you die?’ asks Hanif Kureishi
In Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing, Waldo is in danger of losing his wife, his money, his friends, his property—of becoming nothing
“I’ve retired now,” Hanif Kureishi says, as we sit across the kitchen table in his house in West London. “I’m broken, it’s too difficult. I don’t mind writing the books, it’s all the PR I can’t stand.” If you’ve read Kureishi’s latest novel, The Nothing, you might be tempted to reach for comparisons between him and his protagonist Waldo—a debonair but ageing curmudgeon with a flair for film and talk. “Actually, I like going to festivals. I see my friends, so we can sit around and gossip, but I like to complain. Complaining is my second favourite occupation after writing.”
Kureishi says he began The Nothing as a movie. At the heart of the story is Waldo, his much younger wife Zee, who refers to Waldo as “that penis in a wheelchair,” and the freeloading friend Eddie, who’s syphoning off not just Waldo’s wife, but also his film contacts and crocodile-skin Italian loafers. “I thought I’d write a dirty little contemporary noir,” Kureishi says, “about a con man—a seedy, marginalised guy wanting money, being poor.” At 62, Kureishi has been writing prolifically across genres for four decades. “I’ve been a writer all my life. I’ve made a living out of it. It seems incredible to have been able to do that.” Excerpts:
Waldo starts off as this pathetic old man, but he turns out to be quite shady. What is it about negativity in characters that you like to explore?
Well, writing the monstrous characters is always the most fun. As Hitchcock said—the better the villain, the better the movie. I liked the voice of this man, Beckettian, sort of fading, disappearing, but still with a bit of libido in him, a bit of desire and interest in life. Also, someone old, well, older than me, looking
back on the 60s, looking back on Britain, thinking, as I do, about what we’ve lived through, what we’ve endured, and where we are now, in the context of this minor crime. I guess that was the idea.
There’s also betrayal in this story. Waldo is being cuckolded in his own home…
At this time in his life, this man Waldo is in danger of losing everything he has. His wife, his money, his friends, his property—of becoming nothing. He’s disappearing. I like that idea. How do you die? How do you disappear? How can you enjoy dying? And his dying experience is, as they say, becoming rather uncomfortable, but he doesn’t give up. I liked his ballsiness, his desire for revenge.
Why has sexuality been so important for you?
I guess because of the period I lived through, which was, to put it very crudely, the repressed 50s. Then this explosion of life and pop and noise in the 60s, and free sexuality, and now where we are, in a sort of neoliberal machine, where everything is available and everything is sort of terrible. It’s become machine-like.
You know, when I was a kid it was illegal to be homosexual. You could be imprisoned for it until 1967. And then the new arrangements—gay freedoms, all the lesbian stuff, new forms of family, of which I participated in—stepmothers, stepfathers, extended families, a sort of Indian model applied to West London. Gender relations will tell you almost everything about an entire society. How do men and women relate to each other? What is it to be a man? What is it to be a woman? How do we think they can or can’t get along? If you focus on that, you’ll see everything. It exposes the life of the family, of class, the whole thing. It’s not only looking at copulation. One is looking at the whole context of what people imagine it is for a couple to be together. I guess that’s why it’s so fascinating, because there isn’t anything else that could tell you more.
In the novel you write, “Narcissism is our religion. The selfie stick is our cross.” Do you think this excessive narcissism has something to do with the current mechanised state of our bodies?
Sexuality has become very disassociated from everything else. In TV shows you see people copulating in this machine-like way. The idea of getting rid of repression wasn’t to turn your self into a machine. The idea was to open up the avenues of contact so you’d be less afraid, less inhibited. Now it’s become psychotic… but that’s a fascinating thing for a writer to look at—forms of sexuality and marriage, the idea of relationships during his or her lifetime. It’s changed so radically. So the idea is to think about what it really is like to be with another person and how that can only fail, but the ways in which it can also succeed. What’s worth doing it for, I suppose.
Homosexuality in India still hasn’t been decriminalised. Do you have a sense of where things are going in India?
It’s hard for me to talk about India because India is much more burdened with religion. Morality is tied up with religion, and behaviour is tied up with obedience to god in all the various Indian religions as far as I’m concerned. We don’t really have that here. The Muslims have tried, as you can imagine, but once we got rid of religion we got rid of sexual repression. Although getting rid of sexual repression isn’t the end of your problems. As Lacan says, there’s no such thing as a sexual relation, you have to make it and remake it over and over again to find out what it is you like about other people.
Do you feel pessimistic about the next five-ten years?
Well, we’ve got Trump, we’ve got Brexit, we’ve got Theresa May, so things are not looking good for those of us who are on the left. It’s been a big swerve towards populism, so we’re pretty disillusioned, but there’s also been a failure of the Left to assert itself with the public, really since 1989, the collapse of communism. Clearly, most people are not being served by liberal capitalism—it’s not making more work, it’s not helping build more schools, it’s not really doing anything.
The Left is unable to organise enough of a new programme and come to terms with the failure of capitalism. People still believe in it. Capitalism is like one of those cartoon figures that’s gone over the edge of a rock and its legs are still going around but it doesn’t know it’s all over. It’s finished, really. But there’s nothing to replace it, so we’re stagnant.
You said that you felt middle-class Britain had become more racist compared to when you were growing up.
It’s become racist in a new way in the last five years. Not helped by Muslims blowing people up every few weeks. And so there’s been a huge turn against multiculturalism because somehow people seem to believe that multiculturalism is to blame for these Muslims blowing people up. It just has to be much more clear, much harder thinking about the reasons. The figure of the Muslim in Europe has become really hated. The Muslim represents everything that’s barbaric, religiously backward, medieval—all of that. It’s very hard to combat that with intelligence and subtlety.
What’s the failure? How did we get here?
The fatwa (against Salman Rushdie) was an important turning point. It really exposed Islam. That compounded with the Iraq war and Afghanistan and so on, obviously these forces have collided and created a huge reaction in Europe—the rise of terrible right-wing Fascism in Poland and Hungary.
It’s been a perfect storm of so-called Muslim backwardness which people became aware of with the fatwa. ‘These Muslims didn’t want criticism, they didn’t want freedom, hated free speech…’ Since then, it’s just got worse. What can we do? Well you and I, we have to carry on writing and thinking and speaking and trying to make more subtle distinctions.
When you begin writing a new thing, is it determined by a topical impulse, or is it character driven, or circumstance?
The only way I can ever get to my desk is out of enthusiasm for something. It’s boring enough to be a writer as it is, and it’s hard to overcome all the difficulties unless you have big libido for it, so I only do things I’m thrilled about. Writing with my son Sachin and producing work for my other kid, Carlo, has inspired me, because you have to find new people to play with, you know? When I worked in the theatre, when I worked in the movies with my pal Stephen Frears and other friends, they always inspired me. So you have to find other people if you’re a writer, which is quite a solitary thing.
You’ve said you’re working with shorter forms now because you feel you can manage that.
It’s to do with patience. It’s funny how I can watch really long TV shows but I couldn’t sit down and read a novel by Dostoevsky now. Partly it’s because TV is a communal activity. I was with my three sons last night. We were all talking about the same TV shows. My youngest kid is 18 and the other boys (twins) are 23, but we were all talking about the new ‘House of Cards’, and I thought it’s great, that’s what we have in common.
You couldn’t talk about a novel by George Eliot as a family. So, we’re doing this together. We can talk about characters, about storytelling. It’s like a family craft. You don’t have to be a genius like Kafka to be a writer. It can be a family business.
That’s an interesting way of looking at it—Kureishi & Sons.
Well, my uncles were journalists, my father was a writer, but the kids I really had to protect them, otherwise they were just flung on to the job market and there was nothing out there.
You know, they were working in bars, cycling around London delivering food, the whole thing was really depressing. So I said, right, you get a craft, and I can teach you. So I had to f*** educate them myself, which was a pleasure.
Do you feel nostalgic for a time when people actually needed to have read books to be part of the conversation?
No, I don’t really. I find there’s so much elitism around that. The whole novel thing was ruined by the snobbery around it, by the sense of a literary culture that was higher than everybody else’s culture, and it was just discarded by the 60s, and by now it’s sort of gone. Now you can see the 19th century novel on television—the length, the bulk, the ability to study a whole society—you see in something like ‘The Sopranos’. It’s like a novel by Dickens. Great, great characters. Do I worry about the novel?
It’s a great form. So is poetry. It hasn’t stopped existing. But I think the idea of the canon and all of that literary criticism really destroyed a lot of the pleasure in reading and writing for me when it became this high art thing.
Do you still read a book and think, I’m getting from this something I can’t get from anything else?
I feel that with philosophy. You can’t do philosophy on telly, you know? You can’t sit and read a book about Wittgenstein if you don’t know about philosophy, any more than you can read a book by Einstein if you don’t understand anything about science. So I feel that about philosophy and psychoanalysis and theory, that there are very complex and deep things in there that you can only get from a book.
When you look at the books you’ve written on a shelf, do you feel they represent your life?
It’s part of my life. It’s probably half. That’s what I did. I wrote these books and it wasn’t a waste of time. It was good to have written them. The other part is to do with love and bringing up your children. That is as important, if not more important.
And to have managed to remain in some relationships for some time without killing the other person. They also seem to be significant achievements.
A writer and dancer, the author’s poetry book Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods will be out soon.