Guided by a Quest for Passion; Interview

Article excerpt

"It is the saddest night for I am leaving and not coming back." The first words of Hanif Kureishi's last novel Intimacy are so beautiful and cruel, but this seems to be his speciality.

In Intimacy the main character Jay is getting ready to leave his wife and sons. It is the night before his flight but he does not plan to tell anyone until his wife finds a note the next day. He knows he will scar his children but he will still leave.

The novel received rave reviews last year for its unflinching honesty but a lot of people got cross with Mr Kureishi. Written in the first person, the novel feels like an autobiography. When Hanif left his wife Tracey Scoffield and twin sons, the book soon followed.

He was not spared. His wife reacted angrily. "He says it's a novel, but that's an absolute abdication of responsibility. It's total hypocrisy . . . You may as well call it a fish." One writer quoted a source who called Hanif a "bastard" and added, ". . . not one person said they liked him."

Then he had a family row with his mum and sister in front of the whole nation's twitching curtains about his roots. In an interview with a national newspaper Hanif said he was brought up in a "two up two down in Bromley" where "we were piled up like TV sets". His grandfather was "cloth cap working class", his father "a lowly clerk" and his mother worked at a local shoe factory.

His sister Yasmin wrote a letter to the newspaper correcting Hanif. It was a perfectly nice three bedroom semi actually. Her grandad owned three furniture shops, her father was the son of a doctor and Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Army, who became a high-ranking embassy official and her mum worked at Russell and Bromley to put her daughter through ballet boarding school.

It all makes you wonder what kind of man Hanif is going to be. With an emphasis on the warts, his own life makes gripping reading. It also makes him a terrifying subject.

Of course you want to ask him about all this stuff. But will Hanif be willing to talk about it? Or will he get angry because the personal stuff got him into trouble before? Will he, in fact, turn out to be a "bastard"?

As far as first impressions go Hanif does not score highly. He has a lovely but unfortunate face because he wears a constant worried expression. Later I realise he reminds me of Paddington Bear.

His arms are wrapped around him by an invisible strait jacket, the fingers of one hand constantly flutter giving you the feeling he wants to fly far, far away.

The Town Hall in Cheltenham, where we have agreed to meet before his "gig" at the literary festival is a gentile setting bursting with period fittings, faded paintwork and gauche carpets. Hanif only looks in situ afterwards when a pint of stout appears in his hand.

Now he is sitting next to a bunch of grapes but is not blending into the picture. He is wearing faded jeans and streetwise trainers and he has not taken his blue anorak off. Even his hair looks stressed out and he is worried about eating before the "gig".

But once we start talking it is a relief to find the humanity. The philosophy degree Hanif took at King's College, London is constantly suggested in his habit of answering a question with more questions.

"People think about leaving each other all the time. What would life be like if I led a different life? It's very creative in a sense. Who else could I be? What are my possibilities? I think it's the very best motive."

Yes we got onto that topic very quickly. "I wanted to write a book that was raw. When you leave people or they leave you it gets rough. There is no point pretending we always behave well because we lie and we do terrible things.

"I wanted to write as rawly as I could. I didn't want to make it pleasant or set it in the past. I wanted it to be dark because splitting up is often unpleasant and I didn't want to look away from that. …