Word Games; Sex, Power and Bons Mots -- Is Hanif Kureishi's New Novel Actually the Fictionalised Biographyof Fellow Writer VS Naipaul? David Sexton Reports on a Titanic Tussle That's the Talk of the Town

The Evening Standard (London, England), January 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

Word Games; Sex, Power and Bons Mots -- Is Hanif Kureishi's New Novel Actually the Fictionalised Biographyof Fellow Writer VS Naipaul? David Sexton Reports on a Titanic Tussle That's the Talk of the Town


Byline: David Sexton

EVERY time a novel seems clearly to be about real people, everyone assumes it's a piece of malice, gossip to delight the knowing, headclutching revelations for the rest of us. And often it is. When it was announced that the new novel by Hanif Kureishi was about a young writer composing an "extreme biography" of a distinguished Indian author, everybody knew what to think -- and some suggestive reports about this apparent literary spat soon started to appear.

For what this must be about seemed pretty obvious.

In 2008, Patrick French, then 42, published a truly remarkable authorised biography of our greatest living writer, the Nobel Prize-winner VS Naipaul, now 81. With his subject's full co-operation, The World Is What It Is disclosed a great deal that is disturbing about Naipaul's private life, including the unkindness with which he had treated his first wife, Patricia -- "She suffered. It could be said that I had killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way," Naipaul told French -- and his two decades-long long sadomasochistic affair with an Anglo-Argentinian woman, Margaret Murray. "I feel that in all of this Margaret was very badly treated. I feel this very much," said Naipaul about her.

Yet while not flinching from these grim reports, made with Naipaul's consent, French never lost sight of Naipaul's greatness as a writer, a rare balancing act among biographers. Reviewing it in the Standard at the time, I rated the biography as "a terrific achievement -- in effect, an addition to the canon of Naipaul's own works". Patrick French (whom I did not know) sent me a postcard flatteringly saying "you saw exactly what the book was about, and how hard it had been to pull it off ". It remains a landmark in literary biography.

But now Kureishi is publishing The Last Word, a satirical novel which imagines in detail the relationship between a biographer and his subject. It marks a new departure for Kureishi, 59, who first came to prominence back in 1985 with his screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette, followed by his landmark novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, in 1990.

When I interviewed him about his collected stories a few years ago, he told me in a melancholy way that he felt his era was over. The Last Word, though, suggests otherwise. It's a great deal sharper than much of his recent work.

Let's say at once that the name Naipaul appears nowhere in the book and Kureishi himself has flatly denied that it is based on anybody at all. "I can't say there were any particular people in mind," he told The Bookseller. In a long interview this weekend, Kureishi's former editor at Faber, Robert McCrum, hewed tightly to this official line too, mentioning in passing only that there were "echoes of the relationship between VS Naipaul and his biographer", while maintaining that the eminent novelist at the book's heart is really "an idealisation of Kureishi's alter ego, an internationally respected literary man", or possibly based on Kureishi's granddad.

STUFF and nonsense. Mamoon Azam, "the Great Literary Satan", the elderly Indian novelist with a flamboyant new wife, who commissions a young writer, Harry, who has previously published a life of Nehru, to produce a controversial biography of him to bring him back into the public eye, is in my view unambiguously modelled on Sir Vidia Naipaul. Token adjustments have been made -- the new wife is said to be Italian, not Indian, specifically "a woman of Rome who had spent time in India", for example, and Somerset is substituted for Wiltshire, where Naipaul has lived. But that's just a little light misdirection.

From his physical appearance ("with a wide chest, goatee beard and black eyes, Mamoon was diminutive and dressed in tweedy English country clothing") to his literary standing ("too cerebral, unyielding and harrowing to be widely read"), this is a closely observed portrait just as much as it is an imagined character. …

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Word Games; Sex, Power and Bons Mots -- Is Hanif Kureishi's New Novel Actually the Fictionalised Biographyof Fellow Writer VS Naipaul? David Sexton Reports on a Titanic Tussle That's the Talk of the Town
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