THE BLOG

Hanif Kureishi and the Philosophers' Stone

07/02/2014 17:34 GMT | Updated 08/04/2014 10:59 BST

Kureishi's novel The Last Word shows that if you run the vernacular flotsam and jetsam of human experience on top of a structure of abstract philosophical thought, you may still effect change in society, by literary means.

A huge debt is owed to Hanif Kureishi. At the Karachi Literary Festival in February 2012 he told the audience that "you have no idea how hard we [writers] work to bring you pleasure." It sounded ill-judged and self-serving. But Kureishi has slugged out a shelf load of literature: books, screenplays, essays and short stories over forty years. This year he is sixty. In literary terms he almost single-handedly he helped this "frozen little island" adjust to multiculturalism and did more than any of his contemporaries, including Rushdie, to reflect Britain back at itself.

He was alone as a writer in the UK diving into the mosques and colleges in the late 1980s to find out what was going on with the youth who were attracted to fundamentalism. He took the tension created by political racism in the late 60s and 70s in Britain and turned it into three defiant films: My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie get Laid, The Buddha of Suburbia (television). In an interview with Riz Khan in 2009, Kureishi spoke of things that can be said, things that cannot be said and how for his generation writing was about pushing at those boundaries.

So The Last Word (it is 'freedom' by the way) in a way seems comfortably middle-aged, a sofa that you can sit on that doesn't necessitate pulling up the cushions up looking for coins.

On the surface, it is a story not unlike that of Sir Vidia Naipaul being made the subject of a biography by Patrick French. But the plot might also be that of Ben Jonson's 1610 play The Alchemist. Sir Epicure Mammon (Mamoon in Kureishi's novel) is told by fraudsters that he will be gifted a philosophers' stone that can turn base metal into gold. This is the writer's task. But Jonson's aim was comedy. Harry Johnson tries to make sense other people's secrets and fantasies. Sagely, he finds greater truths in simply giving up and letting himself be overwhelmed with his own.

Meanwhile as the country house players - male and female - entrance and exit in passion, jealousy, rivalry, or the lack of it, what gets mulched over are very serious ideas about philosophy and ideology, love and betrayal, money and art. If it all seems like a bad dream at times, it is because there is lots of shape-shifting going on: Mamoon is sometimes a Naipaul-like figure, sometimes Kureishi's father, sometimes Kureishi himself - "wasn't he the first to track, in the dark cities of northern Britain, the change in the Muslim community from socialist anti-racism to a radicalism built around a new worldwide form, a reactionary idea of Islam". The son becomes a parent himself (to twins). The important people in Kureishi's real life, particularly his father and sometimes his mother, take on character roles at will.

"The world's full of people with unusual beliefs. Scientologists, Rastafarians, Catholics, Moonies, Mormons, Baptists, Tories, dentists, captains of industry - every madness has its cheer leader. The asylums and parliament are crammed full of delusionists, and only a madman would want to eliminate them. My father had the right idea. Begin from an assumption of insanity and then laugh where possible."

"The truth is that she was your whole life and she'll be in your dreams until your dying day; she was your mother. But to me she was just another woman."

"A writer is loved by strangers and hated by his family ... one falls in love and then learns, for the duration, that one is at the mercy of someone else's childhood".

His father: "I can remember in Madras reading something by Bertrand Russell .... he wrote somewhere of his emotional life being irrational ... Russell loves, hates, desires ... and the greatest philosopher in the world would say that it was 'irrational' ... I'm no Freudian, yet no-one can deny that desire is the motor of our existence."

In the most interesting chapters of the novel, Harry plays Plato to Mamoon's Socrates. But philosophy and its sideways march into ideology is a useless tool on its own with which to deal with life. "His friends and acquaintances were as hypnotised by Marxism as some people are by fundamentalism. He broke the cult of silence." Kureishi admires the duality and mysticism - irony maybe - of Nietzsche, but makes no mention of the fact that Nietzsche was the Third Reich's favourite bed-side reading matter. Marx, Freud, Nietzsche became associated with their own tyrannies and anyway Freud pinched much of his theory of dreams and sexuality straight from the Arabian nights.

So the most pleasing thing about The Last Word is its splicing of the literary world. "The market had changed; these days there were more writers than readers," is correct: 150,000 titles are published in the UK each year, estimated earnings for most writers are around £600. The most dreaded word for writers is 'bailiff'. You have to do brand and aura and put yourself about. You need to cultivate a public persona, even if you're snickering up your sleeve once you get inside your own front door.

Then, almost unintentionally in the real world, The Last Word found its mark and value.

In the last month on the literary desks of serious newspapers experienced literary editors, some edging towards retirement, pounced on the book. Faber and literature, "I'll be reviewing this". Mostly, with the exception of Mark Lawson in the Guardian, they were keen to show off their knowledge of Wodehouse and Roth and Chekhov and Keats. They are male after all and it isn't so many years since I stood in one books office of a newspaper and watched the lit editor role his eyes: "Hillary Clinton","Bonnie GREEEEER".

We don't really live in a post-colonial world, not on the frozen little island. Whatever was exported to the rest of the world in the nineteenth century is all bubbling away quite happily. We can't get women into politics, women into the boardroom, women into first line decision making. Around fifty per cent of the population still aren't getting the look in they deserve. At the high end of arts, only men are allowed to write 'literature' and to understand it sufficiently to review it.

Kureishi thinks he may be through with his dad and might start writing about his mother, or women, instead. We're in 2014. He can't start soon enough.