Hanif Kureishi

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
22nd August 2017

Events featuring the bigger ‘names’ in the literary world take place in the BGMT, but they begin outside. For example, half an hour before Paul Auster was due on stage, last Friday, the queue was already half way round Charlotte Square. I decided to test how much of a draw Hanif Kureishi was by turning up fifty minutes early to the benches alongside the theatre, where the queue starts to form. There were already five people camped out there, reading books, doing crosswords, thumbing tablets. Actually, the head of a queue is a pleasant place to chill out, and you get first pick of a front row seat when it’s time to file in, so I stayed put.

Inside, the event followed the usual format. A chair, an author who reads out a passage from his new book, an interview where the author is encouraged to hold forth, and fifteen minutes of questions from the audience. We’re three quarters the way through the Book Festival and I must confess I’m wanting something new, I’m feeling that the format is getting jaded. So what’s new today?

Oh the joys of live subtitles! When Hanif was talking about sex, he said ‘complaining’ and the subtitles read ‘caning’. Oo-er Missus! Well, at least that’s new. Hanif kept sniffing, that’s a first for authors this year too. And he has just binged on watching seven series of The Sopranos – “American TV has really picked up!” – so he and I have that in common.

But let’s be serious here. The event was steered by Steven Gale, an accomplished interviewer at festivals, and Hanif Kureishi is an interesting author and a fluent talker with a straight face and a dry wit. His new book, The Nothing, is the story of an aged film director who is now confined to his flat – to his bed, in fact – and suspects his younger wife of infidelity. In a way, it is Kureishi’s own speculation about growing old, being stiller, and observing rather than doing. He sees Waldo, the protagonist, rather like a Beckett character – a head in a jar, and also as a character driven by sex, by thinking about it even if he can’t do it any more.

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Still, I keep coming back to the non-literary aspects of this event, the human side of the author; the tales of how he was defrauded of all his money by his accountant, and how, despite that, his accountant remained a likeable man; how much Hanif liked David Bowie; the kind of activities that made it possible for him to interact with his sons as adults; the story of how, when he was a teenager, two older girls half-jokingly offered to sleep with him; how, though there is “more to say and less time to say it,” he now writes for pleasure.

Somewhere in the evening was this lovely sound-bite: “The imagination is the most dangerous place on earth.” And this “It’s a mercy to be free of the engine of ambition.” And others that someone from the Festival was tweeting as they turned up – meat and drink to promotion via social media!

Hanif Kureishi’s earlier work is on my syllabus for the next academic year, in a module on ‘Post-Colonial Literature’. I had been wondering what, if anything, I would pick up from this event as an insight into that particular taxonomy. Surprisingly, absolutely nothing. He seems so British. But why not, given his background? The Nothing strikes one as being a novel about London, never mind the heritage of any of the characters. But then London as a city could be said to exist in a post-colonial state, the former hub of a now-imploded empire… For this reason, I’m including a YouTube clip of an interview where Hanif talks about, inter alia, his experience of the racist atmosphere he met as a youngster. This was something totally absent from today’s event.

Reviewed by Paul Thompson

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