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Book Review: The Last Word

By (April 2, 2015) No Comment

The Last Wordlast word cover

by Hanif Kureishi

Scribner, 2014

In 1984, Michael Rubbo filmed Margaret Atwood: Once In August. Traveling to the writer’s summer cabin in a pastoral corner of Canada, Rubbo made a film which hilariously fails as the documentary it is intended to be. But it works wonderfully as an unintended satire on the biographer’s predicament. He arrives with a bag of theories and pursues a patient but unyielding Atwood as she goes about her daily life, pestering her with questions transparently designed to support his own facile ideas about the ways in which each of her novels is a roman à clef. Atwood handles Rubbo’s feckless importunity with patient humor. The only reason to watch the film now is because of how clear it makes the central difficulty of a biographer whose subject still lives. Who gets to interpret the life — the one writing it, or the one whose life it is? Hanif Kureishi’s latest, The Last Word, features a less inane biographer, but an identical drama.

Harry Johnson, a young writer on the make, has been hired to write an authorized biography of the still-living Mamoon Azam. Mamoon is an unmistakable fictionalization of V.S. Naipaul.

[Mamoon] was, at last, a writer from the Indian subcontinent they [–right-wing newspapers–] could like, someone who thought domination, particularly by the educated, informed, and intelligent–people, oddly, who resembled himself–was preferable to universal stupidity, or even democracy.

This proposed biography is a nakedly mercenary act, commissioned by Mamoon and his wife to revive interest in his books, and it appeals to Harry because it could serve to launch his own career. These seemingly amenable aims, however, quickly prove to be in conflict. To make his work the successful entree to a literary career that Harry wants it to be, he needs to dig up some dirt on Mamoon.

What would he do with Mamoon? Who can think of Larkin now without considering his fondness for the buttocks of schoolgirls and paranoid hatred of blacks–“I can hear fat Caribbean germs pattering after me in the underground…” Or Eric Gill’s copulations with more or less every member of his family, including the dog? Proust had rats tortured, and donated his family furniture to brothels; Dickens walled up his wife and kept her from her children; Lillian Hellman lied. While Sartre lived with his mother, Simone de Beauvoir pimped babes for him; he envied Camus, before trashing him. John Cheever loitered in toilets, nostrils aflare, before returning to his wife. P.G. Wodehouse made broadcasts for the Nazis; Mailer stabbed his second wife. Two of Ted Hughes’s lovers killed themselves. And as for Styron, Salinger, Saroyan… Literature was a killing field; no decent person had ever picked up a pen. […] If Harry merely showed a decent man rather than a mercenary, he wouldn’t be believed.

The dirt Harry finds — which Mamoon, understandably, prefers to keep concealed — concerns his callous treatment of women. Mamoon’s first wife, Peggy, whose influence was instrumental in making him a good writer, was abandoned as she began to die so that he could sojourn with the sexually adventurous Marion. Marion was in turn abandoned so that Mamoon could return to Peggy in time, before she died, to inherit her property. And then after Peggy died, and he inherited, rather than returning to the faithful Marion — who had even degraded herself by bringing other women to their bed in an attempt to keep Mamoon’s interest — Mamoon took up with another woman, Liana, who now takes care of him in his old age. Harry is gratified to discover in all this the material for a really salacious best-seller (rather like Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is, the authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul that came out in 2008).

But prying authentication of these details from Mamoon — permission to interview the abandoned Marion, for example — proves difficult. In frustration, it seems, Harry begins sleeping with one of Mamoon’s housekeepers: “As she stroked him and he kissed her hair, he could consider how things were going with the book.”

Eventually, Harry has the bright idea of using his lovely pregnant fiancee from back in London to tempt Mamoon into freer confession and greater permissions — a decision which, predictably, is ultimately disastrous for their marriage.

In short, getting the real story about the damning way in which Mamoon used up women to achieve his literary ambitions, Harry uses up women to achieve his own. The desire to expose a famous man’s improprieties has the effect of recapitulating them in the biographer.

“The truth [says Harry to Mamoon] is a tattoo on your forehead. You can’t see it yourself. I am your mirror.”

“You. Fucking hell.”

“Bad luck.”

Before long, the covert struggle for, well, the last word, grows fearsomely overt. At one point, when Harry has decided to reveal to Mamoon’s current wife some of the things he has found out about his previous relationships, the old writer beats him with a walking stick and tries to fire him.

“You’re trying to make a career out of me, young man!” [said Mamoon.]

“We’re strapped together, sir. We sink or swim as one beast.”

“Yours is a work of envy, and you are a third-rate semi-failure of a parasite who has got by on meretricious charm and fading looks. DId you ever read a biographer who could write as well as his subject? […] You’re fired, Harry. You’re never going to finish this work of tittle-tattle and when I come in from work tomorrow lunchtime I want to know this ridiculous misadventure is over! We’ve got another writer lined up to take over. He wears a tie!”

But Harry has charmed Mamoon’s wife so well, at this point, that she countermands her husband’s dismissal, and the agonistic projects goes on. But Mamoon turns to a sharper weapon. Harry learns about a book the old lion wrote at the same time Harry was writing his biography. He learns about it from the woman in whom he takes solace after the catastrophe both of his marriage and of his relationship with Mamoon’s housekeeper (this third woman, obviously, completes Harry’s recapitulation of Mamoon’s own sexual trinity):

The new book is unusual for Mamoon. It concerns a young admirer who comes to stay with an older man, a writer, and begins to write a book about him. So, the old writer secretly writes about the younger man as the younger one writes about him. Unusually for Mamoon, it’s pretty funny. It’s a love story.

And so Mamoon, in a magnificently obnoxious bit of literary jujitsu, stands to profit from discrediting the biographer who stands to profit from discrediting him.

Kureishi’s novel, obviously, is a comedy. A comedy that owes more to Seth Rogen than to Aristophanes. Half the laughs of anyone who appreciates it will come from the reckless, profanity-laced tirades and banter of the voluble reprobates it portrays. Kureishi’s past as a screenwriter is unmistakable in his fast-paced, over-the-top dialogue, and some of his minor characters seem literally designed to be the vehicles for comic monologues, chief among them Rob, the editor who brought Harry into contact with Mamoon. Rob is, “a disheveled unshaven brilliant maverick, who usually smelled of alcohol.” Kureishi brings Rob on stage for seemingly no purpose but vulgar summation and energetic monologues:

“[Mamoon] is fond of you [said Rob]. But never push him. You don’t want anyone babbling across the literary world that you behaved like a best in his house.”

“Rob, I swear, I crept about like a ghost.”

“Ha ha–when you weren’t depressed, you were baiting him, cunt-teasing and provoking his wife. You even turned her against him. You screwed his staff while consuming large amounts of his booze, eating his wife’s food, stealing his notebooks, slapping him around the head, and accusing of him of being a sadomasochist. What is ghostlike about that?”

But something about Kureishi’s own oeuvre complicates the head-shaking humor of his satire. In 1998, Kureishi wrote Intimacy, a novel about a man who decides to leave his wife and two sons, which was widely taken to be autobiographically inspired by Kureishi’s leaving his wife and two sons. Because Kureishi is someone who appears to have profited from the novelization of his own disagreeable behavior, it’s difficult to understand the nature of his treatment, in The Last Word, of precisely that move. Is this satire? Usually satire comes from a place of (at least self-perceived) moral superiority. This interesting ambiguity raises the book — for me — above what it appears to be without authorial context: an unserious albeit entertaining caper of a novel.

Does Kureishi ultimately sympathizes with Mamoon, with the idea that other people may be sacrificed for great art? “A writer,” Kureishi notes in passing, “is loved by strangers and hated by his family.” The book ends with a musing Harry contemplating what he thinks his biography ultimately accomplished:

He had completed his work, which was to inform people that Mamoon had counted for something as an artist, that he’d been a writer, a maker of worlds, a teller of important truths, and that this was a way of changing things, of living well, and of creating freedom.

This comment is so obviously at odds with the kind of book Harry has fought and schemed and sacrificed to write, that it begs for explanation. Is this ending meant to satirize the self-concept of egotistic writers, or does Kureishi mean his book to be an endorsement of the idea that great art can cover a multitude of sins? Kureishi’s own history suggests that the latter interpretation is not impossible. But if the book is meant to recommend that attitude, it fails to convince: one hardly feels urged to sympathy with Harry or Mamoon. So in the end, if this is satire, its moral — for satire always has a moral — remains unclear. But as Mamoon asserts, “I never want to be too clear. Nothing confuses like clarity. The best stories are the open ones, those you don’t quite understand.”