Tuesday, 11 March 2008
Hanif Kureishi: The Vanishing Women
I think it was Hazlitt who said that whenever he heard about a new book he went and read an old one. Not exactly in that spirit perhaps but noticing that Hanif Kureishi had a new book out I realised I hadn't read the last one that was sitting on my shelf gathering dust. His memoir of his father, My Ear at His Heart: Reading my Father (2004) is one I should have read, having made a couple of attempts to write a little about my own father in two books, A Short Book About Love (2001) and my latest, So Spirited a Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool as well as in a couple of published poems. Where I made some fleeting references (in the future I will be doing this at greater length) Kureishi devotes a whole book to his father who worked at the Pakistan Embassy in London as a minor functionary but who harboured a life long desire to be a writer. His son discovers an unpublished manuscript by his father and it sparks a book-length interrogation supplemented by much autobiographical material. It's a fascinating book in many ways though Hanif K will strike some as not an easy person to love. There's a narcissistic streak as when he writes coolly: "I liked women, their bodies and their concern for me. Sometimes they liked me." Elsewhere he points out that working as an usher at the Royal Court Theatre was good for picking up girls and having sex with them in the toilets after the house lights went down. Kureishi has no problem about such revelations and it's not so much his rather glum accounts of sex and drug-taking in the suburbs but the strange absence of women in his description of his family life that is puzzling. His mother, for example, who was a painter and who took him every day to the library he says (a feat that surely merits a mention alongside his father's literary enocuragement) is virtually invisible and his only sister, Yasmin completely out of the narrative. An article in last week's Independent by her suggests that sibling rivalry is a big issue with the Kureishis and, if Yasmin's charges are true, he has misrepresented both his family and her as well as being cruelly nasty about her own writing career. Family feuds are best kept out of and the truth is always hard to establish but it's odd that someone so right-on as Kureishi is, without being actively sexist, so uninterested in the lives of women, particularly, it seems, those (including former partners) who have found themselves in his books. It's an old issue (he himself mentions Philip Roth's experience of being reviled by his extended family for the way in which he portrayed his community) and one that probably won't be going away.