When I ask Hanif Kureishi whether he reads a great deal, he replies in trademark droll Kureishi style: “To read a novel—it’s impossible, because it’s either so bad it’s impossible to read, or it’s so good you feel ashamed and embarrassed. You think I could never do that, so I don’t really need the hassle…If you’re writing all day, the last thing you want to do in the evening is to read someone else’s novel…I’d watch the test match, or watch football, or whatever. I’m glad people are reading, but I don’t see why I would have to do it.”
But if you were to read Kureishi’s latest book, a collection of essays and stories, Love + Hate (Faber), you would find evidence of bibliophilia everywhere. There are Kureishi’s three primary torchbearers—Kafka, Nietzsche and Freud, who appear frequently as sources of inspiration and as examples of “the real thing.” “When I read Freud it was a revelation to me,” Kureishi says, “because he was somebody who wrote about everything that was interesting to me—childhood, sexuality, fathers.” But there are also individual books, singled out as game-changers—E R Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love, which Kureishi found in a Bromley Library aged sixteen, a book that contextualised and reframed his thinking on race. (He’s currently working on a film adaptation of the novel for the BBC, with Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Sidney Poitier’s role). There’s the entire shelf of ‘how to’ books on writing that he’s collected since he was a teenager, and the Montegrappa fountain pen catalogues he spends wads of time poring over.
In his essay ‘The Art of Distraction,’ Kureishi writes about how his father (a failed writer), parked a large part of his library in his bedroom, and how this kept depression at bay for him as a teenager, because whenever he was bored he’d pick up a book and flip through it until he found something interesting. “My father would give me a book of short stories by Chekhov and he would talk to me about it. We lived in the same idea even though I loved Jimi Hendrix and he liked Duke Ellington.” Books were a link. With his own sons though, (Kureishi has three, and none of them have read his books) the paradigm has shifted. “They’re perfect consumers,” he says, “They really love capitalism…There’s a big shopping centre nearby in Westfield, it’s their church, they love it….They and I don’t live in the same paradigm.”
Many of the stories and essays in Love + Hate hinge on this paradigm shift, whether it’s to do with ageing, immigration, relationships breaking down, or race. What fascinates Kureishi is “the nexus of hate,” which he says hasn’t changed at all—it’s still around issues of race, the idea of the other, the immigrant, fundamentalism and fascism. What has changed is the ability to create art. Kureishi still believes that writers have an important role in society as truth-tellers, but he admits he was lucky to have come of age in the 60s when you could be a bohemian. “It’s incredible to me that I became an artist at all, that I became anybody. You know, I’m from the suburbs. I have no education, no class. Somehow I got through. It seems amazing.”