On the back cover of The Body – Hanif Kureishi’s latest book and the reason why we are talking – the Independent on Sunday describes his writing style as ‘singularly pure and classical… at times a dissecting instrument more reminiscent of the French tradition than of the English’. We both agree that it is a funny old world when the work of a man born in Bromley, Kent to a Pakistani father and English mother should be perceived as so, well, French.
It is true though, I suggest, that there is a certain Gallic ‘allure’ to both Intimacy and The Body, his concept novella of a 65 year-old writer transplanted into the body of a 25 year-old man. Hanif says he doesn’t know why, that he doesn’t even speak the language. He ventures that it might be his enduring interest in philosophy that makes him appear a little continental (although he quickly qualifies this with a very Anglo-Saxon ‘but I’m not a philosopher’). There may be a certain truth in this observation, although I am personally inclined to think it is more his willingness to mix philosophy with sex that makes him appear so exotic to English readers, who are accustomed to their characters thinking and copulating, just not in the same novel.
Hanif has mentioned his interest in philosophers and theorists such as Sartre, Camus and Lacan, and how the work of the latter, the elusive post-structuralist psychoanalyst, has influenced his belief that identity and the self are totally fluid concepts – that they are determined by our relationships with others. If acquiring a new body might change the way others perceive and interact with you, in other words, it will change your self in some ‘essential’ way.
I ask him if he doesn’t believe in the concept of a stable self, and he replies ‘I don’t know anyone who does believe in that these days’. For a ‘multiculturalist’ writer – and we would return to what such a title might mean later in the conversation – this assertion strikes me as insouciantly Western. By ‘Western’, I do not mean the prevailing opinion of the ordinary men and women who live in that hemisphere, but of what Terry Eagleton defines as the ‘historically peculiar situation of a specific wing of the Western left intelligentsia’.
I put it to him that many people believe profoundly in the concept of a stable self, not least of whom are those with religious faith: in the Christian tradition, for example, not only is there such a thing as the ‘soul’, but man’s ‘dignity’ itself derives from the knowledge that he is created in the image of God. I mention that Francis Fukuyama raises this point in his book Our Posthuman Future. Hanif expresses interest in this discussion at the same time as terminating it, when he argues that the The Body is not as postmodern as I am implying (although its subject seems remarkably prescient, in the context of Clonaid’s recently professed ambition to transplant the ‘mind’ of a newly deceased corpse into a cloned, younger model of the same body).
As much as anything, he argues that The Body was influenced by the ‘British fantastic tradition’ of novels such as Frankenstein, as well as Oscar Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Gray, which also examines the relationship between sexuality and the ageing body in a secular context. Intriguingly, he adds that many of the ideas behind The Body came to him as a result of working on a script of Dorian Gray which never came to fruition.
Perhaps a glutton for punishment, I drag the conversation back to the continental theory that strikes me as being such a heavy influence on The Body.
The author offers guarded agreement that The Body fits into a Lacanian conception of human beings being driven by urges that can never be fully satiated: the hedonism of the old man once again in a youthful body offers him, as he puts it, no ‘ultimate satisfaction’.