Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Hanif Kureishi is one of the most controversial contemporary British writers. This introduction places his fiction in historical context and explores his relevance to contemporary culture. Including a timeline of key dates and an interview with the author, this clear guide offers an overview of the varied critical reception his work has provoked.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Timeline

Without Abstract
Bradley Buchanan

1. Introduction: Kureishi in Context

Abstract
When Hanif Kureishi was born in 1954 Britain was still recovering from the devastating economic and social consequences of the Second World War. His childhood and adolescence saw British culture regain confidence and influence in the 1960s, with the emergence of an individualistic counterculture and the worldwide popularity of musicians such as The Beatles. The 1970s, however, were marred — in Britain and elsewhere — by economic stagnation, labour strife and instability, with the result that most of the political promise of the 1960s’ ethic of self-fulfilment was discredited. This situation produced three successive Conservative administrations in Britain, run by two Prime Ministers: Margaret Thatcher (who served two terms) and John Major. Thatcher especially fought the unions, privatized the state-owned industries she saw as inefficient, and allowed the British pound to lose value at a rate that alarmed many. Kureishi was one of many Britons who found themselves feeling both threatened and stimulated by the Thatcher-dominated 1980s and early 1990s, and his fiction deals primarily with these periods. The late 1990s and 2000s, when Tony Blair’s centrist Labour Party (elected in 1997) has been overwhelmingly dominant, have been less inspiring as fodder for political commentary.
Bradley Buchanan

2. A Biographical Reading

Abstract
Hanif Kureishi was born in Bromley, a South London suburb, on 5 December 1954. He attended the University of London, where he studied Philosophy, and after leaving school rose from the rank of usher to become the writer in residence at the Royal Theatre. His early plays were produced by London’s Theatre Upstairs, the Royal Court Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he enjoyed international success with the 1985 screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. In 1990, his novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for first novels. His fiction has since appeared regularly in prestigious periodicals such as the New Yorker, Granta, the London Review of Books and the Atlantic Monthly. Kureishi was married to Tracey Scoffield, his former editor at Faber & Faber, with whom he had twin boys (born in 1993) named Sachin and Carlo (he and Scoffield are now divorced). He began a relationship in 1995 with Monique Proudlove, and 1998 the couple had a son, named Kier.
Bradley Buchanan

Major Works

3. The Buddha of Suburbia and the Black Album

Abstract
Kureishi’s first two novels, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and The Black Album (1995) are undoubtedly his best known. They also have a great deal in common: in both, a young protagonist of Asian descent undergoes various picaresque adventures as a way of exploring his relationship to issues of race and class, the two major social forces that in Kureishi’s view shape identity in contemporary Britain. As Susie Thomas has argued, ‘In all Kureishi’s work there is an emphasis on how race can affect class and vice versa’ (Thomas 74), and nowhere is this more obvious than in Kureishi’s first two books. Nevertheless, the social milieus of the two novels are quite different; Buddha focuses on the middle class (both upper and lower) and on the culture industry, whereas Album centres on more marginal groups: radical university professors, Muslim students, former prostitutes, and drug dealers. Yet both novels come to the same conclusion: there is no possibility of establishing any meaningful class-based or racial solidarity that can protect one from the commodification, exploitation, inequality and inauthenticity of contemporary British life. The best Kureishi’s young British-Asian heroes can do is accept their lot in a world driven by hypocrisy, selfishness, racism and class confusion, and, by immersing themselves in the pleasures of consumption, salvage what personal enjoyment they can. Fortunately for them, they manage to enjoy themselves a good deal, even amid the ruins of their former naïve idealism.
Bradley Buchanan

4. Love in a Blue Time, Intimacy and Midnight All Day

Abstract
After The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album, Kureishi’s fiction seems to lose some of its public, political character. Instead, it centres on the trials and tribulations of private life (especially marriage and parenthood), probes the depths of disturbed psychological states and mental illness, and becomes increasingly self-conscious about the act of writing itself. As Bruce King writes, Kureishi’s ‘later books are about self-doubt, the onset of middle age, and the breakdown of long-term relations and moral rule’ (‘Abdulrazak Gurnah and Hanif Kureishi: Failed Revolutions’ 92). This new focus has led many readers to suppose that Kureishi moved into a more autobiographical phase in Love in a Blue Time (1997), Midnight All Day (1999) and the novella Intimacy (1998). This supposition gains some credence from Kureishi’s own admission that in writing his middle works, he followed the model of the ‘confessional monologue’, which as Susie Thomas reminds us, ‘achieved its contemporary prominence first in America with works by J. D. Salinger, Sylvia Plath … Philip Roth and Saul Bellow’ (Thomas 136). Thomas does acknowledge that ‘the blurring of autobiography and fiction emerges as a preoccupation’ in Kureishi’s ‘middle’ period (Thomas 137), but she argues that ‘it is not the case that there was a sudden break from the social themes to the self: Kureishi has always experimented with autobiographical fiction’ (Thomas 164). Thomas concedes that ‘at times [Kureishi’s] focus has been on ethnicity and racism, at other times less so’ but argues that ‘from the very beginning, Kureishi has highlighted the ways in which the personal is always political’ (Thomas 164–5).
Bradley Buchanan

5. Gabriel’s Gift and the Body

Abstract
In Gabriel’s Gift (2001) and The Body (2002), Kureishi is striving to break free from the cynicism, gloom and uncertainty that pervade Love in a Blue Time, Intimacy, and Midnight All Day. This effort, however, is more rigidly confined to the realm of the personal than any of the previous three books had been; Susie Thomas remarks that in his latest books Kureishi seems finally ‘to have lost faith, or lost interest, in the 1970s agenda which saw literature as an agent for political change’ (Thomas 151). The compensating factor that attends this public disillusionment is that ‘there is optimism about the possibilities for change and renewal … on a personal level’ though Thomas senses that ‘there is an element of willed optimism’ in this positive stance (Thomas 151–2). Moreover, there is a contradiction implicit in the books’ depiction of youthful innocence: both books are heavily freighted with an awareness of mortality, loss and loneliness.
Bradley Buchanan

Criticism and Contexts

6. Author Interview

Abstract
Well, my story’s really more complicated that that. My father came from a very wealthy Indian upper-class family, and moved to England and married a woman, my mother, who was lower middle class. But to answer your question, from my point of view, it’s a sense of where you are in relation to other people. As a teenager, it’s a sense of what you can and can’t achieve, where you can and can’t go. So the expectations of us, as lower-middle-class kids, were that we would be clerks, like my dad, or work in banks or insurance agencies, and so on. One of the things that happened in the sixties was that you were slightly liberated from your sense of class, because the pop stars that we knew, who were mostly lower middle class, like John Lennon or The Who, had liberated themselves from the straightjacket of class. We identified with them, and felt that we could then make our way in London, in culture, in pop, fashion, and in my case writing. So I think of class in terms of constraint, and also in terms of the intellectual deprivation, you might call it, of people who didn’t take culture seriously.
Bradley Buchanan

7. Other Writings

Abstract
Although Kureishi has produced a considerable body of fiction, he is perhaps best known to the general public for his films, which have garnered a good deal of critical attention. Kureishi’s work in these different genres is often deemed to be homogeneous; in her article ‘The Politics of Intimacy in Hanif Kureishi’s Films and Fiction’, Annabel Cone writes: ‘His writing … has a visual quality that transcends the separation between the written word and the filmed frame’ (Cone 261). However, many of his screenplays, and many of the films made out of his work, tend to share some traits not necessarily equally prominent in his fiction. The first of these traits concerns an obvious visual contrast between public and private spaces; as Cone puts it: ‘From his first film, My Beautiful Laundrette, to the novella Intimacy (1998), the need for love and intimacy plays out in an “indoors” completely turned away from … public spaces’ (261). The juxtaposition Cone describes of desiring bodies with Kureishi’s public London, a city that has become both ‘austere’ and ‘bland’, an ‘alienating urban environment that has become completely devoid of romance’ (Cone 261–2), is indeed a consistent, though not universal, feature of Kureishi’s films. Two less obvious but occasionally related features of many of Kureishi’s cinematic ventures are, as we shall see, a clear attribution of moral and psychological significance to the contrast between light and darkness, and a willingness to stretch the boundaries of realism in strategic ways.
Bradley Buchanan

8. Critical Reception

Abstract
Although Kureishi remains a consistently provocative and controversial writer, Susie Thomas’s recent book Hanif Kureishi: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism (Palgrave Macmillan 2005), which offers a comprehensive account of the criticism of Kureishi’s plays, films and fiction, makes it plain that academic criticism of Kureishi’s fiction has concentrated primarily on his first two novels. Thomas’s book also shows clearly that reactions to Kureishi’s work have grown increasingly evaluative (and largely hostile) as he has moved decisively away from the racially specific, international issues that are a central feature in postcolonial writing.
Bradley Buchanan
Additional information