Hanif Kureishi, Dreaming and Scheming: Reflections on Writing and
Politics (Faber, 2002)
One of the mysteries of art that has always intrigued me is that of writers who are fated to work in a particular genre. As a teenage aspiring writer, I was impressed by the cautionary and melancholy tale of Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the great Sherlock Holmes detective stories. Doyle, apparently, always longed to write great, serious, legitimate novels, and hated the ease with which he could spin those "elementary, my dear Dr. Watson" tales. He spent some part of his career attempting to escape the clutches of his best creation and, mainly by sheer grit, did write some reasonably competent conventional novels. They just weren’t great is all, and the Sherlock Holmes stories were. I think the moral of the story–at least as I got it as an adolescent–is that it’s better to serve the muse whose ear you’ve got than to hanker after gods and goddesses who will never give you the time of day, much less a hearing.
One of the best and busiest screenwriters of the last decade-and-a-half is Hanif Kureishi, the English writer of half-Pakistani descent, whose screenplay for Stephen Frears’ movie My Beautiful Laundrette in the mid-1980s brought him deserved fame and an Oscar nomination. Kureishi writes with considerable facility in a range of forms, including theatre plays, short stories, novels, TV dramas and essays. All of his work is interesting enough, including his present collection of essays, Dreaming and Scheming, but the real magic of his talent only emerges once one of those works–whether a story, play, novel, or something written directly for the medium–is transformed into cinema.
The most engaging of Kureishi’s films, My Beautiful Laundrette, was the improbable story of a London love affair between a Pakistani young man, who has inherited the management of a neighbourhood clothes washing facility from his well-to-do uncle, and a blond punkoid agemate, whose usual friends are National Front-type racists. Frears and Kureishi, between them, along with a dab of cinematic magical realism here and there, turned this unlikely affair into an engaging defence of gay romance. The homosexual kiss between the protagonists, Nasser and Johnny, played by Saeed Jaffrey and Daniel Day Lewis, was the most shocking meeting of lips on the British screen since John Schlesinger’s similar staging of a male-male kiss in Sunday, Bloody Sunday a decade earlier. But even more interestingly, Frears and Kureishi also succeeded in creating a full-scale persuasive examination of issues such as racism, immigration, modern families, and life in Thatcherite England in the 1980s.
A couple of years later, in 1987, Frears and Kureishi again teamed up to render an equally compelling political and social portrait under the provocative title Sammie and Rosie Get Laid. Although the focus of this film is more diffuse than that of Beautiful Laundrette–with its forays into New Age mysticism and currents of social anarchism–it is, if anything, deeper and more haunting in its treatment of contemporary British life than its predecessor. Part of its appeal is the presence of the great Indian actor Shashi Kapoor, who plays a civilized, utterly charming politician in exile who, it turns out, was almost certainly a practitioner of torture back home. The longest piece in Dreaming and Scheming is Kureishi’s diary of working on the film with Frears. It’s mostly artistic gossip, and is certainly not meant to be terribly deep, but for those who are curious about how films are developed, it’s of interest.
The prolific Kureishi then took a flyer at directing as well as screenwriting with his 1991 London Kills Me, an effort to get at the youth and drug culture of the day. A novel he had published the previous year, The Buddha of Suburbia was soon turned into a 1993 BBC mini-series. I thought it was one of those rare cases where the film was slightly better than the book. One of the pieces in Kureishi’s first book of short stories, published in 1997, was transformed into the film My Son the Fanatic a year later, and a further novel Intimacy, along with some subsequent short stories, provided the basis for Patrice Cherneau’s movie of that title in 2000, a gritty account of heterosexual despair. Even when the films are not altogether successful, most of the movies that have been made based on a Kureishi script, story, or novel tend to be more challenging than about ninety per cent of everything else "now showing at a movie theatre near you."
If I’m enthusiastic about Kureishi the screenwriter, I’m rather lukewarm about Kureishi the essayist. Dreaming and Scheming appears simultaneously with a volume of Kureishi’s screenplays. But since readers don’t really want to read screenplays (since they’re missing the very element that makes them interesting, namely, their transformation into movies), perhaps publisher and author decided it might be a good strategy to put out a volume of prose as a way of garnering attention for the more important screenwork.
Don’t get me wrong. The essays aren’t awful, and Kureishi is consistently intelligent about the topics on his mind. The book falls into three categories: reflections on writing, political narrative, and various supplementary writing about the films he’s made. The political writings generally touch on questions of ethnicity, as in Kureishi’s insider reportage from the racially volatile town of Bradford, but there are also pieces on a 1980s Tory political convention at the height of Thatcher’s reign, and a reminiscence about the cultural importance of the songs of the Beatles. The most substantial piece in the section is "The Rainbow Sign," an autobiographical memoir about England, where Kureishi was born to a Pakistani father and English mother, and his subsequent visits to relatives in Pakistan. The details of both settings are sharply observed, and the confusions of mixed ethnicity sensitively explored in this essay, which is the best sustained piece of writing in the book.
Recalling Ezra Pound’s old line about "artists as the antennae of the race," it’s no surprise that Kureishi’s concerns are often a step ahead of the curve. Among his film-related writings, the most interesting is that connected with My Son the Fanatic, a film that addresses the issue of Muslim fundamentalism a few years before it hit the headlines. The movie, which deserved a bigger viewing audience than it received, is the comedic tale of a flesh-loving, jazz-admiring ethnic taxi driver in a hardscrabble British town whose son turns to fundamentalist religion. As is characteristic with Kureishi movies–and one of the things that makes them artistically interesting–this one has a sense of humour and is never didactic. Sometimes his films are criticized, as Kureishi himself concedes, for not being "about" anything, for presenting amorphous plots. But it’s not true that Kureishi’s work is not "about" something. What it’s about is the "big picture" of contemporary life.
"It perplexed me," Kureishi says about this screen project, "that young people, brought up in secular Britain, would turn to a form of belief that denied them the pleasures of the society in which they lived. Islam was a particularly firm way of saying no to all sorts of things." As Kureishi observes, "Young people’s lives are, for a lot of the time, devoted to pleasure: the pleasure of sex and music, of clubbing, friendship, and the important pleasure of moving away from one’s parents to develop one’s own ideas." So, he asks, "why was it important that this group kept pleasure at a distance? Why did they wish to maintain such a tantalizing relation to their own enjoyment, keeping it so fervently in mind, only to deny it? Or was this puritanism a kind of rebellion, a brave refusal of the order of the age–an over-sexualized but sterile society?" Those are the right questions, and out of such questions, Kureishi makes his art.
On writing, Kureishi tends to be fairly conventional in his reflections. As a writing teacher, he’s clearly conscientious. In response to the frequently-asked question of why he teaches writing, he replies by citing director Stephen Frears answer to the same query: "Because no one else ever asks me the questions my students do." There’s also on offer here a good deal of the standard good advice that decent writing teachers develop after a lot of experience in the classroom.
Kureishi began his career as a theatre playwright. If there’s one thing that stands out in his remarks on the activity of writing as he experiences it, it’s Kureishi’s frequent references to the loneliness-of-the-long-distance-runner aspect of the trade. Perhaps that explains why Kureishi and his work seem to fit more comfortably into the collective aesthetic production that films necessarily are. Part of the explanation for Kureishi’s pursuit of other genres is that screenwriting is frustrating. The writer gets a "credit" for his work, but in fact he often tends to be subsumed in the larger production, and few screenwriters are really well-known except to other people in the business.
In the end, Scheming and Dreaming, like Kureishi’s prose fiction, is okay (sorry to damn with very faint praise here), but to get the full effect of this brilliant screenwriter’s talents requires a trip to the local Cineplex. Kureishi devotes much of his over-abundant energy to a variety of writing forms, but his muse mainly appears when they roll the credits. Not a bad fate, all things considered.
Berlin, May 16, 2002 1527 w.