Intimacy – Hanif Kureishi
I’ve been blackballed from a book group by one of its founding members* for the last two years, and last night was my trial induction. I also chose the book: Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi in keeping with the novella theme, and hoping to start a general discussion here on book clubs. Short, and said to be semi-autobiographical (based on the end of his relationship with Tracey Scoffield) and perhaps a cussed selection for an entirely female club. In fact, and I had been told this would happen, everyone agreed on how much they disliked it and no one has thrown me out yet.
The narrator prepares to leave his wife and two sons for his mistress Nina, if only he could find her. This was the first thing agreed upon: better for him if he hadn’t left (quite apart from the matter of child abandonment) and been plagued with regretful indecision thereafter, as it would have been much more characteristic for an intelligent, laconic protagonist who veered too often down lazy and self-indulgent paths of memory. However, his punishment may be altogether crueller and entirely self-inflicted: to be forever trapped, looking for an escape route.
Switching between the tenses as he paces around the family home is one of the more confusing aspects to this spare but irksome novella. He does not belong in a domestic environment with fat, efficient Susan who has the temerity to look her husband directly in the face at one point: “She looks at me hard, in order to have me notice her.” He sneers at her ability to multi-task, and if she presents too much shoulder at the wrong moment in bed he tends to stomp off to his study to frown at his Oscars.
His love for his sons seems to waver – his legs nearly give way when his friend Asif reminds him of how hard life will be for them in his absence, but he often counts off on his fingers the number of times he has cared for their basic needs, and of course he does leave in the end, because he feels he has to. In this he is admirable: he has no interest in endearing himself to the reader when it comes to depicting his life in anything other than a brutal fashion (lies in bed all day before hacking up literature to make a poorer film version) and approach to love – he confesses to changing his outfit before meeting his mistress in an attempt to appear more youthful. There was a collective wince at his use of Susan’s anti-ageing face cream as lube, and his bizarre envy of the hydraulic force shown by his infant son whilst urinating. This attention to detail when it came to describing his own physical plight (his belly has soft folds, etc.) is rendered even more confusing by the dearth of material on the two women he is trying to choose between. Susan is described in vague terms as blonde and fat, and Nina is a shadowy figure – although we are told which foodstuffs he wants to consume from her.
There is a deliberate lack of glamour throughout, but then he is describing the end of a loveless marriage. The question remains as to whether the absence of love will remain: Nina’s phone number when restored to him at the end does not fill you with hope. Nina has complained: “He keeps leaving me” as he whines “This confusion isn’t going to leave me alone”. I fear this will remain the case until he fully explains, finishes.
(*also a relative, so the decision was relatively well-informed)