Hanif Kureishi  

rm_jasmine_girl 39F
195 posts
2/11/2006 9:32 am

Last Read:
3/5/2006 9:27 pm

Hanif Kureishi

Intimacy is a very straightforward Sunday afternoon read - 155 pages in three hours - but it has made me think over a lot of stuff: love, guilt (or shame?), fear, marriage, boredom, sex, manhood, honesty, personal history and its oblivion, my own book collection, and boredom again. Especially boredom.

Past critics tend to praise Kureishi's gripping analysis of a male psychology that has failed and frustrated so many loved ones[1]. It is supposed to be a confession that does not ask for our sympathy. The sentences are short and sharp and at times shock like hailstones ("I want an absolute honesty that doesn't merely involve saying how awful one is. How do I like to write? With a soft pencil and a hard dick ‒ not the other way round." [p. 62] and "I could only think that there are some fucks for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a freezing area. My kingdom for a come." [p. 120] ‒ to name a few).

However, the novel would have failed if it only appeals to what the confessant labels as "the adults in The Catcher in the Rye" (p. 146), the generation of men that grew up in the sixties, disillusioned by Thatcherism in the eighties, and felt emotionally paralysed in the nineties ‒ the feeling of not even being able to fail properly.

The book, therefore, is not just about a man on the night before he leaves his six-year marriage and two adorable kids. It's not about mid-life crisis and it's definitely not about adultery. It's about the pursuit of happiness, its degeneration and consequences, or, in Kureishi's own words (perhaps I shouldn’t mix up the two), a society that "bases on bottomless dissatisfaction and the impossibility of happiness ... the promise of luxury that in fact promoted endless work" (p. 70). A topic we all feel deeply for.

Jay, the protagonist, suggests, "Like my children I appreciate a good story, particularly if I've heard it before. I want all details and atmosphere." (p. 7) but gives up after ten pages, "The boys know the story so well they can tell when I skip a bit or attempt to make something up. ... Old wives; old story."

Jay understands perfectly that he has nothing new to offer, no matter how truthful his account maybe, how hurtful his vocabulary is. I wonder if there are alternative ways of writing about a failing marriage without turning it into a repetition of other failed marriages: the constant war on toilet seats, dirty dishes, cigarette buds; obligations, counselling, the seesawing of power and control, uneasiness of fading passion, fading love, fading conversations, fading memories of why couples got together in the first place ("There was never great passion ‒ perhaps that was the point." [p. 29]).

He knows he will be equally stuck in two worlds: Victor’s never-to-be-satisfied individualism and idealism, and Asif’s middleclass comfort marriage (or at least being portrayed as one), with the irony that Asif's favourite literatures include Don Giovanni the opera and novels like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.

As we read along, we discover the controversy is not the fact that Jay is leaving his family for a younger woman (a topic Kureishi explores in almost half his stories in Midnight All Day) ‒ the "excuse" he gives Asif ‒ because his affair with Nina is equally blasé. Jay mourns the vicious cycle that no one seems able to escape and he's passing it onto the next generation: "What did Father's life show me? That life is a struggle, and that struggle gets you nowhere and is neither recognised nor rewarded." (p. 57) He feels cursed, fearing his inability to love is not limited to his wife (p. 62), an emotion I wish he had elaborated on.

Marriage reminds the characters their sacrifices, things they've given up for. Jay wants to write instead "with a soft pencil and a hard dick ‒ not the other way round". He wants to follow his desire I suppose, to choose the body over mind, for ideas, ideals, falter too easily. He likes different kinds of paper (a metaphor for women), dreaming of a smooth work routine, except his expensive fountain pen always "weeps" prematurely. He has bought numerous notebooks to record ideas under different topics, but ends up going astray, scribbling madly on loosened scraps of paper.

I ponder on his metaphors, sentences ("the soft pencil" ) that often start and end abruptly. What is love? What is the meaning of the book’s title? Why don’t people remain silent if they think what they’re doing is terrible? Why don't they walk out of the door quietly and save the list of pros and cons that extends to the novel's last 50 pages? The humiliation can wait. The paperwork can wait. Why does Jay say he has no intention to simply portray himself or anyone as the awful one when the outcome is so awful?

When Asif makes the final attempt to "correct" Jay, Jay explains he has no choice because he believes "in the possibilities of intimacy. In love." (p. 133) But as for how long the comfort lasts, no one knows.

Perhaps I've met and slept with someone like Jay, whose body and mind are mixed up. Being in my twenties, I am likely to identify with Nina. I'd turn around, bend over and offer myself. I'd slide wet petals on his face if it saves a lost soul or two. I'm not talking about the 70s notion of "zipless fuck", unless I’ve fucked as many as Don Giovanni, or as Jay's gay friend Ian, to a point where faces become a big blur ‒ a conquest that bears no end.

I thus turn to the movie for some answers, which I believe complements the novel.

The novel starts off with an end - readers already know what's going to happen when Jay says, "It is the saddest night, for I'm leaving and not coming back." He's made up his mind. The movie, Intimite, begins right in the middle of an ongoing narrative, an ongoing affair. Tindersticks’ A Night In[2] permeates the room, saddens the hearts as the camera unveils Jay’s folds of body bit by bit, who curls up like an unborn. Then we see the empty whiskey glass (though a wrong glass), covered with fingerprints; a tall mug for the occasional tea and instant coffee, and the mount of cigarette buds ‒ a typical diet for the city distraught. The background music stops. Jay wakes up from a shock, a reason we soon know why. He looks like he finally reaches the water surface for air. He's expecting someone. He opens the door for a familiar silhouette behind and we see Claire, a face equally frank and emotive, but without his anticipation. Jay brings out two instant coffees on a tray, with sugar, milk and teaspoons properly arranged, awkwardly resembling a housewife. Claire follows in and out. London’s Calling kicks in from the living room. Even though the two are not talking, Jay lowers the volume, and clears the carpeted floor as a cue. Claire strokes his face. Then the continuity is disrupted by a kissing shot, followed by the first controversial scene of choreographed fucking.

The biggest irony is that eroticism has always been better achieved in words (one can consult works by Sade, Bataille, Barnes, Miller and so on), of which the only boundary is the writer's boundless imagination. Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was once criticised for being "a fuck film without a fuck ‒ like a Western without the horses"[3]. Strict film censorship recalls the limits of civilization and culture, lest art becomes staged pornography and embarrasses the audience by making us conscious, or guilty for being voyeuristic. Kureishi raises a similar view in his essay on Intimite. He also judges from the way sexuality is portrayed in mainstream cinema[4]. However, there are two things in life that just can’t possibly be filmed, only faked: orgasm and death ‒ how closely the two are related, the first and final rift between art and life.

The novel is honest, but far from being blunt when compared to the movie. Jay is on his way out. He’s desperate to leave. With his words, we notice the immense anxiety in Jay, at times justifying his deed by putting down the others, which I find unconvincing. The movie, however, can be seen as a sequel to the novel, portraying something similar with a twist, telling what Jay's become after "the saddest night", which turns out not to be the saddest after all. The worst is yet to come. The movie also questions Jay's theory by bringing in a female point of view.

Chéreau shows that our body is as vulnerable as our mind. He is ambitious in the sense that he wants to challenge the rule by showing more in his film than in Kureishi's novel, by showing the actor’s and actress's bodies, the sex. The scenes are shocking because they are real (the hooding of the condom, the brief blowjob), thus disturbing and depressing. A barrier is broken when Kerry Fox (I can no longer distinguish between the four) puts Mark Rylance's penis into her mouth.

Eroticism is attractive and haunting; it breaks down rules and inhibition; it frees fantasy and imagination. Each sex scene reveals more of Jay’s desire until he can't stand the silence (a figure of death) and Claire. Too much of Jay's desperation for happiness has been revealed. By then he realises he's ruined the pleasure for both of them, and it's time to say goodbye. Eroticism leaves us wanting more. We in turn become possessive. We need reassurance from a "relationship" that is impossible. Problems abound when we attempt to philosophise desire. Unnecessary words disappoint people's expectation from the erotic. It is always a lack of words that drives desire, and inevitably, the film tails off when it becomes dependent on dialogues and explanations.

Jay says in the novel, "My kingdom for a come." Eroticism is not a one-to-one relationship; he begins to realise what the stake is.

Sexuality is a different story. No matter how much freedom sex entitles us, it is not just about the body; it constitutes a large part of our identity. The word "intimacy" has always been a euphemism for sex in literatures. Sex is intimacy and intimacy sex ‒ neither holds a superior position over the other, regardless of what ideology teaches us. To say that the film explores "sex without intimacy" is to ignore half the problem of an equation, to ignore your partner in the act, which, of course, is impossible.

Kureishi writes in "Nightlight", the short story Jay’s Wednesday affair is based on, "Words come out bend, but who can bend a kiss? ... Having forgotten what he likes about the world, and thinking of existence as drudgery, she reminds him, finger by finger, of the worthwhile. All his life, it seems, he's been seeking sex. He isn't certain why, but he must have gathered that it was an important thing to want. And now he has it, it doesn't seem sufficient."

The woman in the story remains a myth for the sake of a phallogocentric narrative, not eroticism. The story begins with a quote from R. L. Stevenson that goes, "There must always be two in a kiss." Kureishi knows the limitation of having an impersonal affair. If there’s no identity, does the body still exist? His character easily slips into uncontrollable frenzy. He masturbates a lot in the woman's absence, in her trace of smell, an uncanny reminiscence of Jay's marriage life. In the end, he concludes that sex is what he wants, because in it he rekindles life. Such conclusion, however, also points to a life of infinite substitutions. He will have many other unsatisfactory affairs and that's it, a bit like Victor in the novel, who, having left his wife eight years ago, remains goalless and directionless, soaked in London rain and drugs sweat in the movie. Define thyself in limbo.

Contentment is the last thing one expects from eroticism. It is problematic for Jay to see the erotic as redemptive, unless death is the redemption he wants, like Ben in Leaving Las Vegas, who only heads one direction.

It may trouble some viewers to see that in the movie, Claire, despite having a dull marriage like Jay, does not want to leave her family at all. She vents out her frustration through acting, and the affair is likely to be an act too (an ACT 2). Both men, the lover and the husband, are cuckolded, betrayed, their behaviour repetitive and lame ‒ all this shown to us by a gay director. I wonder what the implications might be. We suppress a smile on seeing the sign, "Toilet and Theatre" in the pub, one of the lowest types of venue in London, but for Claire, every night her performance marks a new beginning through Laura's vulnerability in The Glass Menagerie, who's crippled and helpless. Onstage she fakes her death, and survives in real life.

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