KRWG

In 'The Nothing,' A Dirty Old Man Lusts For Life

Dec 30, 2017

Hanif Kureishi has written plays and movies — notably the screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette, which was nominated for an Oscar. But he's also won awards for his short stories and novels.

The British author's new book is a slender volume called The Nothing. Considering that there is very little sex in the book, it is a dirty book, about a nasty, dirty old man. The protagonist Waldo is in his 80s — he's "very withered" and "barely mobile," Kureishi says — when he suspects his younger wife Zee may be having an affair with one of his best friends.

"I wanted to write a character who was a bit older than me, who had lived through the great experiments of the '60s, you know, involved with the anti-war movement and drugs and new sexuality and so on," Kureishi says, from his home in London. "And I wondered what would have happened to such an old man now. What would he be doing now? What would he think now? Would he be out of date? And what would his attitude be to the fact that he was someone who was about to lose everything — or to have it, let's say at least, taken from him."


Interview Highlights

On the arrival of The Nothing in the United States during a moment unsympathetic to dirty old men

I've become very aware of that and interested in that, and in fact I did at one time work very briefly with Harvey Weinstein. So I'm very aware of that. But Waldo, our man, is very much in love with his wife and for a long time, she was very much in love with him. So I have to say that I feel that it's heartbreaking to see what is happening to him.

One of the things that interested me about writing this character was that I got very interested in older people. And one of the things I noticed, clearly, that happens to older people — and perhaps why they're so angry and perhaps why our man Waldo is so furious about things — is the fact that their lives are really built around loss. If we live in a society of accumulation, one of the things that happens to you when you get older is that you begin to lose things. You begin to lose your friends, you begin to lose contact with the world. And of course, as you get older you begin to think about how you're going to lose your very existence, your life. So I wanted to write about a man, as it were, kicking against the bricks. He knows that he's going to lose everything. But at the same time his voice, like that of a character from Beckett, continues to speak on. And even despite his nastiness, there's a kind of love of life, of women, of food, of enjoyment, that remains in this old devil of a character.

On sex in the novel, which Waldo appears preoccupied about losing

Well, sex in this book, I guess I would think about in the widest sense, I guess. Sometimes we can think about it in terms of libido. I think more broadly and more interestingly, we have to think about it in terms of eros or some kind of vital spirit, which becomes very diminished as you get older, and harder to come by. And so I wanted to show someone who was, as it were, disappearing — but still has that vital force that I find so central and Freud called the libido in terms of the meaning of life.

On Kureishi's thoughts on aging after writing about Waldo

I think I feel — and I'm very aware now myself having come out yesterday, coming out of hospital — I'm really aware of how difficult it is as you get older to find pleasures when you are on the brink of losing so much, and of course, when the world is taken over by young people. But like our man Waldo and indeed like Zee in the book — she falls in love with a younger man — she too can find her pleasures and enjoyments. And it seems to me that I hope the book vibrates with some kind of continuous pleasure in living.

Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon and Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We have a new novel for you, a slender volume written by Hanif Kureishi. He's written a lot of movies, notably the screenplay for "My Beautiful Launderette," which was nominated for an Oscar, but also lots of short stories and novels. He has won honors and awards. His new book is called "The Nothing." And considering that there is very little sex in the book, it is a dirty book about a nasty, dirty old man. Mr. Kureishi joins us from his home in London.

I've just given your protagonist, Waldo, a label. How would you describe him?

HANIF KUREISHI: When you said that, I was really thrilled. Waldo, as you say, is a dirty old man. He's in his 80s. He's very withered. He can't hear much. He can't see much. He can't walk around. He's barely mobile, but he's a rather cheerful old devil despite everything - until he finds out that his beloved wife, Zee, could well be having an affair in his own apartment with one of his best friends, a guy called Eddie, who's a petty con man and a sort of small-time thief, book reviewer and cinema attender.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Waldo has not always been in such terrible shape as he is in the book. He describes himself - I wonder if you could read that.

KUREISHI: (Reading) I had [expletive]-ability - a gorgeous man in flares and love beads with wide shoulders, shoulder-length black hair and an [expletive] you'd pay to bite. If you'd once been attractive, desirable and charismatic with a good body, you never forget it. Intelligence and effort can be no compensation for ugliness. Beauty is the only thing. It can't be bought, and the beautiful are the truly entitled. However, you end up, you live your whole life as a member of an exclusive club. You never stop pitying the less blessed. Filth like Eddie.

WERTHEIMER: Maybe you should just tell us when this was in his life.

KUREISHI: I realized when I became 60 that I'd lived through quite a considerable span of the post-war period and that I could remember not only the '50s but a good deal of the '60s. And so, I wanted to write a character who was a bit older than me who had lived through the great experiments of the '60s, you know, involved with the antiwar movement and drugs and new sexuality and so on. And I wondered what would have happened to such an old man now. What would he be doing now? What would he think now? Would he be out of date? And what would his attitude be to the fact that he was someone who was about to lose everything or to have it, let's say, at least taken from him?

WERTHEIMER: You seem to have a kind of romantic attachment to him. I mean, you write about how awful he is, but also you wrote a novel around him which invites a comparison to "Rear Window" and then, of course, to Jimmy Stewart. It's a kind of a noir plot. But you know, for me, a woman of a certain age, this is not a sympathetic man at all. I mean, he is such a nasty person. And the way he talks about women is absolutely awful. Have you noticed that your novel is arriving in the United States at a moment when women are losing interest in nasty men?

KUREISHI: You know, I've become very aware of that and very interested in that. And in fact, I did at one time work very briefly with Harvey Weinstein. So I'm very aware of that. But Waldo, our man, is very much in love with his wife. And for a long time, she was very much in love with him. So I have to say that I feel that it's heartbreaking to see what is happening to him.

And one of the things that interested me about writing this character was that I got very interested in older people. And one of the things I noticed clearly that happens to older people - and perhaps why they're so angry and perhaps why our man Waldo is so furious about things - is the fact that their lives are really built around loss. If we live in a society of accumulation, one of the things that happens to you when you get older is that you begin to lose things. You begin to lose your friends. You begin to lose contact with the world. And of course, as you get older, you'll begin to think about how you're going to lose your very existence, your life.

So I wanted to write about a man, as it were, kicking against the pricks. He knows that he's going to lose everything. But at the same time, his voice, like that of a character from Beckett, continues to speak on. And even despite his nastiness, there's a kind of love of life, of women, of food, of enjoyment - that remains in this old devil of a character.

WERTHEIMER: You know, I'm fascinated to hear you talk about it this way because I thought what Waldo was wretched about losing was sex.

KUREISHI: Well, sex in this book, I guess, I would think about in the widest sense, I guess. Sometimes we can think about it in terms of libido. I think more broadly and more interestingly, we have to think about it in terms of eros or some kind of vital spirit, which becomes very diminished as you get older - and harder to come by. And so I wanted to show someone who was, as it were, disappearing but still has that vital force that I find so central and Freud called the libido in terms of the meaning of life.

WERTHEIMER: You're writing about a man who's aging out of what has been a very impressive life. He's been a creative person. He's loved by his beautiful wife and so on. How do you feel about it? I mean, how do you feel about age as a result of spending so much time with Waldo?

KUREISHI: I think I feel - and I'm very aware now myself having come out yesterday, coming out of hospital - I'm really aware of how difficult it is, as you get older, to find pleasures when you are on the brink of losing so much and, of course, when the world is taken over by young people. But, like our man Waldo - and indeed like Zee in the book - she falls in love with a younger man. She, too, can find her pleasures and enjoyments. And it seems to me that - I hope the book vibrates with some kind of continuous pleasure in living.

WERTHEIMER: Hanif Kureishi's new book is called "The Nothing."

Thank you very much for talking with us.

KUREISHI: It was a real pleasure, I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANY MOONS AGO'S "OVER THE ROOFTOPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.