My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father

My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father

by Hanif Kureishi

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Described in a recent New York Times Magazine profile as a "postcolonial Philip Roth," Hanif Kureishi first captured the attention of audiences and critics in the 1980s with the award-winning novel The Buddha of Suburbia and the films My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. In three decades of acclaimed work, Kureishi has


Described in a recent New York Times Magazine profile as a "postcolonial Philip Roth," Hanif Kureishi first captured the attention of audiences and critics in the 1980s with the award-winning novel The Buddha of Suburbia and the films My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. In three decades of acclaimed work, Kureishi has written fiction and films exploring a series of interconnected themes about identity and desire—from Islamic radicalism to kinky sex, and from psychoanalysis to the relationships of fathers and sons. After discovering an abandoned manuscript of his father’s, hidden for years, Kureishi was compelled to turn his "unflinching perspective" (Time Out) onto his own history. Like Roth, Martin Amis and Geoffrey Wolfe, who also have written books about their fathers, Kureishi wanted to understand and perhaps to reconcile.

My Ear at His Heart offers remarkable insight into the birth of a writer, chronicling how Kureishi’s own literary calling emerged from the ashes of his father’s aspirations. And so begins a journey that takes Kureishi through his father’s privileged childhood by the sea in Bombay, through the turbulent birth of Pakistan and to his modest adult life in England—his days spent as a civil servant, his nights writing prose, hopeful of one day receiving literary recognition.

"A beguiling and complex tale of fact, fiction and family tensions" (The Guardian), My Ear at His Heart was published to great acclaim in the United Kingdom in 2004 and went on to win the prestigious Prix France Culture Etranger. Now, this profound work from one of the most compelling artists of our time is at last available in a Scribner edition.

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
Hanif Kureishi's affecting new memoir…is ruminative and minor-key. Looping back and forth in time, jumping from highly personal revelations to more abstract meditations on race and colonialism, it has the improvisatory and unfinished quality of a jazz rehearsal—or therapy session…the bulk of the book—especially when it stays focused on Mr. Kureishi and his family—is raw, deeply felt and often moving.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
“A riveting piece of textual detective work . . . A moving and fiercely honest book.”

—The Guardian (U.K.)

“It is family memoir, autobiography and cultural history combined. . . . With what

feels like unmitigated honesty Kureishi successfully conveys the impression that in

this book he has actually given us himself.” —The Sunday Times (London)

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On the floor in a corner of my study, sticking out from under a pile of other papers, is a shabby old green folder containing a manuscript I believe will tell me a lot about my father and my own past. But ever since it was discovered I have been glancing at it, looking away, getting on with something else, thinking about it, doing nothing. The manuscript was given to me a few weeks ago, having turned up after more than eleven years. It is a novel written by my father, a legacy of words, a protracted will, perhaps – I don’t know yet what it contains. Like all his fiction it was never published. I think I should read it.

When I first conceived the book I am now writing, lying in bed at night – before the discovery of dad’s text – I intended it to start with other books. I was wondering about the past as I often do now, dreaming further and further back, and thought that a way of capturing the flavour of my younger self might be to reread the writers I’d liked as a young man. I would look at, for instance, Kerouac, Dostoevsky, Salinger, Orwell, Hesse, Ian Fleming and Wilde again, in order to see whether I could rein-habit the worlds they once made in my head, and identify myself in them.

As well as being about the writers who’d meant most to me, the book would be about the 1960s and 70s, set alongside the present, with some material about the context in which the reading, and then the rereading, took place. Each book, I hoped, would revive memories of the circumstances in which it was read. It would then set me thinking about what each particular book had come to mean for me.

Whoever else was in it, I decided right away that the focus would be Chekhov’s work, his letters, plays and stories. He had been one of my father’s favourite writers, a man and doctor we discussed often. All books contain some sort of attitude towards life, and most such approaches you grow out of; like dead relationships, they no longer offer you anything. But I am still curious about Chekhov and the numerous voices his work can sustain, and often think of returning not only to his writing, but to him as a man, to the way he thought and felt, and to the questions he asked.

I came to some sort of self- and political consciousness in the 1970s, a particularly ideological time of aggressive self-description. Women, gays and blacks were beginning to speak a new or undiscovered rendition of their history. If you wanted to work in the theatre, as I did, it was impossible to escape the argument that culture was inevitably political. When Trotsky wrote, ‘The function of art in our epoch is determined by its attitude towards the revolution’, the only questions for writers were: where did you stand? and, what were you doing? (You couldn’t say, what revolution? without ruling yourself out of the conversation.)

When I didn’t know what the purpose of my writing was, or when I wanted to think of what I did as an exploration of ideas and character, I’d remember Chekhov. He was a subtle writer, a supreme poet of disillusionment, suffering and stasis; and, like Albert Camus, a man who saw that being pushed into an ideological corner was of no benefit to anyone.

The book I intended originally to write would have a ‘loose’ form, being a journal rather than criticism, and be about the way one reads or uses literature, as much as anything else. After all, it is rare – rare for me – to read a book from beginning to end in one go. I read, live, return to a book, forget who the characters are (particularly if they have Russian names), pick up another book, put it down, go on holiday and, maybe, get to the end while having forgotten the beginning.

As an adolescent, and in my twenties and thirties, I read consistently and even seriously. By seriously I mean I read stuff I didn’t want to read, even making notes, hoping this would help the material become part of me. I felt I’d had a pretty poor education until the age of sixteen. Or, rather, having read so many public-school novels – school novels then didn’t seem to be any other kind – I had intimidating fantasies about those book-stuffed public-school boys, kids like my father, who knew Latin and understood syntax. I was convinced they’d be way ahead of me, intellectually and therefore socially. People would want to hear what they had to say.

What I required from reading was to extend my knowledge and what I thought of as my ‘orientation’. This meant having new ideas, which would function like tools or instructions, making me feel less helpless in the world, less bereft, less of a child. If you knew about things in advance, they wouldn’t seem so intimidating, you would be prepared, as though you’d been given a map of the future. My mother and sister mystified me, so I wanted, for instance, to find out about sex, and what women were like, what they felt and thought about, and whether it was different from men, particularly when men were not present. And, when I began writing myself, I wanted to find out what was going on in the literary arena, what other writers were thinking and doing – how they were symbolising the contemporary world, for instance – and what I, in turn, might be able to do.

Although I have this idea of myself as not having enough education – enough for what? – a couple of years ago my mother found, in the attic of our house in the suburbs where she still lives, a notebook with a home-made cover of wallpaper. I started it in 1964, when I was ten, and listed the books I had read. It must have been around then that I began to write everything down in an ever-increasing number of pompously-named notebooks, as though the world only had reality once it was translated into words. Thinking about this now, I can’t help but find it odd that for me ‘education’ always meant reading, the accumulation of information. I never thought of it in terms of experience, for instance, or feeling or pleasure or conversation.

In 1964, to my surprise, I read one hundred and twenty-two books. Some Arthur Ransome; more than enough Enid Blyton; E. Nesbit; Mark Twain; Richmal Crompton; oddities like Pakistan Cricket on the March; Adventure Stories for Boys by ‘lots and lots of people’; Stalky & Co and The Jungle Book.

Four years later, in 1968, the tone had changed. January begins with Billy Bunter the Hiker but right after it came The Man with the Golden Gun, which is followed by G-Man at the Yard by Peter Cheyney. Then it’s From Russia With Love, The Saint, The Freddie Trueman Story, P. G. Wodehouse, Mickey Spillane and the Beatles biography by Hunter Davies (in brackets, ‘re-read’, which is unusual for me at that stage). Finally there is Writing and Selling Fact & Fiction by Harry Edward Neal.

In 1974 I was supposed to be at university, but didn’t feel like attending classes. After all, I’d been at school, sitting still and listening, since I was five. I was, in fact, writing and living with my girlfriend in Morecambe, Lancashire, a run-down freezing seaside town not far from the Heysham Head nuclear power station. It was the first time I’d lived with anyone not my parents. Once we hitch-hiked to the Lake District, otherwise we’d walk on the cliffs and the sand, and listen to music. Sometimes we would cook and eat huge meals, consisting of five or six courses, eating until we were stuffed, until we couldn’t move, and passed out where we lay.

Morecambe was far from London. That was the idea. Except that you leave home and recreate your home life in another place, where the regime you make is even more fervent, the obedience greater. I was, therefore, mostly behind a closed door, having written in my diary, in 1970, ‘The idea is for me to stay in my room all the time.’ This was my father’s wish for me – one he made when he thought I should become a writer – and it was already the only place I felt safe, something I would feel for years, and still do, to a certain extent. Perhaps my girlfriend made me embarrassed about the writing-things-down habit, as well as the lists, notebooks and much else. (I still do the lists, but about other things.) The books read during this time are by Sartre and Camus, Alan Watts and Beckett, before the lists stop. Maybe, for a bit, I went out into the world. The last entry is Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, of which I recall almost nothing, only the memorable image of a weeping woman on a bed, halfmad, embracing a shoe. I liked anything erotic, of course. Not that there had been much around. Lady Chatterley, Lolita and even The Catcher in the Rye – then considered to be a ‘dirty’ book – were kept in dad’s bedroom. None of them did much for me. James Bond was better; Harold Robbins represented a delicious, shameless indulgence. My girlfriend, who was a good teacher, introduced me to the work of Philip Roth and Erica Jong, as well as to that of Miles Davis and Mahler.

But these are other artists and I am vacillating. Pressingly, there is still the question of the semihidden book in the folder poking out from under a pile of other papers in my study, papers I have yet to find a place for, which reproach me every time I spot them. I have to say that I know the folder contains a novel called ‘An Indian Adolescence’. My father, who was a civil servant in the Pakistan Embassy in London, wrote novels, stories, and stage and radio plays all his adult life. I think he completed at least four novels, though all were turned down by numerous publishers and agents, which was traumatic for our family, who took the rejection personally. But dad did publish journalism about Pakistan, and about squash and cricket, and wrote two books on Pakistan for young people.

I am sure that ‘An Indian Adolescence’ was his last novel, written, I guess, after his heart surgery, a bypass, when he was no longer employed in the Embassy, where he’d worked most of his adult life. I have little idea what to expect from dad’s novel, but I do anticipate being shocked and, probably, moved and disturbed. Will it be dreadful, a masterpiece, or something in between? Will it tell me a little, too much, or just the right amount? Why hesitate now? I wonder whether it will contain some sort of message to me, and how I might respond.

My father and his numerous brothers always read a lot, and seriously too. When they met, while cleaning and smoking their pipes, they’d talk about literature and politics, and swap books.

I guess knowledge was a competitive thing with them; they loved to argue, the intellectual tension between them was always high, almost murderous, as though they were wrestling. With my father there were Saturday trips to the ‘book road’ – Charing Cross Road – just the men, while my mother took my sister to her ballet class. The city itself was a revelation and a hope for this skinny little light-brown kid crossing the river on the train, passing through the slums of Herne Hill and Brixton from the suburbs. It was intimidating, a grand imperial metropolis full of massive statues: blank-faced men covered in bird-shit and medals, who had commanded armies and ruled nations. That was the Empire for me: decline, and these relics. It wasn’t that for my father, who had lived in it, as I was beginning to understand when he spoke of his childhood – an incident with a brother or teacher here, a joke there, and nothing to make either of us sad.

Children hear scores of stories, in numerous forms, before they can read them. But at the centre of their education is their induction into an ongoing story. This is the family legend or tradition, various versions of which their parents and family are keen to impress on them. Whatever else was going on in my life, through books I was entering a narrative, or myth, which concerned reading, and writers, as a kind of family transaction. Sport – and cricket in particular – was part of this myth. Probably none of us would have been able to say exactly what sort of story it was. Nonetheless, an important communication was being made about what counted in the family, about how I should live and who I should be. If every child has their place in the family dream or economy, and the parents have a project for the child, neither they nor the child can be sure what it is.

By the time I’d left home, I’d come, unsurprisingly, to have great faith in books. Although father’s blind spots in reading are mine, and what he disliked I still dislike – there’s nothing as permanent as an inherited childhood phobia – I knew you could find a book for every mood, or find a book to change your mood, a book which might suggest a way of thinking, feeling and being. New thoughts, images and fantasies would spring into your mind as you sat reading. The right book, drug-like, could put you, and keep you, in the desired frame of mind for weeks.

After leaving London University, where I’d gone after only a year in the North, I was trying to be a writer, according to my father’s plan. If I wrote in the morning, I’d walk around the city in the afternoon. It was aimless, I was a flaneur – a ‘loafer’ in father’s words, meaning idler – getting to know London by its streets and faces, wishing I had someone to talk to, a girl to be with, and visiting second-hand bookshops, of which there were more than there are now, where you could always find odd things. I was probably more than slightly depressed. Out of curiosity I had started, once a week, to visit an old-fashioned mental asylum in Surrey where I was shocked to see drugged, shaven-headed lunatics jibbering in the corridors, and one old man who always wore a tutu. These trips were, purportedly, to provide the inmates with contact from the outside world, but I needed to find out about mental distress from more than a book. How mad was I? The supervisor allocated me the position of ‘friend’ to a porcelain-skinned German beauty who lived in the millionaires’ square, the Boltons, in South Kensington. She was almost paralysed, like one of Freud’s early cases, reminding me of a line by Anne Carson, ‘… the nerves pouring around in her like a palace fire.’ Both her parents had killed themselves recently, one by jumping out of the window. We’d sit in her flat, watching the curtains rustle in the breeze; sometimes, drily, we’d kiss. She did her best, but she couldn’t cheer me up.

I guess I was beginning to see that while you can’t be subject to a book’s will, neither will it kiss you, talk back or bring you a cup of tea. You begin to feel hungry and deprived, though you don’t know what for, because you’ve been told that stories can give you so much. Surely they can cure both loneliness and the difficult reality of actual others?

The book trips I would make soon came to be the same every day. That was the point. In similar fashion, at the moment, although I’m not writing much, I’ve been coming into my study and sitting here as if I am working on something. The place I write is a room on the first floor of my house in West London, where I have two old computers and am surrounded by books, CDs, photographs and children’s drawings, as well as a drawing of dad by my mother. I have dozens of pens nearby, many of them fountain pens – which I enjoy washing and filling – some of which belonged to my father. I prefer to write by hand rather than type; the movement of the arm seems closer to drawing – doodling, rather – and to inner movement. Ultimately these are habits; daily repetitions. A new thing is an excuse for another thing the same. Then you know where you are. Beckett is full of these obsessions – you might call his an aesthetic of futile repetitions.

Don’t think I haven’t noticed that many artists are as compelled by the rituals which surround their art – silence, covering paper, screwing it up, tossing it in the bin – as much as by the matter itself. After a few years it becomes obvious that the art is there to serve the ritual, which is everything. If you aren’t an obsessive, you can’t be an artist, however imaginative you might be. Yet, sometimes, I think I go to my desk only to obey my father. This might explain why I’m so furious when I arrive there and why I don’t know what to do when I’m finished. Yet if that was all there was to it, I’d have found another profession by now.

Now, embarked on this ‘reading’ project and thinking I really ought to get on with it, I take the manuscript from its folder and flick through it. Holding onto the book for a while before replacing it, I continue to wonder what I should do with this object, or gift, made by dad. It is like a letter from the dead, delivered more than ten years late. Yet however long it has been unread, I suppose a book becomes a real book if even just one person opens it and tries to receive its communication. Looking at the inaccurate typing, crossings-out and scribbled additions of this one makes me think of the limitations of the mass-produced novel with its impression of impersonality, objectivity and authority. Sometimes I fancy making my own books, hand-written in different colours, including photographs, drawings and alternative versions, which would give an impression of its making or process.

I am wary of forgetting the conditions under which my father wrote. He was ill for most of my adolescence. He was either in hospital, or recuperating, or about to go back to work, or getting ill again. His father was an Army doctor who wanted his sons and daughters to train as doctors. Oddly, none did; though dad made sure he got to spend a lot of time with doctors, as well as with – via the local library – Zen masters and Buddhists of various types, and literary ‘soul-doctors’ like Jung and Alan Watts.

In place of a discarded Islam, and functioning like spiritual medicine, dad – a Muslim who had left India in his early twenties and never returned – made a religion at home out of library books, discontent and literary ambition. It must have been cheering for him to know he wasn’t the only suburban mystic. Alan Watts had been born a bus ride away, in Chislehurst; he’d been to school in nearby Bickley, before going to King’s School, Canterbury, which the other doctor-writer, Somerset Maugham, had attended, writing about it in Of Human Bondage. Watts then moved to Bromley.

It was partly through Watts, who occasionally appeared on TV, that the ‘counter culture’ entered our house. Watts, who had published his first book at nineteen, also wrote about Jung. One Sunday night in the mid-60s, John Freeman’s interviews with Carl Jung were broadcast on television. My mother, with, for her, unusual passion, said, ‘That man has had a good existence. His life has been fascinating and worthwhile.’ For a while Jung’s frailties and religious speculations seemed to me to be more interesting than Freud’s austerity and sexual speculations.

It was after reading about Jung’s experiments with ‘word association’ that I became interested in ‘automatic writing’. When that didn’t take me very far, I turned to free assocation as a way of loosening my imagination. Previously, as a writer, I’d laboured under a ‘school model’, thinking that the harder you pushed to produce significant words and images, the better they’d be.

For my father, during this period, illness meant that there would be the doctor’s hurried arrival in the night, his pyjamas protruding from the arms and legs of his suit, followed by the flashing blue light of the ambulance, and the wretched, suddenly diminutive bundle – dad – being laid in the back. I was a teenager, obsessed with my clothes and hair, wondering what I could be for a woman. (In 1974 I wrote in my diary, ‘Joanna talking about the day when I went to her house for dinner and said she regretted the fact that I had passed out and gone to sleep, drunk, because she wanted to get to know me more.’) With these preoccupations, I could never be sympathetic enough to dad. It is as if your robustness, vigorous curiosity and sexual enthusiasm is an insult to the parent’s suffering, to their loss of power and potency. How can you live your life when your father is failing to live his?

But bed is as good a place as any to write. I think my father wrote ‘An Indian Adolescence’ lying down, with an old children’s blackboard propped up in front of him, writing paper clipped to it. When he felt better he’d type it up and carry the work to the post office; then we’d wait. For a while there’d be hope: soon he’d be a successful writer.

The book was discovered by my agent a few months ago. I have no idea how long it had been in her office, but father died nearly eleven years ago. I have not looked at it before. After the age of about sixteen, I didn’t read any of his novels and didn’t offer him my work to look at. His tough, somewhat sneering criticism was unbearable, and I found myself being too hard on him, too. I would see him getting hurt.

Apart from this, there are kinds of knowing you are cautious of, information about your parents that you’re not sure you want to digest, as though all you want to do is make up your mind about them in order to get on with your life. On the other hand, wilful ignorance is no good. I decide that I will see what is in this book. It will be a good way of not rereading Chekhov for a while. My father wouldn’t have approved, though. He was hard-working, with powerful wishes, and always made it clear, as did my mother, that they both spent their day doing things they didn’t much want to do. Time, therefore, wasn’t to be wasted. (Suddenly I recall an odd line in a letter Chekhov wrote to Maxim Gorky: ‘You are a young, vigorous, hardy individual; in your place I would be off to India.’)

Having studied my parents at close quarters until I was in my late teens, and having thought and dreamt about them most days ever since, a good deal of what I ‘know’ must be supposition and fantasy. I guess that that is all it ever could be. Therefore, this free-form work of mine is probably closer to fiction than I would like to think. But this research, I hope, will take me much further.

At last I remove the loose typed sheets from the folder, lie down on the sofa in my study, placing a cup of tea where I can reach it, and skim-read the whole book, quickly. Most of it passes without me taking in much detail. But I learn that it is about my father, his parents and at least one brother. It is set in Poona and Bombay, towards the end of British colonialism. We are ‘off to India’.

I walk around the room excitedly. Finding this book is like discovering a trove of forgotten photographs which have to be inspected one by one, in detail. However, people in photographs are silent, and the context and feeling can only be guessed at. In an essay ‘Something Given’, collected in Dreaming and Scheming, I began to write about my father, outside of fiction, for the first time, trying to think about how he wanted to be heard as a writer, and what it meant for our family. But I didn’t have objective access to the past like this. I imagine that there is, here – as I seem to be opening a door on the past, preserved in words – some clue or key to my father’s life, to the way he lived with my mother, to the nature of my upbringing, and to a political context and colonial relationship. Dad is speaking to me again, and not only from inside my head.

It takes me a day to read it properly. When I do get through it, I am shocked by how much it seems to tell me, and by how much I will have to struggle with now I have stepped into this labyrinth. Will I be different when I come out? More importantly, will dad be different?

© 2010 Hanif Kureishi

Meet the Author

Hanif Kureishi won the prestigious Whitbread Prize for The Buddha of Suburbia and was twice nominated for Oscars for best original screenplay (My Beautiful Laundrette and Venus, which starred Peter O’Toole). In 2010 Kureishi received the prestigious PEN/Pinter Prize. He lives in London.

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