12 September 2011

From Hanif Kureishi, 'Gabriel's Gift': Epigraphs 1.2 and 5.2 - Art, Imagination and Absence

Hanif Kureishi (born 1954) won international fame (and an Oscar nomination) as the author of the screenplay for the Stephen Frears film My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), in which Londoners variously marginalized (by ethnicity, class, sexual orientation...) meet, clash, love and, for the most part, find mutual understanding--in Margaret Thatcher's England. I find the film as fresh and powerful (and funny) today as I did over 25 years ago.

Before Laundrette, Kureishi was already playwright-in-residence at the Royal Court Theatre, and his subsequent career has defied those who would pigeon-hole him as any one thing: novelist, short story writer, essayist, screenplay author or playwright. I drew two epigraphs for my novel A Kiss Before You Leave Me from his fourth novel, Gabriel's Gift (2001; UK Kindle edition here, US paperback edition here). Like Laundrette and Kureishi's first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, Gift is a coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of familial wrangling. Like Buddha, it features prominently a Bowie-like rock icon--in this fourth novel the father's former bandmate, who presents the 15-year-old Gabriel with a sketch that the boy, a budding artist, copies perfectly as the first step in a demonstration of the power of art to mend what's broken.

Accordingly, the two epigraphs we're talking about today resonate more optimistically in Gabriel's Gift itself than when they appear in the context (out of context) of A Kiss Before You Leave Me.

Epigraph 5.2: 'Art is what you do when other people leave the room' (from Gift, chapter 1). In Gabriel's Gift, this is the boy's recollection of a sentence heard on television the night before, now turned into a comforting accompaniment for the solitary creative process of an artist in the making. True, there have been traumatic departures from his household: his twin brother who died as a toddler, and his father, whom his mother has sent packing. But the emphasis in the sentence is on the rightness, the appropriateness of solitary artistic work, and in Kureishi's novel the power of art is, as we've said, fundamentally restorative.... In A Kiss Before You Leave Me, this epigraph introduces the section entitled 'Solo Show', which begins with an inventory of paintings done by Jack Emery in preparation for his first one-man show, but is also about departures affecting or involving him, dissolutions of ties, in both the past and the present, and, to some extent, about the reasons for those dissolutions: rightly or wrongly, art may seem to at least one character in A Kiss Before You Leave Me like what you can finally do when you've left the others behind.

Epigraph 1.2: '"What does an imagination do but see what isn't there?"' (from Gift, chapter 3). In Gabriel's Gift, rock icon Lester Jones is speaking to Gabriel, polymorphic icon to fledgeling artist, affirming the boy in his creative identity and reassuring him of the powerful value of his differentness. (It's a rare 'creative' who receives this message at the age of 15, but it's never too late to read this scene, in its entirety.) Where the question is inserted in A Kiss Before You Leave Me, however--as an epigraph to the first section, 'Seeing Someone'--the reader knows nothing of the 'art' plot and can associate the quotation only with the tortured power and play of the voyeuristic imagination as seen in the culmination of that section. (See the second half of my Sartre post of three days ago, and the earlier discussion of the lyrics of 'A Kiss to Build a Dream On'.)

Absence, separation and negativity come to the fore at these moments in A Kiss Before You Leave Me. They may well not be the dominant notes in the novel as a whole--but at these moments in particular the novel feels very different from Gabriel's Gift, which most readers would call Kureishi's sunniest work to date. It's all in the context.

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