Why you should read … Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi

“It is the saddest night, for I am leaving and not coming back.” (3)

An opening line that confronts us … as we read, live alongside, perhaps within, share time with, Intimacy … which resounds in us as … as an echo that rings throughout all relationships …

… relationships, all of which are haunted by the spectre of another line: that of, when two become one

… an eidos, idea, ideal, for many a goal to be attained, something to strive for … from the moment said-relationship might even be a possibility to the point at which it ends … where even if there is a parting, whenever there be a modicum of “leaving,” there is always also a “coming back”, a come-back-to-being-one, even if at a yet-to-be-determined time.

What we tend to — perhaps even wish to — forget is that two become one is always already haunted by the unspoken, yet-to-be-spoken, “not”. For, foregrounding that would only remind us that this become-one is not just improbable but physically and psychologically impossible.

And it is this very impossibility that Hanif Kureishi explores.

The protagonist, Jay (whose name one only hears intermittently; who you see mostly as “I”; who might well be you), is contemplating leaving his wife Susan; in the hopes of rekindling a storied affair with Nina, whom he had been seeing whilst married, whom he has lost, whom he suspected was (maybe even is) the love of his life. But what is holding him back is the possibility of losing contact with his two children. Thus, it is a case of three different intimacies coming together in and through the narrative.

And all his different intimacies are pulling at him to choose them: even as he is leaving Susan, recollections of their life-together continually haunt him; he cannot bear to leave his children; the memory of his time with Nina is drawing him towards her, even as he no longer knows where she is. To compound matters, since we hear of them through a first-person narrative, we can never be sure if they are merely voices in his head.   

And, it is precisely the protagonist’s indecision — quite possibility another “not” (in this case a not-yet; it is always a matter of time, especially uncertain time) — that saves this novel from falling into some banal new-age notion of ‘fulfilling oneself’; where one is supposed to live out one’s dreams and desires.

For, far from being a novel about self-importance, or even (worse) the self, in Intimacy, Hanif Kureishi is meditating on the fact that caring for another often entails the effacement of your very self.

That love quite possibly lies in the “not”.

Hence the importance of fibs: “lying protects us all; it keeps the importance going. It is a kindness to lie … A world without lying would be impossible; a world in which lying wasn’t deprecated is also impossible.” (136) Which also suggests that it is not easy to lie. For, lying “creates a terrible loneliness”; you are the only one who knows what happened. This is not a lying that hides oneself, protects oneself: this is a lying that exposes you to no other than yourself; a lying that, in spite of your desires, cuts yourself from another.

Lying as a no to the self.

In order to protect nothing other than the possibility of intimacy itself.

For, if two become one entails being exactly the same as another, it would be the very definition of narcissism. Where all you are doing is subsuming another under yourself (at best a masturbatory approach to relationships; quite possibly another word for sadism).

Where, the danger lies in attempting to make a figure of speech literal.

And this, Hanif Kureishi locates in Susan and Jay’s troubled marriage: through their love for their children, their lives have collapsed into each other’s to the point where they no longer are singular persons, but a couple. And here, we should try to never forget that even as we need closeness for intimacy, two become one must remain metaphorical — for, as Jean-Luc Nancy remains to remind us, “space is first needed for touch.” 

Unfortunately, it is also in Intimacy that Hanif Kureishi fails to learn the lesson he posits.

For, the novel goes on for one paragraph too long.

By ending Intimacy with the protagonist and Nina getting back together and walking off into the sunset, it ends on a note that is too secure, too sure.

And in that gesture, Hanif Kureishi undoes his very meditation on intimacy, and love; one that he has captured perfect, so fleetingly, only lines before; at the point where the protagonist learns from his friend that Nina had called and, after picking up the phone, changes his mind, replacing the receiver whilst musing, “later … there will be time.” (155)

In bringing them together, Hanif Kureishi moves intimacy from a possibility — from something that requires movement, metaphor — into the literal. And in doing so collapses the very gap that he posits, that he shows us, is required for intimacy itself.

But perhaps, that is yet another lesson in Intimacy, in intimacy.

That the moment a reader finishes a book, the textual relationship is over. Coming back to it only opens another relationship; important as that is, it is no longer the same one.

So perhaps, the only thing we can do when reading is to put down the book just before the end (after all, can you really know when a book truly ends?).

Or, read to the end and hold on to the possibility that it is “not” the end (a boy can only hope).

That even as you are “leaving,” there is a possibility (a fairly good chance really when it comes to books) that you will be “not coming back”; but, since one can never really know when any relationship begins nor ends — where the when in when two become one is not so much a statement but a question, as in ‘when does’ two become one — this “not” is not-fully determined, perhaps even not-quite-for-one to determine, at least not fully.

That even if it might eventually be known, even if this “leaving” is inevitable (the risk of all relationships being that one of you will see the other die) it might be not-quite-yet, only be “later …”


… “there will be time.”

Hanif Kureishi. Intimacy. London: Faber & Faber, 1999.

Jeremy Fernando reads, writes, and makes things.
He is the general editor of Delere Press; curates, the thematic magazine, One Imperative; is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School; and is the writer-at and co-creator-of the private dining experience, People Table Tales.

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