The woman wears a blue dress. She holds the naked man down on the bed: his knees are drawn up, his head is braced upward, he looks toward us, inverted. Another woman, by her left side, takes the man’s hair in her left hand. With her right arm she wields a short sword, tip pointed downward. She draws the blade toward her. It cuts through the man’s neck. Blood runs down through his beard and onto the bed sheets. The light bathes the scene in a sepulchral glow. The executioners’ faces are vengeful and calm.
“Artemisia Gentileschi was raped as a young girl,” says novelist Gabriel Krauze, handing me the phone to show me the image. “You can see the pain and the suffering and the rage in this work.” Gabriel looks at my face as I stare at the screen. Caravaggio painted the same biblical scene 100 years earlier, but the maestro’s version does not have the same feeling. “Look at the viciousness here, look at the sense of revenge infused in this version – you’ve never heard of Gentileschi, because she is a woman,” he says, taking the phone back and sitting down on the sofa. “You’ve heard of Caravaggio. You’ve heard of Leonardo. But so many stories are never going to be told. So many experiences are never going to be shared.”
Gabriel Krauze writes seldom-told stories in a language that is rarely aired. He does this freehand in A4 card-bound notebooks – there is a stack of them waiting to be populated on his writing desk where we sit. There is an iMac there too, but it sits silent in a corner. Gabriel’s head, usually shaved, is wrapped in a lockdown bandana. London hums around his flat, which sits in a Victorian estate 100 metres from the river. “People in the literary world, like in the art world, think they want authenticity,” he says. “But when they get it, they discover that they don’t really want authenticity. Authenticity means truth. That’s what I’m trying to write. The truth.”
Six months previously, I met the 34-year-old for the first time in another part of London — the split-level yard on the South Kilburn estate where much of the action within his autobiographical first novel, Who They Was, takes place. It was a dog-day summer afternoon, hot in a way that only the inner sections of vast cities can be. There was blue and white police tape and a quietly intense energy about the place – an energy that Gabriel seemed to embody. In person, there is a contained physicality to him — the kind you feel when you meet elite level athletes – crossed with an intensity of focus; eyes that have seen a lot. But he laughs easily, especially at himself, and gives off the confident humility of an artist who knows there are multitudes yet to discover.
In terms of background, both of Gabriel’s parents are hard-working graphic artists, originally from Poland. He has a twin brother who is a successful violinist. As a young man, Gabriel himself excelled at music, art and English, making it to a posh independent school by way of scholarship. He was expelled soon after. Back in South Kilburn, and now in his late teens and bouncing from school to school, he made moves with the kids around him. He committed robbery. He dealt drugs. He was violent. He spent time in prison. It wasn’t long until he was in deep. While all of this was happening, though, he attended Queen Mary university in east London and studied English — donning iced-out grills while partaking politely in literary discourse.
All of this and more is detailed in Who They Was, which follows a protagonist named Gabriel (‘Snoopz’ to his friends), as he navigates this textured world. There are street robberies, run-ups on rival crews, as well as seminars and revision. Violent drama is interposed with the banality of skunk-shrouded Xbox sessions. It is a chronicle of life in the ends rarely seen from the outside, evoked in an immaculate rendition of a London street language.
When we first met, the book was still six weeks from release and had recently been included in the longlist for the Booker Prize. “Just how unusual, just how mad the nomination was, I didn’t really realise at the time,” Gabriel remembers. “It’s only since the drop, and the reviews and all that, that it became clear how different – how radically other [to] the stuff usually absorbed by the literary establishment – that it actually was. I couldn’t have written it any other way. And I won’t ever write something just because people expect something more palatable.”
The book is based on Gabriel’s own experiences between the ages of 18 and 24. It is a first-person narrative that is intensely biographical and reflective of a reality rarely visited by literature – particularly long-form fiction. But rather than a throwaway slice of gangster cliché, or a cornball lyric riffing on empowerment and redemption, there is a ferocious energy at the heart of the piece, one that propels the narrative and the action to a place that contemporary fiction rarely dares to tread. It is through the vector of language – direct, flowing, truthful – where the reality of Gabriel Krauze’s art lies. You’ll want to consume it in a single sitting.
Its publication in September 2020 caused ripples. There was street politics that took a while to sort out. Some of his contemporaries embraced the truth of the storytelling, but that truth also cost him friendships. There were darker threats to deal with, too – Gabriel had to lie low for a while. All this was accompanied by an irritatingly predictable bracketing of the work – by the mainstream media and the literary establishment – as exploitatively violent and, by implication, somehow unworthy of the label of ‘serious’ literature. Though there were notable exceptions, what was missed in the commentary was that the relentless power of the language, which invoked a world that was singularly the author’s own. It heralded one of the most important literary voices to emerge from Britain in decades.
The difference between Gabriel’s writing and the mass of authors published by the mainstream is the directness of the process. “When all this shit that was happening, [the events] described in the book, I would obsessively write notes,” he remembers. “On phones, on pieces of paper when I was in prison, all over the backs of my probation reports. I would write detailed accounts of what was happening, almost in real time. When I had a mad conversation with someone, I would quickly write it down in my notes, because I always had this thing, that one day I am going to write a book about this.”
He evokes the voices of young and volatile men, capturing the dynamic language of 21st century London. Who They Was recounts a reality that contains not only violence, drug abuse and desperation, but also insight, aspiration and the kind of ‘fuck-you’ swagger that transcends surface-level ideas about toxic masculinity. In this sense, it is as far from a gang- sign-throwing YouTube video as it is possible to imagine – even though it is constructed of the same raw material.
“I had to write these conversations down as they happened,” Gabriel continues. “Otherwise, when I [sat] down to write this book, I would have to have invented loads of conversations and dramatic moments. So in that sense, I am much more objective in my understanding of things now than I was back then. One thing I had to keep reminding myself, when I was when writing the story, was, ‘Don’t get too objective, don’t apply the perspectives that you have now to this book – otherwise you will lose that authenticity of that 18-to-24-year-old.’”
The worlds that Gabriel presents – the walkways, stairwells and underpasses of English estates – are demonised in the media as deeply as the working-class communities that inhabit them. His work doesn’t seek to explain or apologise about crime statistics and murder rates. Its power – and its ethical position – lies in the unflinching testimony to reality.
“To understand the mentality that creates crime and violence is a whole different thing to analysing why youth clubs have closed down,” he says. “It is not that simplistic. There is a whole array of reasons for why you can have that mentality, and why certain people do have it. There is a huge thing that isn’t discussed — in the whole conversation about young men in particular. There is a lot of circumstantial shit, like if you grow up and your parents are crackheads and they neglect you. Or, if you grow up surrounded by violence, then you are likely to be in that situation, [because] the way you understand the world around you is already influenced by fucked-up experience, and that is why your life will just continue along that pattern.”
“But there is a whole other group of young men who, like myself, don’t come from some mad, fucked-up background. We didn’t grow up with crazy disadvantages. But we had an instinct within us that was like, ‘Fuck the law’, fuck conforming, fuck what society thinks of us – I am doing me, I am following my instincts.’ What I have done as a writer is too difficult for too many people, they are not sure whether they should support what I do or not. Who They Was is ultimately a huge moral confrontation with the reader – and the middle-class establishment doesn’t want to be confronted morally. They want things to stick to ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ and they’re on the side of good and that’s it. I think the generations coming through could be open to the nuance, but what is a problem is that the media institutions are obsessed with keeping everyone happy. That, for art, is ultimately destructive.”
Now, the first UK paperback edition is out in the world. In the looming shadow of another round of press and promotion, Gabriel is planning a second novel, which goes deeper into the themes established in his groundbreaking opener, exploring the power of inherited trauma and layered generations of immigration.
It also sees him writing from a different place. “I was writing Who They Was from the perspective of when I was 18 until about 24, so I had to write in that voice,” he says. “I have changed a lot since then. I am much more empathetic, I am less callus, my mind-frame isn’t in that same world… Writing this second book allows me to self-analyse more from a perspective. I can insert myself into the book as the writer that I am now. I can look back and examine myself – my actions – objectively, as opposed to [what] I did in the moment.”
There is of course a hoary cliché in criticism, usually focussed on the music scene: the difficult second album. A new voice bursts onto the scene. It is lauded. But the return to the studio can never shore up the original gold. “If it hadn’t been for lockdown, there would have been book tours, literary launches, the whole deal,” Gabriel says. “But I have experienced none of that. In a sense, it feels as if I have been shunned by the literary establishment. But that doesn’t surprise me, and it doesn’t hurt as much as being dropped by friends I’ve known for years.”
Whether or not lockdown restrictions blunted Gabriel’s experience of high-profile publication, it seems that the prosecco circuit can go fuck itself. In many ways, to be confronted with a fresh blank page without the comfort of mainstream success is fuel to the fire – and the Booker Prize nomination gives any novelist a pass. But where does a writer so deeply identified with the protagonists of his stories go next? How does a writer emerge from the character embedded in the world of which he writes?
“People are really getting to be more familiar with the idea of inherited trauma and how that lands between generations,” he says. “It’s not an abstraction, it’s something that exists in people’s blood – and has especially been highlighted in terms of the Atlantic slave trade. But it exists everywhere, in multiple contexts.”
As we sit here, in the relative quiet of a London that remains in lockdown, there is the sense that the author is gathering his energy before entering once more into battle. Who They Was is the book Gabriel Krauze needed to write in order to forever crystallise a time and a place he himself experienced. The second novel, he says, will build on that. It will consider just how much suffering is interwoven into a person’s life, and how that suffering can become the subject to the alchemy of art. “There will be more compassion for my family [than in the first book], I put them through a lot,” he says, leaning back and glancing over to the stack of empty notebooks.
“There will be more of an examination of the world… rather than simply representing it.” The true value of any piece of literature is to ask questions of the reader and the culture into which it is embedded. For Gabriel Krauze, that culture is located not in online echo chambers or the seminar hall. It is the world outside those windows.
“The aim is to create something that’s not restricted by whether or not people are going to take offence. If you second guess that, you put chains on yourself, you derail your creative process. I know I am not a bigot. I am not going to offend people because of who they are. But I will offend people who want only nice stories and happy endings and resolutions where safe characters find redemption. Let them be offended. It means my work has power.”
Who They Was is out now on Fourth Estate.