Literary Review, November 2012
Joseph Anton: a Memoir
Towards the end of Salman Rushdie’s memoir, he is having lunch in the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles with Christopher Hitchens and Warren Beatty. The movie star reveals that he has recently seen Rushdie with his girlfriend, Padma Lakshmi, whom he declares to be ‘so beautiful that it made me want to faint’. Rushdie suggests calling Lakshmi to tell her this exciting news and Beatty asks him to pass on a message: ‘Will you please tell that her that Warren Beatty is here and he thought she was so beautiful that it made him want to faint’. Rushdie obliges: ‘I’m having lunch with Warren Beatty and he says to tell you that he thinks you’re so beautiful that it makes him want to faint’. Lakshmi agrees to join them and turns up ‘looking, of course, as if she might make Warren Beatty faint’.
Have we all got the point? Rushdie knows some very famous people, a circumstance that’s been referred to more than once by the time this anecdote appears on page 615 of his door-stopper of a book. (Joseph Anton, by the way, is the pseudonym he was known by during his years under police protection.) He even knows a movie star who refers to himself in the third person, as Rushdie does throughout the memoir. Oh, and he used to have a girlfriend (later his fourth wife) so beautiful that she made the very famous movie star who refers to himself in the third person want to faint.
On another occasion Rushdie almost met Nelson Algren, former lover of Simone de Beauvoir, but Algren dropped dead before he had the opportunity to tell the novelist in person how much he admired Midnight’s Children. But Carlos Fuentes did manage to fix up a phone conversation with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who said that Rushdie and J M Coetzee were the two writers he always tried to follow outside the Spanish language. No compliment, no favourable review, is too fulsome to get a mention in the book. This is balanced by a prodigious memory for slights, whether the source is an attention-seeking back-bench MP or a critic who has the temerity to dislike Rushdie’s work. James Wood features on more than one occasion, skewered as ‘the malevolent Procrustes of literary criticism, who tormented his victims on the narrow bed of his inflexible literary ideologies, pulling them painfully apart or else cutting them off at the knees’.
I wanted to like this book. The extra-judicial death sentence imposed on Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini in1989 was an outrage, and I have no truck with appeasers who say writers should go out of their way not to offend. Rushdie was entitled to protection from the British government as long as the threat to his life lasted, and I wish the Thatcher and Major administrations had been more robust in his defence. The threat to the author of The Satanic Verses marked a resurgence of confidence on the part of intemperate clerics, and a salvo in the contest between extreme sects of Shia and Sunni Islam which continues today.
Rushdie’s account of everyday life under the protection of armed police officers is vivid and interesting, to begin with at any rate. Authors are not used to being in his position, having to rely on armed cops and intelligence officers, and it’s easy to see why he became angry and frustrated. Constant moves from one friend’s house to another – no safe house was ever provided – created an endless state of upheaval, while contradictory decisions about risk levels resulted in abruptly cancelled public appearances. All of this must have been close to intolerable, and it went on for years.
But there is a problem. Rushdie is one of those people, not exactly rare in the literary world, who exist in a permanent state of anxiety about what people think of him. He has some insight into this, naming a section of the memoir ‘The Trap of Wanting To Be Loved’. There’s also a revealing aside about his response when the Danish government refuses to allow him to visit Copenhagen in 1996 to receive a prize: ‘As usual his first feeling was of humiliation, but his second feeling was of outrage, and he decided that this time he would not stand for it.’ A sense of humiliation followed by intemperate rage pervades the book, creating a portrait of a man whose foot you would not wish to step on inadvertently in a pub.
A wise author would have cut the passage in which Rushdie discusses a request for money from his first ex-wife Clarissa, who was in remission from breast cancer at the time; her death from cancer is harrowingly described later in the book. And he sounds peevish when he complains about the cost of building work at his own house in The Bishop’s Avenue – one of the most expensive streets in London – while he is also buying his then girl-friend’s flat in Hampstead.
Rushdie expected support from writers and politicians against the fatwa, which is perfectly reasonable. The impression left by this memoir is that he also expected unconditional love for himself and his novels, which isn’t. The book is too long, too solipsistic, and reveals assumptions about women which recall an era before the second wave of feminism. Sadly, in the contest between grievance and judgement, Rushdie generally comes down on the wrong side.
Jonathan Cape £ 25