I just finished Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton. The book– which runs over 600 pages– contains multitudes, running from engrossing to annoying to boring.
Anyone who wants a signed copy should check out Square Books, which had a few last I checked.
The center of the book is the impact of the publication of The Satanic Verses and the fatwa declared against Rushdie. The first fourth is an account of his career up to about that point, followed by a stretch about the publication of the book, the public controversy, and the period Rushdie had to go underground and into protection of UK security. Those first parts are fascinating and very engagingly written. There’s an account of his family background and education, the sources and creation of his books up to and including Verses, and the drama of the period he had to go into hiding. There’s a three-dimensional portrait of his life up to about the first year or so of the fatwa. A bit of score-settling, but understandable because mostly targeted at folks who did not seem to understand that this was a free speech issue, and consistent with my memory of the time, of people like John Le Carre not measuring up to what one would hope, or like Roald Dahl, who pretty much conformed to what one had heard (with these and others, Rushdie trots out not-entirely-convincing anecdotes that take their responses as personal pique– Le Carre over Rushie’s bad review of The Russia House, and Dahl’s over a personal interaction with Rushie over a decade before the fatwa).
The score settling ramps up as the book proceeds. It seems that Rushdie marries well in odd-numbered marriages– in his account, one and three were to noble women Rushdie to some degree wronged and who bore him sons (although he viewed their financial claims as a bit much), and two and four were to fairly famous women (an American novelist, and American/Indian model) both depicted as varying degrees of crazy. The people Rushdie encounters quit having three dimensions and become Famous People You Have To Know From Tabloids. There’s no hint of what, say, Bono is like, although he keeps turning up, as do a number of other politicians, writers, film stars, and the like.
A part of what makes the second half of the book a drudge is the fault of the material: At some point, the details of living in a cage become pretty boring, just as they were to the author. But that doesn’t mean anyone needs to read a couple of hundred pages of that enlivened (if that’s the word) only with the regular appearance of Bold Faced Tabloid Names he met.
I kept reading because I wanted to see how he got his freedom back; I cared about that before I started the book, and the first third reinforced that feeling. I would recommend the first half to anyone, particularly anyone who cares to any degree about Rushdie’s fiction or the issues raised by the fatwa. Somewhere after the halfway point it becomes a book I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. And then there’s this: The first third of the book presents the author as an entirely sympathetic character who has to deal with an impossible hand. A couple of views people take of him– “He knew what he was bringing on himself,” or “He provoked that on purpose”– seem to me outrageous. In the second half of the book, in his own self-presentation, he comes off as someone I do not wish to be around.
One passage early on made me think of Anderson– writing about public school, he described a history teacher who had an impact, but “Less valuable, perhaps… was also the person who introduced him to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which entered his consciousness like a disease, an infection he never managed to shake off.” There’s also this bit that made me laugh:
The police agreed that he could go to Bernardo Bertolucci’s private screening of his new film, The Sheltering Sky. After the screening he had no idea what to say to Bernardo. There wasn’t a single thing about the film he had enjoyed. ”Ah! Salman!” Bertolucci said. ”It is very important for me to know what you think of my picture.” At that moment the right words came to his head….. He put his hand on his heart and said, “Bernardo… I can’t talk about it.” Bertolucci nodded understandingly. ”A lot of people have this reaction,” he said.