Salman Rushdie has a new novel coming out. Again. It wasn’t so very long ago that he wrote one about 28 days or months or years. And now his “ultimate novel about identity, truth, terror and lies” looks at Obama’s – and, presumably, Trump’s – America is due in September. It’s titled The Golden House.
Diehard fans may be breathless with anticipation, but I am reminded of a listless afternoon when I walked past the Rushdie pile at a used bookstore on a and almost reluctantly picked up Joseph Anton. My memory of reading the older Rushdie books was faint by then.
I read Rushdie’s memoir without a pause. And I am writing this even as I gasp. It is a work of gossip. It is a remembrance of Rushdie’s entire oeuvre up until itself. It is a tribute to his friends – many important people in western intelligentsia, literary and publishing circles. It is a “take that!” to the genre of feverish documentation of breakfast-lunch-dinner that found fame through the zillion volumes of Karl Ove Knausgård’s struggle. Rushdie’s voluminous work is, above all else, a most elaborate and delicate act from a man completely baring himself in the name of literature.
It does what his name-givers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov have not been able to do. It shows the androgynous agile slippery creature that is the writer.
The writerly self
Many books have been written about the writerly self. Saul Bellow’s curmudgeon portrait of the professorial Ravelstein comes to mind. Joseph Anton (and I will call him that throughout) is not such a man. He is a man who notices and worries about weight gain, is struck by the colour of a woman’s hair, grumbles about the plumber, longs to kick a football with his son, loves and demands love, desires money, fame and affluence unabashedly, likes nice apartments and restaurants and writes like a madman. He is not a brave man. He is in fact quite a cowardly paranoid character.
He has no Ernest Hemingway ambitions of seeking out distant, difficult, alien worlds. These worlds take root in his head from mundane observations. He writes this book, more than his others, in the voice of the gossipy grandaunt who tells the most commonplace of stories with a sparkle in her eyes. This book struck me as an essentially feminine one – one that loves the confessional, the intimate, the queer. Even when struck with fear, pain, anger, he writes with joy. Hence, this book is an elegy to writerly delight. A writer’s ability to see a story grow out of, as Joseph writes while making The Moor’s Last Sigh, something as simple as a “peppercorn”.
Anton Joseph harbours a friendly jealousy for his fellow writers – like Martin Amis or Ian McEwan. He rues that his road to fame was not half as smooth as those of others’. He rues the late twenties and early thirties in his life, spent working in advertising agencies such as Ogilvy & Mather, suffering the faint recognition given to his first novel Grimus.
The question of roots – ethnic, national and religious – bothers him deeply. He pays a filial tribute to his father, Anis Ahmed, in the book – a vibrant, troubled, man given to the overuse of alcohol. His troubled relationship with his father is compensated for by their sharing of a common rational assessment of the dogma of Islam. So, in many ways, this book is a comment of an agnostic’s narration of the religion of his birth – Islam.
A question of offence
I won’t go into his various marriages and the long decade of hiding from the establishment of Islamist offence-taking. Taking offence is an epidemic in the current world. And Joseph saw it coming, even as he narrates carefully his half-alignment with Islam – the culture of Islam. While writing Shame, he felt a deep sense of “shame and being ashamed” – the sentiment that dangled the social pendulum between the poles of honor and shame – versus the Christian ones of guilt and redemption.
He wrote Haroun during the days of being cloistered in England, as a gift for his son Zafar, whom he seems to love most in the world, and suffers from a related sense of having been an inadequate father. Zafar apart, he seems to care deeply for his sister Sameen, who comforted him during his difficult days in England, and his first wife Clarissa who stuck with him through early days of disappointment and poverty.
The book serves as a testament to the world of writing and publishing, the nitty-gritties of selling and buying of rights between corporate barons, royalty issues, the bickering, friendships, vanities and struggles. Anjum Hasan’s more recent novel on the art world, The Cosmopolitans, came to my mind while reading about the literary circles of England and America.
Being Salman Rushdie
What does it take to be as prolific and masterful a writer as Salman Rushdie? It was through the bits about the Scotland Yard characters deployed to tail him through all his movements that I realised that this man pays attention to, and is surprised by, everything. Literally everything. For instance, he pays close attention to the masculine words of police conversation, the jokes, the manners.
Every lover, every friend, every walk down the streets of London provide him with ingredients for literature. He doesn’t need to travel to a war zone. He is also deeply affected by, and participates actively in, quarrels with friends and wives. He is not a detached, locked-in-the-cabinet writer at all. Definitely what Bengalis would describe as “roshik” and “shoukheen”. A man of humour, a man of taste.
Much can be said about the overwhelming impact of his libido in his life. I see this as a part of the Rushdie life-force. A man who doesn’t quarrel and love and weep and laugh with as much involvement as he does cannot write the magical, comical prose that Joseph Anton conjures up.
He paints a rather comical picture of himself through the various incidents of intellectual and political slight he considers offensive, especially the unkind reviews that he takes great care to curate and remember. He also comes across as a touchy man, even though his crusade is for the right to offend. He is unable to shrug anything off. And that, I think, is a secret of his androgyny as a writer.
Joseph Anton is not a “manly” man. He does not have a thick skin. Salim Sinai, India’s twin, is very un-Indian except in his ability to be offended and annoyed. This is my only criticism of Joseph Anton – the fact that to live fully you have to consider some things sacred, beyond the manipulation of reason. Faith for his adversaries was what writing is for Anton. Sacred, untarnished. So cut down on the liberal outrage a bit, Joseph.
Salman Rushdie’s oeuvre is not over for me yet. I must get on to The Satanic Verses now, which is legally available in Toronto bookstores, in paperback editions that the Rushdie consortium – aided by the loyal agents Andrew and Gillon – self-published. And, of course. if you missed the point, all my words are saying just one thing: a new Salman Rushdie will be out soon.