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Keeping Up with Salman Rushdie

Salman: “No doubt they wouldn’t wish to inherit the problem. There is that problem. I hoped it would eventually diminish, but when people have said in the last two years that I should dye my hair, grow breasts, and go and live in some other place, it hasn’t actually, for more than one reason, been very realistic as an option.

The question you asked, whether my relationship to England had changed—yes, it has. A country that saves your life is a country about which you begin to feel better. Whatever else may or may not have happened, England and my being a citizen of Britain saved my life, and that affects my judgment. I feel very grateful for that. It’s the only life I’ve got. Also—any country is many countries. There are Englands that one loves and Englands that one hates. I suppose that at the time we were talking in Toronto I felt a desperate need for a break from the kind of England I didn’t particularly admire, and which seemed to be in charge. But this is a country in which people tend to feel that people shouldn’t be killed for their ideas. That’s point of view with which I have some sympathy.”

I asked whether he thought that he had complete freedom over the literary choices he would make in the future. Was his freedom still intact?

Salman: “I don’t think any writer has complete freedom in the matter of what she or he writes. I mean—you don’t either. There are things that are given and things that are not given to you as areas in which you can operate—things which give you energy. None of us is completely free in that respect. But if I didn’t think that I was as free now as I had ever been, I would stop writing. I would not write again.

It’s something I have thought about a great deal in these last two years. The art of literature matters to me. It’s very hard, because most of us are never required to speak in these terms. We can be jokey and ridiculous and hysterical and satirical about what we do. But the art of literature matters to me more than just about anything else. Not just as a writer or a practitioner, but also as a reader of it, so to speak as a user of it. It tells me things and shows me things, and always has done, in a way nothing else in the world has done. So I don’t wish to be a traitor to it. It matters to me, if I’m to be a virgin at that shrine, that I should not have somehow compromised myself. If I thought, to put it in simple language, that I was obliged to perform a certain kind of self-censorship, I would sooner not write.”

I put it to Salman that the choice he was giving himself was a little overdramatic. Certain writers have worked brilliantly under certain forms of censorship. We think of Shakespeare as a very free writer, but he was not free when it came to writing about contemporary issues or figures, and he was not free in the matter of religion. He could not have put a biblical figure on stage (had he wanted to) or used his theater to promote religious controversy. Indeed, so completely is religious discussion suppressed in the plays, it is apparently hard to tell from Shakespeare’s language whether he was a Protestant or a Catholic. Milton, by complete contrast, makes it his life’s work to speak his mind about religion, but he has to apologize learnedly before offering to the public such a thing as a tragedy. My implication was that Salman could construct his own version of the Shakespeare or the Milton option, but he clearly didn’t much like the direction I was trying to lead him in.

Salman (giggling): “It’s unfair of you to compare me to Shakespeare because Shakespeare was very good. It’s probably more to do with Shakespeare being Shakespeare that he could surmount those restrictions of which you speak and yet seem to be free. It’s his genius rather than the restrictions that made him Shakespeare.

I agree, in the case of Milton—Milton took it on and had the trouble as a result. It’s a truism to say about Paradise Lost that he’s much better at the devils than the angels. Hence Blake’s remark about him being of the devil’s party—although Milton would probably have disputed that. It is more attractive to the creative mind to write about being bad than to write about being good. Because, I think, we as human beings do not think of ourselves as being good, even though all our philosophies have to do with goodness, and how we can be good, and in what it consists to be good. We actually see ourselves as naughty. We actually see ourselves as ungood, and so we are attracted to descriptions of naughtiness and ungoodness and find ourselves being able to give them more energy than the descriptions of goodness, which are almost impossible in literature. Where in literature is there a good person?”

Self (ruefully): “It’s true that we flag with Dante.”

Salman: “It’s true, and Pierre in War and Peace is not the most interesting character in the book. It’s very, very, very hard to write interestingly about goodness.”

Self: “The Satanic Verses, as I understand it, right early on—the very strong implication is… [coming to the point]…the narrator is Satan. I would have thought that it isn’t an option for you in the future to write from that point of view.”

Salman: “But I wouldn’t wish to do it, having done it.”

Self: “Yes, I know. But you see the point of the question.”

Salman: “Yes, but the sense in which Satan is the narrator of The Satanic Verses is also, as some of its critics have pointed out, “problematic,” in the sense that the idea makes only occasional appearances in the text. There’s no sense in which you could say that the devil was consistently the narrator of The Satanic Verses. One of the things I thought about that novel—and how far I achieved it is open to question—it was a novel about metamorphosis, which should itself constantly metamorphose, so that, as the book proceeds, it is sometimes naturalistic, sometimes fabulistic, sometimes hallucinatory. Different voices seem to be the point of view or narrative voice at different points of the novel. All that may not have been perfectly achieved, but it was part of the intention of the book. So that I myself don’t think anybody narrates The Satanic Verses. The different narrative positions occupy, so to speak, the chair, at different moments, as it happens to suit me.”

Self: “That kind of rolling aesthetic, that changes as it goes along—do you still feel the same way about it, after having had the experience of trying to explain a novel to a million, zillion, people?”

Salman: “What I feel most of all, and really this is not bullshit, is a sense of absolutely overwhelming failure. I feel as if everything I have tried to do, in my life, with my work…in fact… [pause]…because what I tried to do was to bring two worlds which happened to be present inside me—more than two worlds, actually—India, Islam, the West—these three worlds, all of which are present inside me in a very vivid way—I tried to bring them together. I tried to describe each in terms of the other. Well, it didn’t work. Whatever one may feel about The Satanic Verses as a novel, if you look at the event of The Satanic Verses it pushed those worlds further apart.”

Self: “Forgetting all the politics of it, is there a plain aesthetic lesson?”

Salman: “Yes there is. There are two aesthetic lessons. Unfortunately they contradict each other. One is that one must place clarity above all other virtues in a work of art. If the work is capable of being misread or misunderstood, it is the artist’s fault.

The other lesson is: it is impossible to learn from what other people think of your work. All you can do is write the books that are in you to write. And sometimes you’ll be right, sometimes you’ll be wrong. I’ve written some books that I never expected people to like, which they fell upon with loud cries of praise, and other books which I never expected people to hate, which people fell upon and burned in the public square. I’m the same person. The author of Midnight’s Children and the author of The Satanic Verses are the same person. I never expected the great éclat that would attend Midnight’s Children and I never expected the great opprobrium that would attend The Satanic Verses. So what that teached me is, it’s useless to try and predict what will happen to a book. All you can do is write the books which come to you.

So here are two propositions which seem to contradict each other. One is: make clarity your highest virtue. The other is: do whatever comes to you. What I have tried to do in the last two years is, on the one hand, try to learn as much as possible from what is happening to me, and on the other hand, try and continue to think as a writer in the way that I would have thought if this hadn’t happened to me. What was the road on which my writing was set anyway, and where does that lead me?

Although there is an apparent contradiction, there isn’t a real one, because the last chapter of The Satanic Verses is perhaps the most naturalistic piece of writing I’ve ever done. Certainly the biggest emotional risk I’ve ever taken as a writer, which is, to put it at its simplest, to include at the end of that novel an extremely intimate description of my father’s death. It showed me something as a writer. I think of it now as the best thing I’ve ever written. It feels to me as if I’ve learned something, as if I’d managed to open the door when I wrote that. The journey of The Satanic Verses as a novel couldn’t begin in a more fabulated way—two people falling 30,000 feet, surviving, becoming angels and devils, etcetera. It ends with this very intimate emotional moment. That journey from this very pyrotechnic, high fabulation of its beginning, to this very quiet, intimate moment of its ending—it was also a journey that I went through. By the end of the novel, I thought I would do more of this. This place where it ends is where I want to begin.”

I tried to explain to Salman a thing I found displeasing in the extremely freewheeling, liberal aesthetic associated with a certain kind of fiction. The example I gave was from García Márquez. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, a city is founded in the tropical swamps, its history is traced and through several years up to a point where there still hasn’t been a single death in the community. To me, this idea of the city built in the swamps, with no experience of death, is offensive to my imagination. I think: Why am I reading this? I know what swamps are like. People die. Why should I listen to someone telling me they don’t?

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