The Enchantress of Florence
by Salman Rushdie
Random House, 355 pp., $26.00
A graceful fool…or perhaps no fool at all. Perhaps someone to be reckoned with. If he had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself….
—The Enchantress of Florence
In Salman Rushdie’s Fury (2001), a novel of Swiftian dyspepsia published the very week of September 11, the fifty-five-year-old misanthropic Professor Malik Solanka, “retired historian of ideas,” has enjoyed an unexpected popular success for having created a BBC-TV series called The Adventures of Little Brain in which a doll called “Little Brain”—handcrafted by Solanka himself—interviews a series of “Great Minds” dolls in a familiar history-of-philosophy format. Little Brain is a sassy, spiky-haired Candide who, in contemporary talk-show fashion, goads her interviewees into surprising revelations:
The favorite fiction writer of the seventeenth-century heretic Baruch Spinoza turned out to be P.G. Wodehouse, an astonishing coincidence, because of course the favorite philosopher of the immortal shimmying butler Reginald Jeeves was Spinoza…. The Iberian Arab thinker Averroës, like his Jewish counterpart Maimonides, was a huge Yankee fan….
In deep disgust with his contemporaries, especially his fellow academicians at King’s College, Cambridge, Solanka becomes entranced by the possibility of seeing the world “miniaturized”:
It was a trick of the mind to see human life made small, reduced to doll size…. A little modesty about the scale of human endeavor was to be desired. Once you had thrown that switch in your head, the hard thing was to see in the old way. Small was beautiful….
As Jonathan Swift demonstrates in the savage comedy of Gulliver’s Travels, “humanity” is but a matter of scale: rendered as dolls, miniaturized like the Lilliputians of Gulliver’s first voyage, we are reduced not only in size but in stature; our ideals, our suffering, our most grievous quarrels are revealed as ridiculous. In Fury our “Great Minds” become comic characters to be exploited by the media.
Set primarily in New York City—a city “boiling” with money where the very harness bells on the horse-drawn carriages in Central Park jingle like “cash in hand”—Fury exudes an air of personal grievance and rage that seems disproportionate to Solanka’s experience as a professor, historian, husband, father, minor celebrity. Virtually everyone he has known or encounters is despicable, given to embittered ranting monologues in confirmation of Solanka’s conviction that “life is fury”:
Fury—sexual, Oedipal, political, magical, brutal—drives us to our finest helights and coarsest depths. Out of furia comes creation, inspiration, originality, passion, but also violence, pain, pure unafraid destruction, the giving and receiving of blows from which we never recover.
Typically in a novel by Salman Rushdie, the protagonist falls in love with a femme fatale (here named Neela Mahendra) so ravishingly beautiful that strangers stagger up to gape at her; Solanka becomes “deeply enmeshed in her web…. The queen webspyder, mistress of the whole webspyder posse, had him in her net.” Soon, however, he discovers that “this beautiful, accursed …