Joseph Anton, the price of fame, and the price of religious fanaticism

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children struck me, when I read it years ago, as a masterpiece. None of his other books measured up, although Satanic Verses was well worth reading. I’ve read the other Rushdie books as they come out, always disappointed. Sometimes I find that my first experience with a good writer is so powerful that it overshadows anything else I might read. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Instead, it’s not my imagination: most other critics think he’s declined as a storyteller as well.

Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s memoir of his fatwa years, however, is a mess, and I wish I hadn’t read it. As floundering as his recent novels have been, nothing equals the narcissism and entitlement apparent in Joseph Anton. I feel bad judging the man: after all, I can’t imagine being the target of such a serious threat or what it would do to your life and psyche. And yet, I can’t help but think that somebody at his publishers should have told him to tone down the entitlement. The best two reviews of the book have appeared in The Atlantic by Isaac Chotiner and The New York Review of Books by Zoe Heller. Both are extremely good, and you should read them both (no paywall!).

Here’s the pith from Chotiner:

Before the fatwa, Salman Rushdie wrote two great books, Midnight’s Children (1980) and Shame (1983). Since the fatwa, he has not written any. Before the fatwa, Rushdie brilliantly exposed the corrupt dynasties and pathologies of two sundered societies (India and Pakistan). Since the fatwa, Rushdie has allowed flamboyant language and narrative trickery to overshadow biting political satire and acute characterization. Before the fatwa, Rushdie lived a relatively modest life in London. Now, as Joseph Anton drearily attests, Rushdie has become a New York socialite obsessed with name-dropping every celebrity he meets, lauding his own work with shameless abandon, and pointlessly denigrating his ex-wives. Joseph Anton shows both the resolve with which Rushdie confronted the threats to his life, and the sad degree to which the unhinged words of a demented ayatollah helped ruin a superb writer.

He reminds us of a quote from the late John Updike, whose reviews were always works of art, that Rushdie’s work since gaining international superstardom with the fatwa was plagued by a “distracting glitter.” No glitter here: Rushdie reveals himself to be a petty little narcissist incapable of a) understanding how others have paid the price for his freedom as an artiste and b) having the self-control not to dish. In the resulting ish, Rushdie comes off as man utterly without compassion or empathy for others.Read More »