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.Perhaps all that honestly about how much he hates other people should be refreshing. The temptation to cast oneself a long-suffering hero in one’s own melodrama would be high after such an experience. How much are we allowed to expect of a novelist, even one that at one point had the capacity and generosity to populate Midnight’s Children with such real and wonderful characters?

I’m not sure, obviously, but I am pretty sure that we should expect more than the fame-mongering and self-importance on ugly display here. From Zoe Heller in the New York Review of Books:

Further evidence of Rushdie’s failure to ever be quite as tough on himself as he is on others is provided by his amused recollections of his American and British publishers’ behavior during the fatwa. Peter Mayer, head of Penguin, and Sonny Mehta, at Knopf, published the hardback editions of The Satanic Verses, but equivocated over and finally backed out from publishing the paperback. That both of them had responsibility for the safety of large staffs—men and women who were included in the terms of the fatwa, but who did not have the benefit of around-the-clock police protection—does not strike Rushdie as a sufficient justification for their decisions and he has much comic sport with what he regards as their “spineless” conduct.

Robert Gottlieb, the former editor in chief at Knopf, with whom Rushdie published Midnight’s Children, is also chastised for having once suggested that Rushdie would not have written his book if he had known it was “going to kill people.” Rushdie was so disgusted by this comment, he tells us, that he never spoke to Gottlieb again.

Readers will differ in their opinions of whether the free speech represented by The Satanic Verses paperback was worth upholding at any cost. But even those who take Rushdie’s side on this will be hard pressed to match his scorn for the opposing point of view. By the time the Rushdie Affair was over, it had resulted in the deaths of more than fifty people. The questions that Mayer and Mehta and Gottlieb raised about the wisdom and the morality of continuing to publish in such circumstances seemed then, and seem now, perfectly reasonable and humane.

Fifty people. You’d think that Rushdie’s lust for paperback sales could be questioned just as easily as the supposedly ‘craven’ behavior of publishers.

I’m hoping that Rushdie got this garbage out of his system, and that there is one more great book in him. I would hate for this squalid book to be the last thing I read of his.