An Obamaesque performance from a literary darling, Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie.
Anton: A Memoir
By Salman Rushdie
Random House, 636 pages, $30)
Like British pounds, British knighthoods have lost much of their value in the last few decades. In the halcyon, pre-decimal 1950s, one pound was equal to nearly three American dollars; receiving a knighthood in those days meant you were Churchill or Attlee. Now when I write for a British magazine, I ignore the libra and tell myself I’m being paid in dollars instead: by the time I cover my bank’s wire fee, I might as well be. As for today’s parfit gentil knights, take your pick: Sir Elton Hercules John, Sir Michael Philip Jagger, Sir Richard Charles Nicolas Branson, Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie.
Still, I join the Mayor of London in objecting to Rushdie’s 2007 knighthood on strictly literary grounds. If “service to literature” is now sufficient for such honors, surely Britain can do better. The official honors committee who decides these things — one can be fairly certain that Her Majesty does not trouble her aging eyes with The Satanic Verses any more than she pesters her royal ears with The Joshua Tree — might start with A.N. Wilson. Anyway, it is better for them to err on the side of exclusivity: T.S. Eliot, the greatest poet and literary critic of the 20th century, was never offered a knighthood, and Anthony Powell, ever-perceptive, knew which way the wind was blowing and turned one down.
My opposition to Rushdie’s knighthood puts me in a somewhat uncomfortable position, namely, that of having to admit that the enemy of my enemies is not my friend. Islamic fascists, from Khomeini to Cat Stevens, have called for Rushdie’s death: but what boots it? The Enchantress of Florence is still one of the most tedious pieces of fiction I have ever read, and pretending otherwise would be as silly as praising Innocence of Muslims. No rest for the wicked, I say, and no affirmative literary action for writers whom the mullahs dislike.
Joseph Anton: A Memoir — could there be a more risibly Obamesque gesture than selecting the first names of Europe’s two greatest writers of short fiction for one’s nom de guerre? — runs to well over 500 pages of overwrought third-person prose. Flowery, some might call it, but if these are flowers, they are Amorphophallus titanum: formless, gigantic, colorful, foul-smelling. (There is even an overabundance of exclamation points!) From Hobbes to Henry Adams, third-person autobiography has occasionally been done well, but it requires a sense of both detachment and irony, neither of which Rushdie seems to possess. Instead, throughout the Joseph Anton, he is smug, self-indulgent, dropsical. The book is filled with the passages of the sort that only a wealthy, more or less non-introspective sort of person can produce (“But the world’s unkindness was never far away”). Name-dropping:
Bill Clinton was even bigger and pinker than he had anticipated…
They went out to eat with Jay McInery…
Willie Nelson was there!…
They had dinner at Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter’s house…
Almost at once there was a call from Fiona Millar, Cherie Blair’s right-hand person…
Renée Zellweger stuck to her English accent all the time, even off-camera…
He had lunch with Christopher Hitchens and Christopher’s big fan Warren Beatty at the Beverley Hills Hotel…
It was revealed that he had been awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature two years earlier [italics Rushdie’s]…
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