Among the Intellectualoids

Exile On Sixty-Fifth Street

An Obamaesque performance from a literary darling, Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie.

By 1.8.13

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Joseph 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…

and self-aggrandizement:

It was revealed that he had been awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature     two years earlier [italics Rushdie’s]…

The eight-city U.S. tour went off without alarms…

Elizabeth and he [Rushdie] did not remarry… but they were able to be better parents, and also the best of friends, and their true characters were shown not in the war they fought but in the peace they made…

His journal was full of doubts. “How can I stay with this woman whose selfishness is her       most prominent characteristic?”…

Hollywood was a small town inside a big city and for five minutes a new arrival such as himself became the flavor of the month…

and conspicuous consumption:

There was an apartment on Sixty-fifth Street and Madison across the street from the Armani store…

The commute between West Hollywood and Pembridge Mews was brutal…

But this [Telluride] was a mountain paradise…

are the order of the day -- or rather the week, which is how long it took me to make my way (reluctantly) through the entire book.

Joseph Anton is meant to be an account of Rushdie’s life following the 1989 fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini, which drove him into hiding. It covers, then, roughly a single decade in twice the amount of pages with which Winston Churchill, in My Early Life, covered three. One would think that Rushdie’s exile would have given him time to think hard about, say, the relationship between politics and literature or the vagaries of fate. Rushdie offers, however, no insight, not even about his own time spent underground: the extensive police protection he received here becomes largely a matter of cataloguing the various Jaguars, BMWs, and Range Rovers in which Rushdie was chartered around at taxpayers’ expense; pointless stories like his account of a feud with Martin Amis that lasted only a single day, or his much longer (and more public) exchange of hostilities with John le Carré, take up scores of pages, and are treated with equal significance. Elsewhere he moos at length about politics (“He chose to believe in human nature, and in the universality of its rights and ethics and freedoms”), fiction (“Literature tried to open the universe”), and human nature (“heterogeneous not homogenous”). In the book’s final chapter he compares himself to Ovid, Mandelstam, and Lorca in the space of a single paragraph.

This book has already come in for multiple drubbings, most notably by Zoë Heller in the December New York Review of Books.  Too little, one thinks, and too late. Books like Joseph Anton are the rule, not the exception, in the Rushdie oeuvre. Where were the Zoë Hellers of the world when Rushdie published The Moor’s Last Sigh or Shalimar the Clown? Why is it a literary sin to be orotund or mawkish in a memoir but not in a novel? Many writers whose fiction I can’t stand have written very good autobiographies; in fact, a distinctly flashy novelist usually makes a point of unplugging the wah-wah pedal and dialing down the overdrive for the memoirs: see Anthony Burgess’ plainspoken (if somewhat fescennine) Confessions. In Rushdie’s case, I sat down at the table expecting, well, not much, but certainly something more appetizing than this cold, overspiced spring navarin.

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About the Author

Matthew Walther is assistant editor of The American Spectator. His work has also appeared in the Spectator (London), National Review, the American Conservative, the Weekly Standard, the Daily Beast, the Salisbury Review (where he writes the quarterly "Letter From America" column), First ThingsTouchstoneProspect, Quadrant, the Millions, the Washington Times, and other publications. He lives with his wife, Lydia, in Alexandria, Virginia.