For Salman Rushdie, one of the dubious rewards of literary success was that he began to receive invitations to write book reviews. But after he published uncomplimentary reviews of work by artists and authors (Maurice Sendak, John le Carré, Kurt Vonnegut) whose earlier work he admired, he discovered that if a reviewer “loved a book, the author thought your praise no more than his rightful due, and if you didn’t like it, you made enemies.” So he decided to abandon the practice, concluding that reviewing “was a mug’s game.”
Still, it presents intriguing intellectual challenges, such as the one suggested by Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir: How best to respond to an elephantine, uneven book by a major author that describes, in perhaps-too-generous detail, the process by which he received a death sentence for having published The Satanic Verses and became the greatest living symbol of the enormity of threats against the creative imagination? Some writers would probably react better than others to the news that they could no longer leave the house without an armed security detail, but Rushdie has always been an especially sociable type, and even when he was just an ambitious, award-winning young writer, there was literary gossip to the effect that he was something of a pompous jerk. He paid about as high a price as any artist can for practicing his art without giving up his life or his freedom, and his book is a valuable account of what it was like to go through that. But enough of the jerk comes through that 636 pages feels like a long time to spend in his company.
The early sections of the book contain some marvelous material. Although Joseph Anton—the alias Rushdie used during the 11 years of the fatwa against him, a name he selected by joining the first names of two writers he admired, Conrad and Chekhov—is primarily about the publication of The Satanic Verses and what followed, Rushdie manages to touch on his whole life, with superb remembrances of his parents and, later, fine details about trying to parent his son with his first wife, with whom he remains close. He gets out the sledgehammer when dealing with his wife at the time of the announcement of the fatwa, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, and his most recent ex, Padma Lakshmi: Wiggins, he describes as a half-mad shrew who, at one point, tells people behind his back that he’s been putting out lit cigarettes on her body. When called on it, she insisted it was a metaphor. Lakshmi, whose relationship with Rushdie resulted in photos of the two of them together appearing in the New York tabloids accompanied by such headlines as “TO DIE FOR,” stands accused of wanting to further her career, and thus having “grand ambitions and secret plans that had nothing to do with the fulfillment of his deepest needs.”
Regarding that “his”: Rushdie refers to himself in the third person throughout the memoir, and this distancing effect comes with a functional, bare-bones prose style, rather than the high-flown dazzle characteristic of his novels. No doubt he means to convey that he’s here to tell the truth about that awful time, with a minimum of distraction. It pays off in the book’s best chapter, in which Rushdie cites “the trap of wanting to be loved” as his explanation for the moment, a year into the fatwa period, when he publicly announced that he had personally reconnected with Islam and seemed to apologize for anything in his novel that had given offense. The gesture won him nothing from his enemies, and dismayed many of his friends and supporters, and he seems not just embarrassed, but truly ashamed of this understandable moment of weakness.
But Rushdie really is a hell of a sociable guy, and the guys on his security detail sometimes seem to be the only people he’s ever met who aren’t famous writers or celebrities of some kind or another. On his associates list: Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Angela Carter, Saul Bellow, Bernardo Bertolucci, Harold Pinter, and Antonia Fraser, all the way down to Madonna and Richard Avedon. (Shortly after September 11, 2001, Rushdie had dinner “at the home of Eric and Tania Idle with Steve Martin, Garry Shandling, and others. At least three of the funniest men in America were around the table but comedy was hard to find. Finally Garry Shandling said, his voice and body full of bloodhound lugubriousness, ‘Such an awful thing. Seems like everyone lost someone, or knows someone who lost someone… Actually, I knew several of the terrorists…” “It was,” writes Rushdie, not a man to ever miss a chance to ratchet up the historical importance of the moment, “the first 9/11 joke.”)
It seems unfair to pick on Rushdie for name-dropping, when this is the circle he travels in, but at some point, Famous Name glut does kick in. (Couldn’t he at least have edited out some of the tributes to the gunpowder spirit and well-lubricated tongue of Christopher Hitchens? They’re going for 50 cents a bundle on eBay.) Rushdie writes that, for a while, he toyed with the idea of shaping his experiences into a novel, but he changed his mind: “The only reason his story was interesting was that it had actually happened. It wouldn’t be interesting if it wasn’t true.” That might be debatable, but it’s easy to imaging that Rushdie would find this story, and most of his others, less interesting if it wasn’t about him.