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01/18/2015

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I obviously am going to have to retire and spend the rest of my life in the library.

I don't think I would ever have thought about reading anything by Rushdie, but now I think I will have to eventually do so.

AMDG

I read The Satanic Verses a while back and also couldn't make head nor tail of it. I plan to reread it at some point now I've read The Master and Margerita, which was apparently an influence - I think Rushdie was attempting to do something similar but with a fictionalised start to Islam instead of Christianity, and a commentary on life as an immigrant instead of on life under communism or as a censored artist.

Yes, that was pretty much my reaction, too, Janet.

(Just discovered this comment waiting for me to click "post"--I actually made it last night.)

I'm thinking that Midnight's Children might be a better place to start than Verses.

I read something interesting about The Master and Margarita within the past year or so. Now I can't remember what it was.

Yeah, I was thinking that too, although the connection to The Master and Margerita is interesting. I've read that, but I'm having trouble remembering much of it. It's funny, I look at the title now and what jumps out at me is Faust but I can't remember if I made that connection at the time. I'm feeling quite stupid.

The M&M reminded me of The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark, and I liked the latter better.

AMDG

Must have cross posted.

AMDG

Yep.

I was thinking it might have been in The New Criterion that I'd fairly recently read something about M&M. Can't find anything, but I did turn up this review of a history of Russian lit, which I think is pretty old. It contains this observation:

"Nor is due recognition given to Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, arguably the best twentieth-century Russian novel. Bulgakov's novel has become a part of the idiom in the Soviet Union and is considered a modern classic in Europe. (The book is much less appreciated in the United States, where it exists in Mirra Ginsburg's excellent translation; to my mind, this betrays a lack of imaginative empathy on the part of the American audience.)"

Ah, the power of popular culture. I see "Margarita" and immediately think of Jimmy Buffett and the drink.

Also shows my deep ignorance because I've never heard of that Russian book. And have read no Rushdie other than some of his journalism.

I don't think you are unusual on any of those counts. I only heard of M&M from someone in our CSL group. I don't think I've ever heard it mentioned any place else, but I do have a copy I got for a dollar at a book sale.

AMDG

No, not unusual at all. I think almost any American would think of the drink, if not of Buffett, on hearing the word "margarita." Don't know how popular it is outside the U.S.

I had heard the title of M&M, but for some reason thought it was by Nabokov. Maybe the aural association with Lolita?
I tried a bit of SV once and gave up, but this inspires me to try again with Midnight's Children.

That excerpt was great. Thanks for sharing it.

I have not read the Bulgakov book, though am pretty sure I have a copy. But a few years back I finally read The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass and thought that Rushdie's style of writing was a lot like that.

I never read it back then, but when I was a child we had a copy of M&M on the bookshelf. Every Russian I ever talked to knew of it (my boss assures me you really need to have lived under soviet communism to fully understand it), so I kind of assumed it was as famous as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy etc. It's a lot of fun, especially the bits with the Devil running round an officially-atheist Moscow and causing unspeakable havoc. (Well, Woland is labelled as "The Devil", but he's more of a vengeful trickster figure.)

On the topic of the post, I remember during the mildly famous Hitchens, Hitchens & Johnson debate on Rushdie, an audience member stood up to declare Midnight's Children a first rate novel, in response to Boris Johnson declaring Rushdie totally unreadable. I'll put it on my "pick up a copy if I see it going cheap" list. (I'm not terribly rich at the moment, so the list of books I'll buy full price is very small.)

I'm still that way about buying books, even though money is not nearly as tight for me as it once was. Decades-long habits don't die quickly. Can't watch the video now, maybe this evening.

I obviously had a totally off-base notion of Master and Margarita. I had a very vague notion that it was some kind of cozy pastoral.

Re The Tin Drum--that doesn't necessarily increase my expectation of liking Rushdie. Talk about books of which I did not know what to make...

I thought you might come back with that, Mac. So let me assure you that for the most part Rushdie and Grass have very little in common. It is mostly the magical realism component where I feel that Rushdie was strongly influenced by Grass. The Tin Drum is a much tougher book than Midnight's Children, but I do really love the first chapter, and find it quite enchanting to read and re-read.

M&M as cozy pastoral. Waaaay off base.

AMDG

So I gather.

First chapter of Tin Drum, EG? I don't remember it. It's been 30+ years since I read it, maybe closer to 40. I only remember a few scenes, e.g. eels. But I do remember not having any idea what the whole thing really amounted to.

It seems to me like the characters in M&M end up in a seraglio some place along the line, or am I confusing it with something else.

AMDG

The Satanic Verses has been on and off my reading list several times over the years. Now it goes back on!

I've read a few of Rushdie's other novels and I think he is a tremendous talent, but somehow his books have never quite cohered for me. Brilliant in miniature, but too diffuse on the large scale. But every so often I get a hankering for more of him, and this post has brought it back -- at least until next week's post in this series!

The most recent Rushdie book I read was The Enchantress of Florence; notes here.

I feel the same way about Enchantress and Moor's Last Sigh, Craig. You hit the nail on the head!

When I was in school there was an English master who was keen on Midnight’s Children and almost convinced me to read it, but then all the furore about Satanic Verses started, and I reckoned I could manage without a writer who gratuitously offended people's religious sensibilities.

Was it gratuitous? I really don't know, but I have a hard time believing someone would risk his life gratuitously.

Switching topics--in all the brouhaha that I heard on the radio about the SV, I never heard anyone say that it was funny. That surprises me.

AMDG

I had a somewhat similar reaction, Paul. Not that I gave it a lot of thought either way, and I didn't have anyone recommending Rushdie to me. But I wondered the same thing as Janet. Was it a deliberate effort to offend? And was it something only a fanatic would object to, or was it egregiously offensive to any Muslim? I don't have any idea. Though I always had the impression that Rushdie did not expect the reaction he got--i.e. did not knowingly choose to risk his life.

The offense to Islam sections of SV are akin to the offense to Christianity sections of The Last Temptation of Christ where Willem Dafoe (as Christ) has sexual dreams. There is a section of SV which is a dream-like parable taking place in a town like Mecca with a prophet like Mohammed who acts very human. And like the author of Last Temptation, who I assume is/was a Christian, Rushdie has a Muslim background. No, I do not think that Rushdie was trying to offend, and he did seem surprised to even be noticed. He was not exactly a Stephen King type literary figure at the time.

I had never heard of him until that controversy, which I expect was true of 99% of the world's population. I suppose it helped his book sales, but he probably didn't regard it as a good trade.

Since Islam views Mohammed as entirely human, I suppose the portrayal must be not just human but not-entirely-admirable human.

Rushdie was undoubtedly surprised by the fatwa, but he must have known the Muslim world, and especially Iran, would be mightily offended by the book. The rise of the ayatollah in 1979 had given a huge boost to a revival of fundamentalist Islamic culture in lots of places, along with jihad and terrorism, and all that wasn't a secret.

Here's a whole bunch of info, of which I've read only part, which says that Rushdie didn't expect anything as drastic as what happened: ""I expected a few mullahs would be offended, call me names, and then I could defend myself in public... I honestly never expected anything like this"

There was a mild-mannered, thoroughly integrated Chemistry master who said he found it offensive (he also found the Bradford book burnings offensive). From a couple of interviews I've seen I rather get the impression that Rushdie was thoroughly surprised at the reaction, and not by any means consciously risking his life. I don't think it even registered with him that people educated and literate enough to be reading his books would not be thoroughly secular in outlook, or that the violent religious politics of places like Pakistan and Iran could in any way impinge on the life of an intellectual in Britain.

Well, then.

AMDG

Still, I read The Fairie Queene, and that definitely offends my religious sensibilities.

AMDG

His close friend, Christopher Hitchens, said this about whether Rushdie "knew what he was doing":

By the way, he certainly did know what he was doing. He had studied Islamic scripture at Cambridge University, and I well remember one evening, at the apartment of Professor Edward Said near Columbia, when the advance manuscript of The Satanic Verses was delivered to Edward by the Andrew Wylie agency. In a covering note, Salman asked America’s best-known Palestinian for his learned advice, given the probability that the book might upset “the faithful.” So, yes, he “knew” all right, but in a highly responsible way. In any case, it is not the job of writers and thinkers to appease the faithful. And the faithful, if in fact upset or offended, are quite able and entitled to explore all forms of protest. Short of violence.

"He knew what he was doing" and he "never expected anything like this" aren't necessarily contradictory. It seems very plausible that he was well aware that it would offend, but that living in England from his teens on (I gather) had led him to expect the sort of thing that happens when someone offends Christians--denunciations from people whose denunciations are far preferable to their praise in sophisticated circles. Maybe he thought he would just get that little thrill of needling the orthodox at no real risk to himself, in fact gaining some useful publicity. That's all just speculation on my part, but although El G has persuaded me that Midnight's Children at least is worth reading, Rushdie comes across as sort of that kind of guy.

I just watched the video that godescalc linked to earlier. The Boris Johnson bit is funny, especially his preference for Dick Francis over Rushdie.

The debate is about whether Rushdie should have been given a knighthood.

When he went on television and apologised and said he meant no disrespect and had been misunderstood and was himself a believer, and then months later said in an interview that he hadn't meant any of that and had only done it to make the fatwa go away and it hadn't worked so he regretted even trying, I decided not to be bothered with him either way.

That's pretty low. Still, I'm going to read Midnight's Children eventually.

It's understandable, given the circumstances, but not exactly inspiring.

In the Joseph Anton book he addresses that Paul mentions. He was asked by the British Secret Service to make the statement and did so although he was against it. They had been protecting him for a long time and he felt he had to try what they suggested.

That does put a rather different complexion on it.

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