Literary Review

‘I kind of got sick of the truth’

Salman Rushdie. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Salman Rushdie. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar  

Salman Rushdie speaks about how his new book is anti-Knausgård, and how, despite being the world’s most recognised writer, he’s still not as famous as Taylor Swift

Salman Rushdie’s 12th novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (a Rushdiesque way of saying One Thousand and One Nights), is a sprawling, fantastical story of many stories, which draws from the same deep well of imagination as the Kathasaritasagara and the Hamzanama. It is also a tale of warning: of reason versus superstition, of fantasy versus reality, of jinn and human, of copulation and cities. At the centre of this book is a jinni called Dunia, a.k.a Asmaan Peri, who falls in love with a human — the philosopher Ibn Rushd (after whom Rushdie’s father took their name), whose many descendants — the Duniazat — have the distinctive feature of having no earlobes and very itchy feet.

Excerpts from an interview:

What was the experience of writing the novel after having written the memoir?

Well, the novel in a way was a reaction to the memoir because I felt that I’d spent three years writing this very long book in which I was trying as carefully as I could to tell the truth, and I kind of got sick of the truth, and it made me emotionally go to the other end of the spectrum and think what could I do that would be highly fabulated.

Philip Roth once said that writing gets harder as you get older… has that been your experience?

He’s certainly right that it doesn’t get easier. I wish it did. The only thing you learn while writing a book is how to write that particular book, and then to write the next book you have to be a beginner all over again. The only thing that you do learn from experience is you get the confidence to think that if you keep hammering away at it, in the end it will solve itself. So there’s less panic. When you’re young and you get stuck somewhere it can be very frightening, whereas once you’ve been around the course a few times you know that it won’t come right by itself. You have to fix it.

Have your writing habits changed over the years or have you always had a particular way of going about things?

Essentially I do a working day, an office day, and the only thing I always do is — last thing at night I try and read what I did that day. What this does is it leaves me with the book in my head so the next day I can go on. That hasn’t changed at all. What has changed is that when I was younger I needed to be much more certain of architecture, the imagination couldn’t really get going until it was in a very well understood frame, so with those earlier books like Midnight’s Children and Shame, I did a lot of work on the skeleton before I could put any flesh on it. I saw an interview with Jonathan Franzen the other day in which he said the only way of doing it is to wing it, to see where you go and what happens, and I thought actually that’s quite unusual coming from Franzen because I thought he was the other kind of writer, the very methodical, careful kind. What’s happened to me as I’ve got older is that I’ve become more prepared to do that.

There’s real tenderness towards Bombay in this book, but it also felt that it was khatam in a way. Is this your farewell to Bombay?

I don’t know. When I wrote The Moor’s Last Sigh, I thought maybe that’s the end of it, and then The Ground Beneath Her Feet has a great big chunk of Bombay as well. But what I do think that I have of me that’s in the Mr. Geronimo character is this idea that you can’t go home again because the place that was home isn’t like that anymore. It’s not that I can’t go to Bombay, it’s that the Bombay that felt like home isn’t like that now. It’s not even an unusual feeling. I think many people who leave home and go elsewhere, when they come back discover that sometimes it’s less exciting than what they remember, it’s paltrier…

How important is autobiography to you?

Less and less… These days there’s a kind of obsession with autobiography, when people read novels, people are trying to see where the author is, and I’ve begun to find that very annoying. The worst was when I wrote Fury, and everybody reviewed it as though it were me and Padma (Padma Lakshmi, Rushdie’s fourth wife). And it was infuriating. I thought, ‘don’t we know by now that writers sometimes write close to real life but it’s still not real life’? Don’t we know Moses Herzog is not Saul Bellow and that Stephen Dedalus is not James Joyce and that Marcel is not Proust? There’s been so much of this in literature — where people start close to themselves and then go somewhere, and that going somewhere is the imaginative leap, and that’s what’s interesting.

What do you make of this new trend of “reality fiction” a la Karl Ove Knausgård?

Oh, no question. It’s a moment. What the French call autofiction — whether it’s Knausgård or Elena Ferrante, all these writers who write in that very personal direct vein. One of the things I’m old enough to know about literature is that there is such a thing as fashion. When I was starting out in that moment in the late 70s, when a lot of us in England were getting going, there seemed to be a desire among readers for something new, for something less conventional. For something odder. And I think a lot of us benefited from that desire in readers. McEwan, Amis, Angela Carter, Ishiguro and me — we benefitted from this mood to have something new, something original and strange and unusual, and now there’s a mood for real life stories and so my book is the kind of anti- Knausgård…( chuckles). Nobody does the laundry in this book.

How do you juggle between Salman the world famous writer, Salman the dad, Salman the regular guy, Salman on Twitter?

I don’t find it that difficult. One of the things about New York that makes it attractive is that people don’t give a damn. They leave you alone… It’s not like I’m really famous. I mean, if I was Taylor Swift walking down the street it would be different. I on the whole, get to walk down the street and nobody bothers me… and you know that famous Salman, what does it do? It gets you tables at restaurants, that’s it… As for Twitter, I still essentially think of it as very marginal and kind of trivial. Days go by and I don’t even look. It’s nice to have a little exchange about the books… and then of course, when you’ve got a million people there… it’s useful… There are times I think I shouldn’t do it at all. I understand again what Franzen is saying when he says it’s just a noise in your head you don’t need, and I completely get it. There are moments when I think that too…

Do you feel like a writer who’s been looking for a fight, or do you feel a bit like the children of the Duniazat, that the fight has come to you?

I’m completely not a fighter. I want a peaceful life. Even in a literary sense I’ve always thought the world is big enough for every kind of writing. There are writers who become polemicists of their own kind of work, people who make manifestos and who say this is good and this is bad. I really don’t think like that. I get it with people like Knausgård and Ferrante. I get what they’re doing and I see that it’s interesting, but when I discover writers like (László) Krasznahorkai, I think, oh great, there’s still that too. There’s still that kind of highly imaginative fiction being made. In my personal life — sure, it came looking for me. And again I’m happy that it’s receded. Now it’s only when I talk to the media that I have to revisit that subject, otherwise in my daily life it’s not there anymore.

We spoke this summer about Charlie Hebdo and PEN, you said that if the fatwa happened today you might not get the same kind of support as you did…

I just think that there is a funny spirit around that’s partly to do with political correctness, partly to do with a kind of misguided idea that you protect the underprivileged by ring-fencing their ideas, which I think is a dangerous path and in many ways could increase the hostility towards the people you’re trying to protect…and it’s partly fear. If people weren’t using machine guns to express their dislike of things, then I think people would be a lot more willing to create work that other people don’t like. And if we’re going to be limited by what people like and if not liking something is a legitimate reason for saying that that thing should be stopped, then everybody will stop everything. To those of us who were on this side of the fence, this seemed like a no-brainer…. Not a difficult thing to come to a conclusion about: these people were executed for drawing pictures. How can that not be a free speech issue?

If you were stuck in an elevator with a person who refused to read fiction, how would you change his or her mind?

Oh, no. I’d just get out of the elevator as fast as possible. One of the things I’ve learned is that you don’t change people’s minds. There are people who love fiction and there are people who find it stupid. “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” as Haroun asked his father... And unless they’re fortunate enough to stumble upon a book that opens some door in their head that hadn’t been opened before, you can’t change it by arguing. So my view is you know, thanks a lot, I’ll get off here.”

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 11:33:06 PM |

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