Judging by the critical reaction, Salman Rushdie’s new memoir is the literary equivalent of Guy Fieri’s craptastic Times Square feedlot, which was gutted by the NYT restaurant critic in a now-famous review. Here’s Zoe Heller writing on Rushdie’s latest in the New York Review Of Books (note that Rushdie writes of himself in the third person):
Some of his most egregiously uncharitable moments occur when writing about his four marriages. Rushdie has a habit of excusing his own fairly frequent infidelities and betrayals with reference to the imperative nature of his own desires. (“His own needs were like commands,” he recalls when explaining why he had to leave his third wife, Elizabeth West, and young son to go gallivanting in America.) The various failings of the wives—their money-grubbing and nagging, their jealousy of his talent, and so on—are not so readily excused.
In a close-run contest between Marianne Wiggins (number two) and Padma Lakshmi (number four), it is the latter who emerges as the worst of the spousal bunch. Rushdie presents her as the Marion Davies to his William Randolph Hearst—an erotically beguiling but fundamentally vapid gold digger, whose selfish ambitions as a model, actress, and TV host have, in the end, “nothing to do with the fulfillment of his deepest needs.” The final revelation of her shallowness comes in the wake of September 11 when Rushdie, grieving and shaken and feeling the need to connect with loved ones, calls her in Los Angeles and finds her “doing a lingerie shoot.”
Rushdie’s shuddering hauteur at this moment may strike the reader as a bit rich, coming from a man who spends much of his memoir recalling encounters with pop stars, Playboy bunnies, and “hot” pop-star girlfriends in the breathless style of a young Austen character writing up her first visit to the pump rooms at Bath. But Rushdie would have us understand that his copious accounts of nightclubbing with celebrities are the record of a doughty man’s will to survive, of his commitment to a moral duty:
“He would eat at Balthazar, Da Silvano and Nobu, he would go to movie screenings and book launches and be seen enjoying himself at late-night hot spots such as Moomba, at which Padma was well known…. Only by living openly, visibly and fearlessly, and being written about for doing so, could he reduce the climate of fear around him which was now, in his opinion, a bigger obstacle than whatever Iranian threat still remained.”If he hadn’t been out there, frugging with Padma at Moomba, the terrorists would have won, you see.
Isaac Chotiner, writing in The Atlantic, is just about as harsh, declaring that Rushdie let the Ayatollah Khomeini and his henchmen destroy his talent. Excerpt:
I can’t ever remember reading an author celebrate his own good reviews; Rushdie does so numerous times. On Shame: “This novel, too, had a wonderful reception everywhere, or almost everywhere.” Discussing The Moor’s Last Sigh, he notes that his agent was “almost moved to tears” because the book was so brilliant; even more embarrassing:
“His favorite comments about The Moor’s Last Sigh were those from Indian friends who got in touch after reading the now-unbanned book to ask how he’d managed to write it without visiting India. ‘You sneaked in, didn’t you?’ they suggested. ‘You came quietly and soaked stuff up. Otherwise how would you have known all those things?’”(Note, too, the implicit compliment to realism.) Rushdie’s unrelenting need to highlight his own talents hints at some deep insecurity. After Fury was reviewed harshly, he claims that the experience released him from obsessing about the critics. The evidence here suggests otherwise.
Rushdie sounds like a complete ass. I recall at the time finding off-putting his sulky ingratitude at Margaret Thatcher for the lengths to which her government went to protect him from Iranian assassins. Here’s Zoe Heller, on Rushdie’s take on all that today:
One is struck here, not just by the implied disregard for the free speech of other writers who might not qualify for “the quality defense,” but also by the lordly nonchalance with which Rushdie places himself alongside Lawrence, Joyce, and Nabokov in the ranks of literary merit. Throughout this memoir, Rushdie claims kinship with any number of great literary men—men who, like him, suffered for their genius, but whose fame was destined to outlast that of their oppressors:
“The immortal writers of the past were his guides. He was not, after all, the first writer to be endangered or sequestered or anathematized for his art. He thought of mighty Dostoyevsky facing the firing squad and then, after the last-minute commutation of his sentence, spending four years in a prison camp, and of Genet unstoppably writing his violently homoerotic masterpiece Our Lady of the Flowers in jail…. Rabelais too had been condemned by religious authority; the Catholic Church had been unable to stomach his satirical hyperabundance. But he had been defended by the king, François I, on the grounds that his genius could not be suppressed. Those were the days, when artists could be defended by kings because they were good at what they did. These were lesser times.”Lesser times? Really? It is true that during the early years of the fatwa, the British government was not entirely valiant in its defense of Rushdie. Margaret Thatcher, who had been depicted in The Satanic Verses as “Mrs. Torture,” was not a Rushdie fan, and members of her cabinet made it clear in their public pronouncements that they considered him a disagreeable and inconvenient fellow. Nevertheless, they recognized their duty to protect the free speech of a British citizen—even one they did not like—against the death threats of a foreign cleric. And this, by and large, indicates something rather heartening about those times. Certainly, it presents a more reassuring situation than one in which a citizen’s safety depends upon a monarch’s arbitration of his literary talent.
She slices, she dices. Read the whole thing. The thing I observe in both the Heller and the Chotiner reviews is how both critics bend over backwards to give Rushdie the benefit of the doubt, given what he went through at the hands of the Iranians. Wisely, though, these reviewers understand that suffering doesn’t give one license to be insufferable.