Zoe Heller versus Salman Rushdie and Joseph Anton

4 December 2012

The literary world anticipates Salman Rushdie’s response to Zoe Heller’s cauterisation of his memoir, Joseph Anton, in the New York Review of Books. Heller’s pointed review is deeply considered. It is a delight to read, even though some of its arguments are uneven and some of its conclusions are trivial next to the themes of Rushdie’s unlovely yet important book.

Heller is, in my view, right to slam the grandiloquence of Rushdie’s ‘de Gaulle-like third person’ narration. The technique succeeds in alienating Joseph Anton (Rushdie’s secret service nom-de-guerre) from normality; but its relentless oddness irritates to the point where the reader might lose sight of the fact that Joseph Anton is actually Salman Rushdie living in a grim part of the real world. It also leaves Rushdie open to mockery, perhaps deserved. The accounts of precious Joseph carousing with babes at Moomba and other flesh pots ‘to reduce the climate of fear around him’ are laughable.

Yet this particular criticism rather misses the point because Rushdie’s strange mix of heroism and preening is central to the book. Joseph Anton is the record of a brave yet self-regarding artist trying to live as he wishes. It’s a basic story about the most basic freedoms. You are not invited to like Salman Rushdie. Indeed, it is difficult to like him as he sets about his detractors, his wives and so on, and all the while he humbly compares himself to Joyce, Nabokov and Lawrence. But you are invited to answer a simple question: are certain ideas above criticism? On this question hangs everything.


Heller comes at it from an acute angle. She quotes a section of Rushdie’s book; then probes it. Here’s the quote from Joseph Anton:

‘When he was first accused of being offensive, he was genuinely perplexed. He thought he had made an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of revelation; an engagement from the point of view of an unbeliever, certainly, but a proper one nonetheless. How could that be thought offensive? The thin-skinned years of rage- defined identity politics that followed taught him, and everyone else, the answer to that question.’

Heller goes on to write, ‘Rushdie seems to be making the case for fiction’s immunity from political anger… literature, properly understood, cannot offend.’

That is to overstate the scale of Rushdie’s ambitions, at least where they are explained in Joseph Anton. The phrase ‘how could that be thought offensive?’ is certainly loose because it’s clear how The Satanic Verses might be thought offensive. In fact, it is perfectly reasonable to take offence; but the validity of that emotion lies in having given the offending article proper attention. The vital word in the paragraph from Joseph Anton, therefore, is not ‘offensive’ but ‘engagement’.

The key to the Rushdie affair is that theocrats and a good number of westerners declared themselves offended without bothering to engage. As Heller writes, ‘One of the great sorrows of the fatwa years for Rushdie… was the dismay that large numbers of people were incapable or unwilling to engage his “serious artistic intent”.’ You can ridicule the pomposity of the ‘serious artistic intent’. You can doubt its seriousness as art. But not to engage with Rushdie was to privilege certain ideas without testing them. Free societies cannot stand on such unequal ground.

That more than 50 people died as a result of this affair has prompted the question: is a book worth so much blood? The answer to that question has to be an unqualified ‘yes’, regardless of the tragic waste. Nothing is above inquiry; everything, even the sacred and holy, must be subject to dissent.

Joseph Anton is a flawed book in many ways, and perhaps it reflects its author’s foibles. Heller is convincing in her view that Rushdie fails his own test, laid out in the closing pages of the book, that literature exists to promote ‘understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself…to make the world feel larger, wider than before.’ She concludes, ‘The world is as large and as wide as it ever was; it’s just Rushdie who got small.’ Maybe. But, on the hand, Joseph Anton concerns greater things than literature, things greater even than Salman Rushdie.

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  • Matthew

    Much better to read Theodore Dalrymple’s equally negative but much more incisive review in this month’s New Criterion.

  • Joe Barron

    Oh, and I forgot to mention, I am currently reading Joseph Anton, too.

  • Joe Barron

    I read the review, and I have to say I found it as “small” as it accuses Rusdhie of being. The question is not “did the book give offense”? So what if it did? The question is, does any state the right to pass a death sentence on a citizen of another country (or even its own citizens) for what amounts to a thought crime? Heller falls into the trap that Rushdie’s early critics did – she blames Rushdie, and his book, for the violence, and not the terrorists, which is rather like blaming a father whose family is kidnapped and killed for not paying the ransom fast enough. What happened to Rushdie was a crime, and his reflections on the experience are valuable, despite his personal flaws. Bitterness and anger, even disillusionment with an entire culture, are appropriate responses to such a situation. Heller should live the way he did for ten years. Let’s see how great-souled she becomes.

    • P G

      “Heller falls into the trap that Rushdie’s early critics did – she blames Rushdie, and his book, for the violence, and not the terrorists”

      This is a ridiculous claim. Please quote where in Heller’s review that she *blames* Rushdie for the violence. The criticism she has of Rushdie is that he is uncharitable toward those who feared the violence (such as publishers who refused to bring out the paperback version of The Satanic Verses because of the danger to their staffs who lacked police protection). At no point does she say that Rushdie is at fault for the violence. He is, however, at fault for how he chose to write about those who feared the violence.

      “The questions that Mayer and Mehta and Gottlieb raised about the wisdom and the morality of continuing to publish in such circumstances seemed then, and seem now, perfectly reasonable and humane.” — Zoe Heller

      A better criticism of Heller’s review is to question where she got this figure: “By the time the Rushdie Affair was over, it had resulted in the deaths of more than fifty people.” Is she including people who chose to riot against the book and thus died in violence of which they themselves had been a part? If so, that seems rather a stretch of the count of people whose deaths we should feel morally concerned about.

  • Rockin Ron

    Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

  • Eli

    Stressing “engagement” rather than “offense” doesn’t save Rushdie. Thanks to the craven fear of angry Muslim masses, causing offense has become a criminal act. Intent to offend will be assumed by the choice of subject matter. And “artistic seriousness” – “engagement” – is not a defense to causing offense, as is “artistic merit” to charges of writing porn. That is Heller’s point. It is not required of the victim of offense-causers to read the offending literature. That would be an impossible burden on prosecution: at what threshold of reading comprehension, balanced against complexity of expression, is taking offense justified? (At last, Eng. Lit. graduates can find employment.) Allah is a more powerful fictional character than any novelist can hope to create. Is this the deepest cut to our literary giants? That they cannot actually engage with or change a simple-minded world? And moreover, non-artists too are insult martyrs: that angry woman on the tube, the UKIP couple who lost their foster children…Thought crime affects all minds, intellectual and vulgar. Joseph Anton will not hold back the new barbarism – nor yet the New York Review of Books. Egalitarianism eats its own.

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