Sunday, 10 August 2008

Rushdie, Midnght's Children and The Booker

I might as well declare at the outset that Salman Rushdie is one of my favourite authors writing in English. I have read all of his full-length novels except the first (Grimus) and the most recent (The Enchantress of Florence). In my list of all-time favourite novels (written in Original English) there will definitely be two of Rushdie: The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children; and I will be tempted to add a third one (Moore’s Last Sigh).

Rushdie has the amazing capacity to arouse extreme passions. As John Sutherland remarked, he either rocks or he sucks. He irritates you the same way a driver gets under your skin by stealing a parking space from right under your nose, which fills you with murderous rage wholly disproportionate to the crime. And what are Rushdie's crimes? Different groups seem to hate him for different reasons. There are those, usually Muslim fundamentalists, who are convinced he is Islamophobic: he is subjected to vituperative attacks on a number of Islamic web-sites, I am told; many of the attackers, needless to say, have not actually read The Satanic Verses. Some consider him to be a shameless self-promotionist and aggrandiser. Rushdie’s cameo appearance in Bridget Jones’s Diary is often cited by them as an incontrovertible evidence that there is no turpitude he will not sink to so long as he stays in limelight. (It has to be said, though, that the man does not exactly shy away from publicity. It may even be argued that sometimes he goes actively in search of it. Take, for example, his recent claim that he now holds the record of signing maximum number of books in an hour. Driven by the need to make this fact public Rushdie wrote a letter to The Guardian, helpfully pointing out that he had broken the previously held record of the wine critic Malcolm Gluck. ‘His record is toast,’ Rushdie crowed in the letter. Gluck chose to see the humour in the situation—perhaps Salman was tongue in cheek all along—and compared it (Rushdie’s boasting) to men’s boastings about the size of their equipments (he was probably not far off the mark; I can’t see many women writers going for this type of record)). Then there are those who are pissed off with him for no reason other than he seems to have little difficulty in hooking up with young, glamorous women (although, the cockles of their hearts must have, no doubt, been warmed by the news that his third—or is it fourth? Most recent, anyway—wife, an ex-model, has left him). If some or more of you are wondering quite what any of this has got to do with Rushdie’s auctorial capabilities, let me advise you that there are those who don’t think much of him as a writer. A proportion of these have heard from a friend who happened to have overheard a conversation in a party that Rushdie is unreadable. Some have tried to read some of Rushdie’s books and struggled to go beyond the first fifty pages, which, of course, means that Rushdie is dull, tiresome, boring, and tedious. Rushdie, according to these individuals, who may or may not have achieved an elementary level of ability in reading, is over-hyped and writes tripe. He is a load of tosh, baloney and hokum. You will be excused if News of the World is not the first publication you reach for for literary fiction reviews, in which case let me inform you that one Carole Malone, a regular columnist in this British tabloid, thinks that Rushdie’s knighthood (awarded by the British Government) for the service to literature is farcical because she has yet to meet anyone, ‘me included’ (just so that there is no room for misunderstanding), who has managed to get through anything he has written. Ms Malone, it would be fair to conclude, is in the ‘Rushdie sucks’ camp. Finally, there are those who accept, grudgingly, that Rushdie used to be good, but point out, gleefully, that he is now past his sell-by-date; he is surviving on past reputation. Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury are often given as examples of Rushdie’s declining prowess as a writer. (Martin Amis is another writer of Rushdie’s generation many seem to derive great pleasure in trashing).

It is difficult to say which amongst Rushdie’s ten full-length novels is his most famous. Many would plump for The Satanic Verses, which made Rushdie a household name in the non-English speaking world after Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme religious leader when the novel was published, issued a Fatwah sentencing Rushdie publicly to death as he (Khomeini) deemed The Satanic Verses to be blaspheming Islam. (One doubts very much whether Khomeini, who couldn’t read English, had actually read the novel, but he probably did not have to; he was after all God’s mouthpiece. Also, it wasn’t immediately apparent to many at the time quite how Khomeini was going to bring about Rushdie’s death unless he was depending on the Umah (which, I have it on reliable information, is an Arebic word for 'Brotherhood of Islam'); Rushdie wasn’t an Iranian citizen, and, after the Fatwah, one would have assumed that Tehran was probably not on the top of his list of holiday destinations.) The Satanic Verses is probably Rushdie’s commercially most successful book, although Rushdie, who had to go into hiding after the Fatwah for several years—the British government spent millions of pounds on his security—, would probably have settled for less copies of the novel selling if it meant he could live as a free man. It might be argued that The Satanic Verses made Rushdie not so much famous as infamous. It was Midnight’s Children—a hypermanic, clamorous tale, full of wit and slapstick, tracing the story of India’s independence and the first thirty post-independent years, through the memories of its drip-nosed, telepathic protagonist— that propelled him, overnight, to the cutting edge of the literary world, and won for him many a laurel.

Midnight’s Children was Salman Rushdie’s second novel. His first was Grimus which had sold barely nine hundred copies and had to be remaindered. Midnight’s Children changed all that. It made Rushdie into a celebrity. Years later he recalled: ‘Before [Midnight’s Children] my career as a writer was completely obscure. Overnight it wasn’t. I gained confidence.’ Still later he put it differently (and provocatively): ‘I walked into literary London as a stranger and ran off with a cheque, which feels OK.’ Rushdie began writing the novel in 1976. He felt a ‘sense of exhilaration’ as the voice of Saleem Sanai, the garrulous, witty narrator of what was to become Midnight’s Children ‘came over’ him. It was with this novel Rushdie, by his own admission, really became a writer ‘after a decade of false starts’. It took him three years to complete the novel and, to Rushdie’s delight, the two top names in the publishing word on either side of the Atlantic—Jonathan Cape in London and Alfred Knoff in New York—accepted the book. The publication got delayed for all sorts of reasons, and, when Rushdie requested to see some alternatives to the livid salmon-pink dust jacket of the book—he was, understandably concerned about the salmon / salman joke that would plague him for years—he was told that he could not as that would delay the publication of the book even further (one guesses the publishers have, since, become more receptive to Rushdie’s concerns).

Upon its publication, Midnight’s Children won the 1981 Booker prize, awarded to writers from Britain, Ireland, South Africa and the Commonwealth countries, ahead of some worthy competitors: Muriel Spark (Loitering with Intent), Doris Lessing (The Sirian Experiment), Ian McEwan (The Comfort of Strangers), and Molly Keane (The Good Behaviour), the last one making a literary comeback after decades of silence. In 1993, it was awarded the ‘Booker of Booker’ to celebrate twenty-five years of the literary prize the British fondly believe to be the most prestigious literary award in the world. And this year, in 2008, it won ‘The Best of the Booker’ award, a special prize awarded in commemoration of the forty years of the Booker Prize, now known as the ‘Man Booker Prize'.

The process of selection was different on the two occasions. In 1993 the winner was chosen by a committee of three, chaired by the late Malcolm Bradbury. Bradbury was also the chair of the committee that awarded the Booker to Midnight’s Children in 1981, although in his personal capacity he had voted against it at the time, so make of that what you will. The runner up, the committee had announced, was William Golding’s Rites of Passage, the 1980 Booker winner. In 2008, a shortlist of six was chosen by the novelist Victoria Glendinning, the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, and the professor of English (at University College London) John Mullan. The nominees were Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee), Siege of Krishnapur (J.G. Farrell), The Conversationist (Nadine Gordimer), Ghost Road (Pat Barker), Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey), and Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie). (The process of choosing the short-list of six was painful and disturbing, according to Glendinning; at least one book, personally significant to each one of the panel members, had to be axed, as the other two were not in sympathy. A particularly difficult category, apparently, was writers whom all the panel members admired unreservedly and who had won the Booker, ‘but for the wrong book’. The two novelists who came under this category were V.S. Naipaul (who won the 1971 Booker for In A Free State) and Margaret Atwood (who won the award in 2000 for The Blind Assassin)).

The winner of 'The Best of Booker' was chosen by public vote. Midnight’s Children won hands down with almost 40% voting for it. Disgrace was in second place.

In 1993, when he won the ‘Booker of Booker’, Rushdie was still living under the shadow of Khomeini's Fatwah. He was in hiding and was provided with tight security by the British government (at tax payers’ expense, of course). He attended the ceremony surrounded by bodyguards and police patrolling the streets with walki-talkies. Fifteen years down the line, circumstances were more felicitous, and the Fatwah had become a distant memory, although Rushdie could not receive the award in person as he was touring America, promoting his latest novel (which, it has been announced, is long-listed for the 2008 Booker. Should he win it—he probably won’t—he will become the third writer—after Coetzee and Carey—to win the award twice).

Midnight’s Children, Rushdie was to recall after many yeas, was an attempt by him, born and bred in Bombay (now Mumbai) to reclaim his Indian origins and heritage. He was particularly pleased that the book was very well received in the country of his birth (as much as English language books can be received; India is only a partially English speaking country, and it’s a lesser known fact in the West that authors writing in local languages, many of whom have never been translated into English, outsell the English-language books by a huge margin). The book was so widely pirated in India that he began receiving anonymous greeting cards and Thank You cards from the pirates. (It must have been painful for Rushdie when, six years later, India became the first (and probably the only) democratic and secular country to ban The Satanic Verses.)

A couple of years ago I attended a literary evening in which Rushdie was the main speaker (he was promoting Shalimar the Clown). In the ‘Question and Answers’ session, there were, inevitably, questions on Midnight’s Children. An Asian man commented that he had enjoyed the book thoroughly and found it to be hilarious in parts, however, at the end of it, he was left wondering what was the point of it all. There was a mild titter in the audience and Rushdie obviously felt the need to put the cheeky bloke in his place. He replied by saying that the very same question was asked by ‘a very pretty woman in a saree’ many years ago, in New Delhi. He then went on to caricature the Indian accent, replete with wild gesticulations (much to the merriment of the audience). Finally, he answered the question in a couple of sentences: he wrote the novel because he wanted to show that individual memories—of people who have lived through a particular epoch— can be at variance with the official version of history.

In a literary blog hosted by a broadsheet, there was a lively discussion after Midnight’s Children won the ‘Best of Bookers’. There were quite a few postings which stated that Midnight’s Children was not a worthy winner and compared it unfavourably to the novels of Marquez (which was strange seeing as Marquez, being a Latin American, non-English, writer, had never been short-listed for the Booker). Some others made the discovery that Midnight’s Children owed a lot to Grass’s Tin Drum. While the Tin Drum influence—and it is true that few seem to have noticed it—is probably there, in my view, Midnight’s Children is not at all derivative, and the influence—inspiration is the word I would prefer—detracts not a jot from its endlessly inventive resplendence. Let’s all hail Rushdie!

Book of the Month: The Sea (John Banville)

John Banville, the veteran Irish writer of more than a dozen novels, won the 2005 Man-Booker prize for The Sea. It was a surprise winner, piping the bookies’ favourites Arthur & George (Julian Barnes) and Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) to the post.

The Sea, at 260 odd pages, is not a long novel. Max Morden—Max, we are told, has changed his name, but the reason remains tantalizingly unexplained—an art historian, is the narrator. He has come to a seaside retreat, allegedly, to complete a book he is writing on the French painter Pirre Bonnard. He has been recently widowed, his wife, Anna, having lost her battle against cancer a few months earlier. But there is a reason why Max has chosen to come to this particular retreat, ‘the Cedars’. When he was growing up Max used to come to this seaside resort, which he somewhat mockingly refers to as Ballyless, every year, with his parents. The family was not rich enough to afford to rent ‘the Cedars’ in those days, and stayed in a chalet, instead. During one of his summer vacations Max becomes friendly with the children of the Grace family, a family several rungs above Max’s, who are renting ‘the Cedar’ that summer. Max even develops a crush, first, very briefly, on the mother, Connie, and then, on the daughter, Chloe. He spends a lot of time with Chloe, a haughty, mercurial girl who seems to take special pleasure in tormenting Max and Myles, the latter Chloe’s twin brother who is mute-or is he?; it is left, again, unexplained—and has got webbed feet. Max has a justifiable suspicion that his amative exchanges with Chloe have not gone unnoticed by Rose, the children’s nineteen-year old governess.

The narrative progresses at three levels, each one relating to different stages in Max’s life: the reminiscence of the fateful summer Max spent all those years ago in ‘Ballyless’ with the Graces; reminiscence of Anna’s illness and the events surrounding it; and the present—here we are introduced to an interesting secondary character, Colonel Blunden, who is so ‘old world colonelish’ in everything he does and says that Max can’t help wondering if he, the colonel, is not an impostor.

Banville, a former literary editor of Irish Times, is prodigiously gifted with words. He seems incapable of writing anything less than glistening. The prose, a trademark of all Banville novels is hypnotic. It is so lyrical at times that it is like reading a poem, be it description of nature or Max philosophising on the human condition. This is another thing about Banville: he is not just a novelist; he is also a philosopher. In The Sea, via its narrator, Banville offers interesting comments, not necessarily insights, on the feelings of dislocation and strangeness that are, surely, experienced by all sentient humans at some or the other time in their existence.

The Sea is a finely paced novel. Banville is a master of complex patterns, of which the reader remains aware throughout, notwithstanding the digressive meditations. The narrative, thus, has to it a delightfully meandering sense. Yet, the reader is acutely aware of a sense of foreboding. You know it is not going to end well; there is a tragedy lurking somewhere, but you can’t really put your finger on it. You are sucked in by the mesmerizing quality of the narration. The end, when it finally arrives with its fiendish twist, leaves you gasping with admiration.

Banville is frequently described as a ‘writer’s writer’, and compared to Nabakov in respect of his prose. He also, perhaps understandingly, invites the criticism of being self-consciously stylistic and sententious. If epithets such as ‘velutinous’, ‘horrent’, cinereal’, and ‘caduceus’—I had to look up the meanings of all these words as also the erudite pun on the name of Anna’s physician—irritate you, he is probably not the writer for you. The Sea, I should add, though, is not just about linguistic inventiveness. Underneath the sizzle there is solid substance. It is a worthy Booker winner.