Posts Tagged ‘Charles McGrath’

Salman Rushdie: “I’ve got a house, I’m going home. Protect me.”

Friday, September 21st, 2012
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Breyten Breytenbach, an unnamed editor, Philip Gourevitch, and the man himself (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Bright spots  in dark times: My photographer friend Zygmunt Malinowski dropped a note to say he enjoyed the Tom Lehrer video in my post a few days ago, about First Amendment freedoms and  Iranian crazies raising the bounty on Salman Rushdie‘s head.  Then he asked me if I’d see the New York Times‘ Q&A with Rushdie, who has just published a book, Joseph Anton, describing his time in hiding after the 1989 Valentine’s Day fatwa.

Rushdie’s response to the news of $3.3 million for his death:  “I’m not inclined to magnify this ugly bit of headline grabbing by paying it much attention.” In his interview with Charles McGrath, he recalled the imposition of the fatwa, and the day “my picture of the world got broken”:

“We all have that — we all have a picture of the world we live in and we think we know what shape it has and where we are in it. Another word for that would be sanity. And then suddenly it was very difficult to know what shape the world was and where I stood in it and how to act. All these decisions we make and suddenly I didn’t know anything. Another name for that is insanity. I do think there was a period there when my sanity was under intense pressure and I didn’t know what to say or do or how to act. I was literally living from day to day.”

Rushdie unevenly occupies the momentous role that has been given him. He has always struck a disheartening pose, seesawing between cerebral heroism and the uncharitable dig at an ex-wife, between high-mindedness and silliest self-serving vanity – he’s too small for the historic chair he sits in.  So let’s pick out the best.  Here are a couple highlights from the interview (you can read the whole thing here):

Q. … the book also has a bigger agenda. It’s meant to document something important?

A. I found myself caught up in what you could call a world historical event. You could say it’s a great political and intellectual event of our time, even a moral event. Not the fatwa, but the battle against radical Islam, of which this was one skirmish. There have been arguments made even by liberal-minded people, which seem to me very dangerous, which are basically cultural relativist arguments: We’ve got to let them do this because it’s their culture. My view is no. … Killing people because you don’t like their ideas — it’s a bad thing. We have to be able to have a sense of right and wrong which is not diluted by this kind of relativistic argument. And if we don’t we really have stopped living in a moral universe.

Q. What advice do you have for someone who might find himself under a similar threat?

A. Two bits of advice, really. One has to do with the head and the other is practical. The thing in the head is: Don’t compromise. It’s a question of self-knowledge, knowing who you are And why you did what you did. Stand up for it. The other thing is that if I were to do it again, I would refuse the hiding. I’d say: “I’ve got a house, I’m going home. Protect me.”

Britlit’s bad boy is coming to town: Martin Amis reading and colloquium on Monday, May 7

Friday, May 4th, 2012
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Not happy in León, Spain, 2007 (Creative Commons)

Martin Amis is celebrated as one of the leading writers in English today. In Britain, he is almost as famous for his pyrotechnic quips and spats, which regularly launch front-page media frenzies.

He will give a reading at Stanford at 8 p.m. on Monday, May 7, in Cemex Auditorium in the Knight Management Center. Amis will also hold an 11 a.m. colloquium the same day in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall. Both events are free and open to the public.

Amis has written a dozen novels, as well as a memoir, two collections of stories and six nonfiction works.  His next book, Lionel Asbo: State of England, a satirical stab at England through the story of a violent criminal who wins the lottery, will be published by Knopf this summer.

Amis was foremost in a circle of writers who rose to prominence in the 1970s, including the late Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Craig Raine and Ian McEwan. He has had high-voltage quarrels with at least two of those figures. The one with best chum Hitchens healed seamlessly: “My friendship with the Hitch has always been perfectly cloudless. It is a love whose month is ever May,” he said in an interview.

He is also famous for being one half of an unusual team, a hereditary novelist. His father, Sir Kingsley Amis, has been called the finest English comic novelist of the postwar era; he wrote 20 novels, six collections of poetry, and other works.

Everblooming friendship

The elder Amis, who died in 1995, was also his son’s earliest critic, lamenting the “terrible compulsive vividness in his style.”

Martin Amis recalled to the New York Times, “He was always saying, ‘I think you need more sentences like ‘He put down his drink, got up and left the room,’ and I thought you needed rather fewer of them.”

As a writer, Amis is known for his lifelong love affair with the English sentence, which he calls “a basic rhythm from which the writer is free to glance off in unexpected directions.”

Amis considers the English sentence as the essential building block of good prose, telling the Paris Review in 1998, “Much modern prose is praised for its terseness, its scrupulous avoidance of curlicue, etc. But I don’t feel the deeper rhythm there. I don’t think these writers are being terse out of choice. I think they are being terse because it’s the only way they can write.”

Charles McGrath of the New York Times said that a typical Amis sentence “tends to be maximalist and attention-grabbing, a riff with all the speakers turned up high.”

Here’s a sample from his most recent novel, The Pregnant Widow:

They walked down steep alleyways, scooter-torn and transected by wind-ruffled tapestries of clothing and bedding, and on every other corner there lurked a little shrine, with candles and doilies and the lifesize effigy of a saint, a martyr, a haggard cleric. Crucifixes, vestments, wax apples green or cankered. And then there was the smell, sour wine, cigarette smoke, cooked cabbage, drains, lancingly sweet cologne, and also the tang of fever. The trio came to a polite halt as a stately brown rat – lavishly assimilated – went ambling across their path: given the power of speech, this rat would have grunted out a perfunctory buona sera. Dogs barked. Keith breathed deep, he drank deep of the ticklish, the teasing tang of fever.

The barbed comments have often distracted from the prose.  In February, Amis created a literary kerfuffle when he said that only “serious brain injury” would make him write for children.  He has tangled with critics Terry Eagleton and Tibor Fischer, columnist Julie Burchill, and others.

“What is important is to write freely and passionately and with all the resources that the language provides,” he said in the Paris Review interview.

“You’re always looking for a way to see the world as if you’ve never seen it before.   As if you’d never really got used to living here on this planet.”