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Making the World Feel Larger

December 2, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments


I awoke this morning to see a tweet from the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson: “Read Zoe Heller’s @nybooks review of ‘Joseph Anton,’ right now.” As you probably know, Joseph Anton is Salman Rushdie’s recent memoir, focusing on the fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini sentencing him to death for his novel The Satanic Verses, and the life he was forced to lead as a result.

I don’t always do what I’m told, but in this case I followed Davidson’s command, clicked on the link she supplied, and was taken to Heller’s review. It’s in the December 20 issue of the New York Review of Books, which hasn’t yet come in the mail. And it’s not behind their paywall, so you can follow the link and read it too. In it, Heller—herself a novelist—ponders the role of fiction.

I’ll quote two passages, not to save you the trouble of reading the full essay but rather, I hope, to entice you to read it in full.

Given how often Rushdie has been accused of writing The Satanic Verses with the express purpose of making trouble, it is understandable that he should wish to highlight the unexpected—the unprecedented—nature of the events that followed the novel’s publication. Even so, his retrospective account of himself as a bookish innocent, bewildered by the world’s coarse intrusion into the literary sphere, seems a little over-egged. By this point in his career, Rushdie, who had already been sued by Indira Gandhi for libelous statements in Midnight’s Children and had already seen his third novel banned in Pakistan, was better qualified than most to appreciate literature’s capacity for eliciting hostile, nonliterary responses.

More troubling, however, than his exaggerated claim to naiveté is the case that Rushdie seems to be making for fiction’s immunity from political or religious anger. In a departure from the standard, liberal notion that literature must be free to offend, he proposes that literature, properly understood, cannot offend. Muslims who were insulted by The Satanic Verses were guilty of a category error: just like Anis Rushdie, in his “unsophisticated” reading of Midnight’s Children, they had confused fiction with other sorts of speech


At various points, Rushdie seems to grow tired of defending the special rights of fiction and moves on to advocating for the extra-special rights of serious, or important, fiction. “He hoped for, he often felt he needed, a more particular defense like the quality defense made in the case of other assaulted books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, Lolita….”

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:


A man living under threat of death for nine years is not to be blamed for occasionally characterizing his plight in grandiloquent terms. But one would hope that when recollecting his emotions in freedom and safety, he might bring some ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast. Hindsight, alas, has had no sobering effect on Rushdie’s magisterial amour propre. An unembarrassed sense of what he is owed as an embattled, literary immortal-in-waiting pervades his book.

The title of this post refers to the essay’s last paragraph. It would do Heller an injustice if I were to quote the entire paragraph. Here’s a portion:

The job of literature, he instructs us in the final pages of this memoir, is to encourage “understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself…to make the world feel larger, wider than before.” Some readers may find, by the end of Joseph Anton, that the world feels rather smaller and grimmer than before.

To which Heller responds with a devastating conclusion. See for yourself.

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