“I was born in the city of Bombay . . . once upon a time.”
Midnight’s Children (p. 3)
I had never heard of Salman Rushdie before February of 1989. I heard of him for the first time when many people heard of him for the first time: the announcement of the fatwa upon him over the publication of The Satanic Verses. I, like so many other people, was appalled. It drove me and my two best friends to walk into the B. Dalton at the Mall of Orange to see if they were carrying the book that weekend. They were, but it didn’t look as if anyone was interested in buying it.
That was it for a very long time. I knew he was still alive and knew he was still publishing, but I didn’t know anything about him or the kind of books he wrote other than the fatwa. It wouldn’t be until early 2000 before I would actually read anything written by Rushdie. At that time I was reading my way through the Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century, the second most recent book on the list (Ironweed was the only more recent entry on the list). I found it an extremely difficult read, but very well-written and I decided that perhaps it was about time to read The Satanic Verses. I did, reading it that fall, and loved it, thought it utterly brilliant, one of the best novels I had ever read (I still hold that opinion as will be seen when it finally appears in my top 100). From there, I set out to start reading all of Rushdie. Not long afterwords, I discovered, among the remainders at Powell’s, signed first editions of both the British and American editions of The Ground Beneath Her Feet. For just a few dollars, I could have signed Rushdie books. Then he came to Powell’s (a journey delayed by a year because his original appearance was scheduled for September 18, 2001 and he decided that perhaps it wasn’t safe to be flying). I was able to get him to inscribe my first editions of The Moor’s Last Sigh and The Satanic Verses. Of all my books, probably the only one that means more to me than that inscribed first edition of The Satanic Verses is my inscribed copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
As I pointed out a few days ago, Rushdie is one of the world’s foremost literary talents, perhaps the world’s greatest living writer. He can write amazing, inventive novels, but can also produce short stories, a children’s book, collections of essays an insightful guide to one of my favorite films and even a screenplay of his own work. Of his books, I have first editions of all of them except for the following: Grimus and Midnight’s Children, as they are hard to find and extremely expensive, and The Wizard of Oz and The Screenplay of Midnight’s Children, because neither was printed in hardcover.
Rushdie’s talent manifests in a variety of ways. First, he has a special blend of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism that seems to combine with Joycean modernism and a wonderful sense of humor. He has a deep understanding, not only of India and Pakistan, but of London and of the United States. He has written phenomenal novels throughout the years, possibly the best novel of the 80’s (The Satanic Verses), one of the best of the 90’s (The Moor’s Last Sigh) and one of the best of the 00’s (Shalimar the Clown). His style, his range and his humor can all be seen in one magnificent scene in Satanic Verses:
“Gibreel Farishta floating on his cloud formed the opinion that the moral fuzziness of the English was meteorologically induced. ‘When the day is not warmer than the night,’ he reasoned, ‘when the light is not brighter than the dark, when the land is not drier than the sea, then clearly a people will lose the power to make distinctions, and commence to see everything – from political parties to sexual partners to religious beliefs – as much the same, nothing-to-choose, give-or-take. What folly! For truth is extreme, it is so and not thus, it is him and not her; a partisan matter, not a spectator sport. It is, in brief, heated. City’ he cried, and his voice rolled over the metropolis like thunder, ‘I am going to tropicalize you.”
The Satanic Verses (p. 365)
- Grimus (1975) – His first novel, a strange science fiction novel that isn’t particularly good and has very little to show that it is written by a truly great writer. Not published in the U.S. until 1979.
- Midnight’s Children (1981) – Nothing could have prepared the reading public for this novel. Rushdie had moved to a prominent publisher (Jonathan Cape, published by Knopf in the U.S.), but the success was unprecedented. The novel went on to win the Booker Prize, was later awarded the Booker of Bookers on the 25th anniversary of the Bookers (in 1993) and was again voted the Booker of Bookers for the 40th anniversary in 2008. It appeared on the Modern Library list at #90 and will appear on my own Top 100 list. First U.S. editions of the novel start at about $350.
- Shame (1983) – A solid follow-up to Midnight’s Children. While Children had focused on India and the children born at the moment of the country’s birth, this novel was about Pakistan, the other part of India formed at that same moment.
- The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey(1987) – A small interesting book about the problems in Nicaragua in the 1980’s. Rushdie had journeyed there in 1986 and this book was the result, his first non-fiction book. The first Rushdie book published by Viking.
- The Satanic Verses (1988) – The novel that made Rushdie the most widely known writer on the planet. Not widely read, as it is extremely difficult and many people give up. Yet, it is a phenomenal book, the one that won me over as a Rushdie fan, a magnificent opus that deals with both Islam and London all at once, funny and serious, brilliant and bawdy. In my opinion, it is the single best work of literature published in my lifetime.
- Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) – Ostensibly a children’s book, a book that Rushdie had promised his son he would write and kept working on in the first months after the fatwa. But this is a masterful work that combines humor and fantasy and is easily the most approachable of his books.
- Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981 – 1991 (1991) – His first collection of essays and reviews. It includes penetrating analysis of his work (specifically the unreliable narrator at the heart of Midnight’s Children), films (including the sad but humorous fact of first discovering the films of Satyajit Ray, not in India, but in London), current events (a rather interesting piece of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, who had once threatened to sue Rushdie for a line in Midnight’s Children) and literature (including a fantastic review of If on a winter’s night a traveller and a review of Pynchon’s Vineland that mentions rumors about what Pynchon was working on, including a book on Mason and Dixon – years before Pynchon would indeed publish that work).
- The Wizard of Oz (1992) – Rushdie wrote this short book as part of the British Film Institute Series on Film Classics. It discusses the film itself as well as Rushdie’s great love for it (it is his favorite film). While several major film writers have participated in the series, Rushdie is the only heralded fiction writer to take part.
- East, West: Stories (1994) – Rushdie’s only collection of short fiction so far. Rushdie had moved to Pantheon who described it as “his first major work of fiction since The Satanic Verses” which isn’t fair to Haroun. It includes “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” his short story inspired by The Wizard of Oz and “Chekov and Zulu”, a short story connecting Star Trek with Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
- The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) – I think I pretty much said all I need to say about this yesterday.
- The Screenplay of Midnight’s Children (1999) – Rushdie had written a screenplay for a planned 5 episode, 5 hour television mini-series of his novel. The introduction explains how the BBC decided to make a television adaptation in 1993 after the novel won the Booker of Bookers, that Rushdie was finally brought in to write the script in 1996 after previous attempts hadn’t panned out and how in 1998, the decision by Sri Lanka not to allow filming ended the attempts to film the novel. With a new film version being worked on currently and Rushdie involved, perhaps parts of the script will finally come to life.
- The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) – The tough thing about writing a novel about rock and roll is that there is no music to go along with it. You can write all the lyrics you want, but there’s no music. Well, Rushdie fixed that problem. His magnificent song, “Beneath Her Feet”, whose lyrics appear on page 475 of this magnificent book were put to music by U2 and became the fantastic song “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” Sadly, it was wasted in the horrible film, The Million Dollar Hotel, but there is a video for the song, complete with Rushdie in it.
- Fury (2001) – A novel full of anger, anger at the world, anger at women, anger at New York City. It was published just before 9/11 by Random House. It is one of his shortest novels. It also has a rock and roll scene, dealing with the famous shows in New York City when Bruce Springsteen performed “American Skin” in light of protests by NYPD. With the protagonist being a dollmaker and the amount of anger, I tend to link this book in my brain with Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth.
- Step Across This Line: Collected NonFiction 1992-2002 (2002) – Rushdie’s second collection of essays and reviews. It includes the introduction from the screenplay, his piece on The Wizard of Oz and a piece about working with U2.
- Shalimar the Clown (2005) – One of the best books so far this century as I pointed out here.
- The Enchantress of Florence (2008) – This seems like a fancy for Rushdie, a little almost-genre piece in the same manner of Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road.
- Luke and the Fire of Life (2010) – His next novel, not coming out until November. I can’t wait.
” ‘Happy endings must come at the end of something,’ the Walrus pointed out. ‘If they happen in the middle of a story, or an adventure, or the like, all they do is cheer things up for a while.’ ”
Haroun and the Sea of Stories (p. 202)