David Blackburn

Zoe Heller versus Salman Rushdie and Joseph Anton

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.

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