Elie Revisits Rushdie

A fine long piece by Paul Elie on the 25th anniversary of The Satanic Verses came out in Vanity Fair last April, but it strikes a more timely chord now in the wake of Charlie Hebdo.

A Fundamental Fight

It was published in London on September 26, 1988, with a dust jacket describing it as a “great wheel of a book.” Penguin took out an ad (“Wonderful stories and flights of the imagination surround the conflict between good and evil”) and threw a launch party for its list of autumn titles, at which Rushdie met Elmore Leonard and Robertson Davies. Rushdie had a high-spirited dinner with his editors. Lacey, the book’s U.K. editor, recalls the relative naïveté of that evening: “Salman, my paperback colleague Tim Binding, and I vying over who could recite the most Bob Dylan lyrics.”

“I tried to write against stereotypes,” Rushdie wrote, but “the zealot protests serve to confirm, in the Western mind, all the worst stereotypes of the Muslim world.”

London’s Reform Club, on the Pall Mall, has had many illustrious authors as members: Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster—and Graham Greene, who, one winter’s day in 1989, lunched at the club with international writers living in London.

“Rushdie!” he called out. “Come and sit here and tell me how you managed to make so much trouble! I never made nearly as much trouble as that!”

“This was oddly comforting,” Rushdie recalled. England’s most famous living author was making light of the fix he was in.

From hiding, Rushdie issued a statement of regret for “the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.” From Tehran, Khomeini doubled down: “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell.”

The British establishment set itself against the book and its author: from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie (who invoked England’s blasphemy laws), to the foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe (who deemed the novel “extremely critical [and] rude” about Britain). Even Jimmy Carter—he whose presidency had been quashed by Khomeini—weighed in against the “insult to the sacred beliefs of our Moslem friends.”

“I had an argument with Prince Charles at a small dinner party,” Martin Amis recollects. “He said—very typically, it seems to me—‘I’m sorry, but if someone insults someone else’s deepest convictions, well then,’ blah blah blah . . . And I said that a novel doesn’t set out to insult anyone. ‘It sets out to give pleasure to its readers,’ I told him. ‘A novel is an essentially playful undertaking, and this is an exceedingly playful novel.’

“The Prince took it on board, but I’d suppose the next night at a different party he would have said the same thing.”

The idea for the gathering came from Gerald Marzorati, who had carved out an excerpt of the book that ran in the December Harper’s, and then wrote a Rushdie profile for The New York Times Magazine. Why not a public reading of Rushdie’s novel, to be coordinated by PEN and Harper’s publisher John “Rick” MacArthur? “I was given the task of choosing excerpts because very few people in New York had actually read the book,” Marzorati says, pointing out that the roster of participants was very broad—from Abbie Hoffman on the left to Midge Decter on the right. Edward Said was there; so was Leon Wieseltier. Robert Caro was there; so was Tom Wolfe. Joan Didion was there; so was Larry McMurtry.

The Columns held 500 people, and as the writers entered, cries could be heard from the demonstrators outside. “Death to Rushdie! Death to Rushdie!”

The first author stood up to read, and his opening remark was a kind of answer. “My name is Robert Stone,” he said, “but today we are all Salman Rushdie.”

They read and spoke into the evening. Mailer said of the fatwa, “This must be the largest hit contract in history.” Talese recited the Lord’s Prayer. Wieseltier declared that “one day the Muslim world may recall with admiration its late-20th-century Anglo-Indian Voltaire.” Rushdie’s close friend Christopher Hitchens transformed a single sentence from the novel into a brilliant defense of the whole: “To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn; likewise our mountain-climbing, prophet-motivated solitary is to be—Mahound.”

“It was inspiring and electrifying,” recalls Gerald Howard, a former Viking editor who was there. “It broke the fever of fear the literary world was living in.”

Bombs exploded in Cody’s bookstore, on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and half a dozen bookshops in the U.K. The novel’s Japanese translator was shot and killed, its Italian translator stabbed, its Turkish translator attacked. Its Norwegian publisher was shot and left for dead. (He survived.) Two clerics who spoke out against the fatwa—one Saudi, one Tunisian—were shot and killed in Brussels.

Rushdie embraced Islam; then, just as suddenly, he turned away. Many in England’s Old Guard rounded on him, having figured out that he was a popular cause but not a popular person. Sir Stephen Spender coolly explained that “it is mass immigration that has got him into the trouble in which he now finds himself.” Former prime minister Edward Heath lamented that Rushdie’s “wretched book” had cost Great Britain “masses of trade.” Auberon Waugh asked “just how much we should exert ourselves, as deeply stained white imperialists, to protect him from his own people.” Hugh Trevor-Roper trumpeted that he “would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring [Rushdie’s] manners, were to waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.”

“The fact of being alive compensated for what life did to one,” Rushdie wrote in The Satanic Verses, and he has asserted the fact of his aliveness. In the quarter-century since the fatwa, he has published a dozen books and given scores of public readings and addresses. In 2007 departing prime minister Tony Blair successfully recommended him for knighthood. He has fulfilled a lifelong dream of adapting Midnight’s Children into a feature film. And he has seen The Satanic Verses become, remarkably, just another great book on history’s shelf, regarded less as a forbidden book (talk of the fatwa has diminished with the years) than as a classic of contemporary English-language literature.


  1. Good post, thanks.

  2. Quin Finnegan says

    Never read that book. I remember standing in the UW bookstore and finding that passage in which the two guys have a conversation after falling out of a plane (where the blasphemy occurs) and thinking, not just “What’s the big deal here?” but “Ooof … maybe Midnight’s Children is better …”

    I could have been wrong—it may well be a big deal to literary minded Muslims who read the book expecting one thing and are then forced to endure this awful offence against God. But somehow I doubt it. I think the truth here is what seems obvious: that Rushdie has lived under death threats for more than two decades for a passage in a book that the vast majority of his would-be killers never actually read.

    That is horrible. As any writer knows, poets, novelists, and even lousy bloggers know, the only thing that matters is whether your words are being read.

    And to be under the constant threat of death for something that people, even fellow novelists, won’t even bother to read … that is pretty horrible.

    One day I’m going to read that damned book, even if it takes good old Christian charity. Or maybe Midnight’s Children

    • Rufus McCain says

      Excellent point. I may read it someday, too. This article may have convinced me to, to Elie’s credit.

      Elie is an alright guy.

  3. I read Midnight’s Children – and loved it despite myself. The description of the magic (or seemingly magic) chutney was worth the price of admission. It’s the sort of book no one in the West would dare try – except perhaps Tom Wolfe. It seeks to offer India/Pakistan a sort of modern (if not moderne) Aeneid – and Rushdie certainly has the knuckles and teeth to pull it off. I wouldn’t read it again, but I was grateful for the time to read it at all.

    On another note, Chaucer too was a marked man ever since the first reviews came back for the Tales. The Hospitallers and the Templars had made a sort of gentleman’s bet going about who could run him through with a pike first. It wasn’t so much the insults to the clergy – but just the general sense of – well – criticism which the Tales had leveraged against dear Mother Church. Everyone said they read the Tales – much like the Verses – but no one really did, except the Miller’s Tale. Everyone read that one; when the glitterati went clubbing with the King, they made a show of disapproval but behind his back they quoted at length from the Miller’s Tale. It was the literary event of the season. All of which is to say, none of this really happened. And there’s a reason it didn’t. Because while salvation is deadly serious it’s also a comedy – a Divine Comedy – and the Church knows herself well enough that a poet is as welcome as a peasant. For fifty years, Islam had a funny bone – but when it realized this bone would be the contention with which reason would pick a fight. Good for Thomas and scholasticism; not so good for Islam. On the other hand, the True Faith never had anything but the funny bone to consider – it always knew man was made up of nothing but funny bones: and as soon as Adam realized it, he could laugh, not because the notion of original sin was false or worthy of derision, but because it was only too true.

    • Rufus McCain says

      Brilliant, JOB! You need to turn this into a fully developed essay.

    • Quin Finnegan says

      Second! Second!

      Plenty of jokes to be made about the funniest bone of all, not to mention Adam’s rib. And you’ve persuaded me to put Midnight’s Children back on the pile.

      I don’t get the Wolfe connection though—maybe I’ll get it if I read Rushdie?

      • By mentioning Wolfe, I only mean to say he has the expansiveness of myth – although I don’t think he finally has the imagination for it, which is nor more than to say that Thackery, Trollope and James could no more write the Aeneid than Virgil or Ennius could write a social novel of manners. But Rushdie – if we want to extend the metaphor – seems an amalgamation of Virgil and Petronius in a way that Wolfe is not. That said, Wolfe does Petronius VERY well – witness, inter alia, that “Satyricon-Goes-to-College” he wrote a few years back – Charlotte Simmons.

    • I found the Tales to be pedestrian and derivative when it first came out, but I modified my opinion over time.

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