Salman Rushdie is still probably most famous for having had a price on his head larger than the vast majority of book advances.
The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, attracted the ire of the Ayatollah Khomeini who (with charming timing) called for Rushdie’s death on Valentines Day 1989. It would be nine years before Rushdie could again walk the streets without a team of minders in reasonable confidence that his imminent death by violence was unlikely. Reading The Satanic Verses today, it’s rather hard to see what all the fuss was about – granted, it does describe a brothel in which the gals take on the names and personalities of the wives of the Prophet Mahound (no prizes for guessing who he’s based on), and yes, it does unpick the legend that early Surahs (subsequently expunged) of the Qur’an were dictated by Satan rather than the Angel Gabriel and it must be conceded that it points out that texts twice dictated are unlikely to be inerrant… but it’s hardly the sort of thing you’d imagine people plotting murder over. But then again, nor were the Jyllands Posten cartoons.
Rushdie’s work as a fiction writer has rarely been short of spectacular: Midnight’s Children, Fury, The Moor’s Last Sigh, Shalimar the Clown, Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Enchantress of Florence (in addition to The Satanic Verses) are all books that I recommended wholeheartedly – so it seems almost unfair that he’s brilliant at non-fiction too.
Step Across this Line is a collection of journalism, criticism, lectures, speeches and essays written by Rushdie between 1992 and 2002 on an array of topics from writers and writing to football, politics and terrorism: and there’s not a word in it that’s not worth reading.
Rushdie’s fiction is well known for its humour, its inventiveness and for the meticulous research that goes into it, so it’s no great surprise that the non-fiction is similarly full of wit and wisdom: but the breadth of topics written about so charmingly and acutely in Step Across this Line has the capacity to make you gasp with envy.
In the middle of Step Across this Line there are fifty pages of speeches, articles and letters devoted to the ‘Rushdie Affair’ – the various campaigns against The Satanic Verses and Rushdie himself. They are startling not just because of the clarity of their prose (would you be able to put a sentence together while in more of less constant fear for your life?) but because of the moderation of their tone. If I was the target of an organised series of death-threats emanating from Iran I’d be calling down plagues and curses on the whole of Mesopotamia, yet Rushdie’s sorrowful insistence on the sovereign importance of free expression never shows signs of bursting into petulance or rage:
‘No religion justifies murder. If assassins disguise themselves by putting on the cloak of faith, we must not be fooled. Islamic fundamentalism is not a religious movement, but a political one.’
Or how about this:
‘Today, around the world, literature continues to confront tyranny – not polemically, but by denying its authority, by going its own way, by declaring its independence.’
In a 1990 piece for Vanity Fair (it can be found in Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions) Martin Amis paid tribute to Rushdie’s equanimity by saying that ‘if the Rushdie Affair were, for instance, the Amis Affair, then I would, by now, be a tearful and tranquilised 300-pounder, with no eyelashes or nostril hairs, and covered in blotches and burns from various misadventures with the syringe and the crack-pipe.’
In a piece on football (he means soccer – that’s the kind of football where the ball and the goals are the wrong shape), Rushdie gently nails the madness that afflicts every supporter of a sporting team: ‘Each weekend, I turn to the sports pages and my eye automatically seeks out the Spurs result. If they have won, the weekend feels richer. If they have lost, a black cloud settles. It’s pathetic. It’s an addiction. It’s monogamous, till-death-do-us-part love.’ Sound familiar? It does to me.
One hundred and twenty-odd pages of Rushdie’s columns make up part three of this collection, and they are all exemplars of the idea that writing taking the shape of a brief article need not be limited in scope or vision. They contain useful crash-courses in Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri political history, sensitive analyses of terrorism and a neat little evisceration of reality TV.
The section that gives the book its title comes last – the text of the Tanner Lectures which Rushdie delivered at Yale in 2002.
Here, Rushdie really takes off. The theme of borders – of frontiers – has always had a prominent place in Rushdie’s fiction, and in two lectures he riffs freely upon it in a dense, associative stream of prose; they are perfect examples of how an essay may meander and yet speak precisely to a central point. The opening paragraph is particularly captivating:
‘The first frontier was the water’s edge, and there was a first moment, because how could there not have been such a moment, when a living thing came up from the ocean, crossed that boundary and found that it could breathe. Before that first creature drew breath there would have been other moments when other creatures made the same attempt and fell fainting back into the waves, or else suffocated, flopping fishily from side to side, on the same seashore and another, and another. There were perhaps millions of these unrecorded retreats, these anonymous deaths, before the first successful step across the waterline. As we imagine the scene of that triumphant crossing – our volcanic young planet, the smoky, sulphurous air, the hot sea, the red glow in the sky, the exhausted entity gasping on the unfamiliar, inhospitable shore – we can’t help wondering about those proto-creatures. What motivated them? Why did the sea so thoroughly lose its appeal that they risked everything to migrate from the old into the new? What urge was born in them that overpowered even the survival instinct? How did they intuit that air could be breathed – and how, living underwater as they did, could they begin to grow the lungs that allowed them to breathe it?’
Step Across this Line contains a few moments when I feel that Rushdie and I aren’t on the same page (an article on abortion in India springs to mind): but as Clive James noted, the day you find a writer who scribbles like and angel and is impossible to disagree with is the day you stop writing yourself.
As one of the most important living fiction writers (and one positively draped in awards), Salman Rushdie’s place in letters is unquestionable – had he never written anything after Midnight’s Children he’d be a formidable literary presence. But if he wrote nothing other than essays my admiration for him would know no bounds.
The day he releases a collection of poetry, I’ll die of impotent jealousy.