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the complete review - memoir
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B+ : problematic, but with fascinating parts and quite well written -- but also way too long-winded
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Independent on Sunday
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|San Francisco Chronicle
|Steven G. Kellman
|Wall Street Journal
|Michael C. Moynihan
|The Washington Post
Generally quite positive -- though many complaints about length and gossipiness
From the Reviews:
- "Rushdie has become a New York socialite obsessed with name-dropping every celebrity he meets, lauding his own work with shameless abandon, and pointlessly denigrating his ex-wives. Joseph Anton shows both the resolve with which Rushdie confronted the threats to his life, and the sad degree to which the unhinged words of a demented ayatollah helped ruin a superb writer." - Isaac Chotiner, The Atlantic
- "In Joseph Anton many of these themes are skilfully and seamlessly interwoven, but perhaps the moments that stand out for their startling candour and clarity are ones of a person reduced to becoming a banal non-person, the unhinged days and months interminably stretching into years in hiding." - Sunil Sethi, Business Standard
- "You might have thought that a fatwa would put bad reviews in perspective but Rushdie has a tendency to conflate the unflattering with the unsupportive, as if he had enough on his plate without people expressing their opinions. Time has done little to dull old grievances. No press clipping is too insignificant to escape Rushdie’s attention. (...) Rushdie wants to tell the story from both the inside and the outside, to provide the personal narrative and the official history, with the result that wrenching descriptions of marital breakdown are juxtaposed with, and diluted by, long passages about who wrote what for which newspaper, or which television channel broadcast what headline at what time." - Leo Robson, Evening Standard
- "Joseph Anton is overlong and too richly endowed with famed authors and starry events: Rushdie, as he writes, loves to be loved. But as a story of refusal to be cowed the book speaks to the heart, and to conscience." - John Lloyd, Financial Times
- "Joseph Anton conveys a clear and shaming picture of his ordeal -- the soul-numbing humiliations of a subterranean existence, the scurrying from one safehouse to another, and the endless negotiations with security staff for a few slivers of ordinary life. The reader is fully on Rushdie's side, and outraged when, in one of the book's few superbly rendered scenes, fear and confusion force him to re-embrace Islam before some Muslim scholars/busybodies. (...) Yet the memoir, at 650 pages, often feels too long, over-dependent on Rushdie's journals, and unquickened by hindsight, or its prose." - Pankaj Mishra, The Guardian
- "There are gripping (and contentious) moments in the book when he locates his predicament in the larger debates on free speech, in which the idea of book-burning is seen as a reprehensible prelude to the killing of men. But what is most striking here is that while it tells the story of the Joseph Anton years very well -- in most parts, at least -- it is very thin when it comes to being self-critical or even mildly critical of Rushdie’s own actions." - Seema Chishti, Hindustan Times
- "(T)he most gripping, moving and entertaining literary memoir I have ever read." - Amanda Craig, Independent on Sunday
- "The story Rushdie tells is never less than gripping. And there are moments, particularly in his description of his now regretted reconversion to Islam, when he writes as well as he has ever done. And there are also the personal details: an account of a much-married, uxorious man and most insistently, perhaps, the thoughts of a devoted father." - Colin MacCabe, New Statesman
- "When faced with a choice between exercising magnanimity and exacting long-awaited revenge, the author of Joseph Anton almost invariably opts for the latter. (...) Compassion is certainly what he was owed during that troubled era. It is only regrettable that this quality should be so signally lacking from his own judgments on former friends and colleagues." - Zoë Heller, The New York Review of Books
- "(I)n this volume he shows us how the fatwa forced him to come to terms with his past, his craving for love and his deepest assumptions about the world." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "There are sections where the narrative soars, and more than a few in which it plummets. (...) If Joseph Anton builds up a lot of reader-friendly capital in these sections, it exhausts that capital rather too freely as the story continues. While the first days of the fatwa unfold grippingly, there’s a steep drop in momentum as the years drag on. (...) Rushdie shows a cheerful willingness throughout the memoir to show off his less than dignified side. These scenes can be bleakly funny" - Donna Rifkind, The New York Times Book Review
- "Rushdie has now told his version of events and it is more gripping than any spy story. Having resisted commercial attempts to fictionalise his life, he has attempted to tell his own truth. (...) As gossip, this is very entertaining, though not always very edifying. There is also, in the second half of the book, too much about who won or didn't win the Booker prize: too many prizes and speeches, too much of internecine literary politics. (...) This memoir, like the novel it might have been, is full both of telling trivia and profound insights." - Margaret Drabble, The Observer
- "In 10 dramatic chapters, Joseph Anton captures the career of a fallible writer who struggled to sustain the fragile life of the imagination." - Steven G. Kellman, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Joseph Anton is a bid to hose off the crap and retrieve his reputation and character. (...) Though awfully long, solipsistic and of necessity self-serving, Joseph Anton is also funny, painfully moving and absolutely necessary to read." - Nicholas Shakespeare, The Telegraph
- "It really is a most peculiar book, written like the works of Julius Caesar or General de Gaulle, in the third person. If this comparison seems grandiose to you, it would not necessarily do so to the author (.....) As the book galumphingly unfolds, the cast of characters becomes enormous. Special Branch men, politicians and famous writers crowd its pages, yet very few of them come to life. (...) (A)s the narrative continues, this book conveys a bewildering emptiness." - A.N.Wilson, The Telegraph
- "Sad to say, the influence of either Conrad or Chekhov is little in evidence in this massive book. Its chief value is documentary; it is a meticulous account, complete with names and dates and verbatim conversations, of a gruelling experience witnessed from the inside. (...) For admirers of Rushdie's novels, the creeping pervasiveness of Anton's uninflected tone and grubbily obsessive preoccupations may help to explain why this book comes to seem so ponderous, so desperately leaden. Rushdie's decision -- or was it the covertly ambitious Anton's ? -- to cast his memoir in the third person seems particularly questionable." - Eric Ormsby, Times Literary Supplement
- "Joseph Anton demonstrates Mr. Rushdie's ability as a stylist and storyteller. It also serves as an important moral balance sheet. It is quite stunning to be reminded of the craven "religious leaders" who openly suborned Mr. Rushdie's murder, to no response from the police or courts. Mr. Rushdie hasn't forgotten, though it seems everyone else has." - Michael C. Moynihan, Wall Street Journal
- "Joseph Anton is a splendid book, the finest new memoir to cross my desk in many a year. Some may complain that, at more than 600 pages, it is too long, but it never seemed so to me, and as one who reads for a living I am acutely if not excessively sensitive to authorial self-indulgence. To the contrary, the length of the book, and its wealth of quotidian detail, serve to draw the reader into the life that Rushdie was forced to lead, to make his isolation and fear palpable." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
If you're the subject of something as ridiculous, outrageous, and obscene as the death-sentence fatwa invoked against Salman Rushdie for his alleged blasphemy in writing The Satanic Verses you pretty much get carte blanche to be a completely self-righteous asshole or anything else you care to be.
Put all that on paper and it becomes a more difficult proposition: do people want to spend 600 pages in your company ?
Joseph Anton is a memoir, and it is largely the memoir of 'Joseph Anton', the code name Rushdie lived under all those years, the alternative identity that allowed him to write checks and the like without revealing who he really was; he combined names of favorite writers until he hit on the winning combination (discards included: "Vladimir Joyce. Marcel Beckett. Franz Sterne").
A hundred or so pages do cover his pre-fatwa life, and Rushdie kills off (or rather sheds) Joseph Anton in the penultimate chapter, but the Joseph Anton years dominate the book completely.
In a way this is a shame: while he rushes (and annoyingly elides) over much of his early life, the first hundred pages contain much of the most interesting material, and one is left wishing for Rushdie's memoir.
But the fatwa is a defining and very long-lingering moment, and it's understandable that Rushdie concentrates on that.
The other major choice Rushdie makes in his memoir is to write it in the third person, rather than the first person.
Rushdie chooses to approach his life, and Joseph Anton's, like a disembodied observer; the memoir becomes -- in outward appearance -- not a personal one but a would-be documentary one.
This choice is, of course, a catastrophic one.
Oh, the account still reads well enough, the reader easily adjusting to this particular perspective.
But the third person approach gives the veneer of objectivity to what is, naturally, the most subjective of accounts, and this particular, very glossy veneer is so thin that it undermines (or even outright taints) any claims to objectivity.
Since much of the account is documentary -- focused on 'the facts', as they were -- this is problematic: Rushdie presents many 'facts' and details, but his account remains entirely one-sided, from a very limited (and long-isolated) perspective.
And while it's true that many of the counter-parts and actors hardly deserve space to present their often ridiculous sides, it becomes clear that Rushdie's version is a quite limited one.
Rushdie has a way with words, and his manipulation of them, and what is obviously also a very personal manipulation of the facts, makes much of the memoir suspect.
In part one has to admire him: his takedown of former wife Marianne Wiggins could not be more devastating, and she comes off as a complete whacko -- but look at the details (he never mentions the book sales figures for The Satanic Verses (though he does mention that it topped the bestseller lists several times), but manages to slip in that: "Marianne was upset because her just-published novel John Dollar has sold exactly twenty-four copies in the preceding week" ('exactly' !)) and it's obvious there's obviously at least a little (and probably a lot) more to the stories.
Indeed, a concomitant problem with the book is its emphasis on the personal, as Rushdie takes absolutely everything so damn personally -- and harps on it endlessly.
Sure, he was in a situation where he could readily learn who his true friends were, and he was terribly reliant on and affected by the acts of others (including of course many with whom he had nothing whatsoever to do directly, from political and religious figures to newspaper columnists), but here again the one-sidedness of his account leaves a rather unpleasant aftertaste.
It does lead to some fascinating titbits along the way: among his heroes are his literary representatives, Andrew Wylie and Gillon Aitken (though he fails to consider that among the reasons for their undying support for the author -- and making sure The Satanic Verses stayed in print and got a paperback edition -- were surely also purely commercial (short- and long-term) considerations), and he reveals:
Actually, Andrew was driven by passion and emotion and was entirely capable of amazing you by bursting into tears.
Gillon was the killer.
[Aside: if someone is capable of 'amazing you by bursting into tears' it's surely because you don't expect them to -- suggesting the bursting into tears is as much for effect (to amaze you !) as anything else.]
While many admirably stand completely behind him, Rushdie is less forgiving of many others who didn't step up -- and also takes a variety of offenses in other matters, large and small.
While often justified, his nitpicking can get comically excessive, as when he suggests, after the publication of The Ground beneath her Feet, that:
There was no point dwelling on what critics said, they liked the book or didn't, but the strange case of James Wood merited a small footnote.
If you think -- out loud -- that something merits a 'small footnote' (even after just admitting there's not much point in dwelling ...) then address it ... in a footnote.
Instead, Rushdie barrels ahead for sixteen lines of text, comparing Wood's review in The Guardian to the revised one he published in The New Republic, and suggesting:
A critic who contradicted himself according to the literary predilections of his paymasters had, perhaps, some explaining to do.
It's an interesting observation and point -- but Rushdie only offers the observation (from the subjective vantage point of the wronged (and confused) author) and doesn't do anything with it.
Maybe he thinks pointing it out is enough, but after a while these litanies of slights -- perceived, and real -- without much exploration of what might be behind at least some of them becomes rather tiresome -- and also weakens the broader assault against the true outrages (like that death threat).
(Just how far does Rushdie take things ?
He prints an exchange of letters he had with Harold Pinter, chiding him for his behavior towards his other guests ("as your friend I must ask you to STOP IT") when he had Harold and Antonia over for dinner .....)
There are a variety of wonderful details in the book, such as Rushdie's attempt to go incognito in a wig, and bizarre titbits, such as Carrie Fischer ("his closest friend in Hollywood" !) having a party so she can fix him up with ... Meg Ryan (who she felt was more suitable than Padma Lakshmi).
The incessant name-dropping is wearying -- though there are the occasional bits that make it all worthwhile, such as Ronald Harwood, after meeting with UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, reporting that: "Boo-Boo was very sympathetic".
Of course, Rushdie finds validation in this kind of celebrity -- known and being known, seeing and being seen -- and part of his moving beyond his alter ego-identity of Joseph Anton (whose very name couldn't even be known) manifests itself in the complete immersion in being this kind of celebrity, in defining himself by it.
He describes his liberation writing:
He would eat at Balthazar, Da Silvano and Nobu, he would go to screenings and book launches and be seen enjoying himself at late-night hot spots such as Moomba.
He was prepared for the jeering that might come from "some quarters for turning into a party animal", but ultimately this was his response to the decade he had, in many ways, lost due to the fatwa.
So Joseph Anton is an interesting and (im)modestly revealing character study, but it's a very limited memoir.
Even as a memoir of just the fatwa-years (which, readers should remember, still aren't completely over -- there are still nuts out there harping on this, and The Satanic Verses is still essentially banned in India, etc.) it is very limited in what it presents.
While it does drone on a bit, Joseph Anton is certainly also a consistently engaging read -- but the closer one looks at it, the more frustrating the subjective nature of the account is, especially given the many complicated issues and personal relationships that are -- largely only superficially -- dealt with.
It is a bizarrely introspective work that probes almost entirely only on the surface: perhaps another reason that Rushdie chose to write it in the third person.
- M.A.Orthofer, 10 October 2012
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Other books by Salman Rushdie under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Bombay-born Ahmed Salman Rushdie (b. 1947) went to school at Rugby and then Cambridge.
He worked in advertising before turning to writing full time.
Winner of the Booker Prize (for Midnight's Children), he has written a number of international bestsellers and several works of non-fiction.
In 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa, sentencing Rushdie to death for alleged blasphemy.
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