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À mon chevet: Joseph Anton

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
In one of the sessions [of the 48th Congress of International PEN in New York] he was dragged into the heavyweight prize fight between Saul Bellow and Günter Grass. He was sitting next to the German novelist, whom he greatly admired, and after Bellow -- also one of his favorite writers -- made a speech containing a familiar Bellovian riff about how the success of American materialism had damaged the spiritual life of Americans, Grass rose to point out that many people routinely fell through the holes in the American dream, and offered to show Bellow some real American poverty in, for example, the South Bronx. Bellow, irritated, spoke sharply in return. When Grass returned to his seat, he was trembling with anger.

"Say something," the author of The Tin Drum ordered the representative of one-sixth of the human race.

"Who, me?"

"Yes. Say something."

So he went to the microphone and asked Bellow why it was that so many American writers had avoided -- or, actually, more provocatively, "abdicated" -- the task of taking on the subject of America's immense power in the world. Bellow bridled. "We don't have tasks," he said, majestically. "We have inspirations."

Yes, literature still felt important in 1986. In those last years of the cold war, it was important to hear Eastern European writers like Danilo Kiš and Czesław Miłosz, György Konrád and Ryszard Kapuściński setting their visions against the visionless Soviet regime. Omar Cabezas, Nicaragua's deputy interior minister at the time, who had just published a memoir of his life as a Sandanista guerilla, and Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, were there to articulate views not often heard on American platforms; and American writers such as Robert Stone and Kurt Vonnegut did indeed offer their critiques of American power, while the Bellows and Updikes looked inward into the American soul. In the end it was the gravity of the event, not the levity, that was memorable. Yes, in 1986 it still felt natural for writers to claim to be, as Shelley said, "the unacknowledged legislators of the world," to believe in the literary art as the proper counterweight to power, and to see literature as a lofty, transnational, transcultural force that could, in Bellow's great formulation, "open the universe a little more." Twenty years later, in a dumbed-down and frightened world, it would be harder to make such exalted claims for mere wordsmiths. Harder, but no less necessary, perhaps.

-- Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, pp. 77-78
Salman Rushdie's new book is a memoir of the author's years of hiding from the Iranian fatwa in retribution for his excellent novel The Satanic Verses. To give himself some distance, Rushdie wrote it as a novel, about himself in the third person (as an Indian, a "representative of one-sixth of the human race," as he puts it in this excerpt). Rushdie has said that, in the present climate of fear about the direction the Muslim world is taking, he does not think The Satanic Verses would see the light of day if he had written it now.

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