On Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton

120917_r22563_p233First, David Remnick in the New Yorker:

Twenty-three years after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued his death warrant on Salman Rushdie and forced on the novelist a decade of hellish seclusion, Rushdie is publishing this week a brilliant memoir of those years of endurance, called “Joseph Anton.” (Rushdie’s security detail asked that he devise an alias and “Joseph Anton”—the first names of Conrad and Chekhov—is what he chose.) Readers of the excerpt from Rushdie’s new book that was published here earlier this month could readily sense the shaming helplessness of his experience and his astonishing capacity to tell the story straight. There is in the memoir a kind of absolute honesty, a willingness to pass clear-eyed judgment on everyone involved—including, most ruthlessly, himself. “Joseph Anton,” which is written in a deliberately distancing, yet scrupulously accurate, third-person voice, is, in its way, as important a book as “Midnight’s Children,” the novel that gave birth to the Rushdie phenomenon, in 1981.

Second, Pankaj Mishra in the Guardian:

There are fascinating details about Rushdie's parents in the memoir's early pages, which also appealingly evoke his years as a struggling writer with his first wife, Clarissa; few readers would fail, later in the book, to be moved by the account of her death and Rushdie's grief-tinged recall of his superseded self. Rushdie engagingly reveals the autobiographical energies that went into the making of such novels as The Satanic Verses and Fury. Anton's Herzog-style letters, addressed variously and randomly to famous people, critics, and even God, effectively evoke the mind of an isolated and hunted man.

Yet the memoir, at 650 pages, often feels too long, over-dependent on Rushdie's journals, and unquickened by hindsight, or its prose. Ostensibly deployed as a distancing device, the third-person narration frequently makes for awkward self-regard (“The clouds thickened over his head. But he found that his sentences could still form … his imagination still spark”). A peevish righteousness comes to pervade the memoir as Rushdie routinely and often repetitively censures those who criticised or disagreed with him. The long list of betrayers, carpers and timorous publishers includes Robert Gottlieb, Peter Mayer, John le Carré, Sonny Mehta, the Independent (evidently the “house journal for British Islam”), Germaine Greer, John Berger and assorted policemen “who believed he had done nothing of value in his life”. Small darts are also flung at James Wood, “the malevolent Procrustes of literary criticism”, Arundhati Roy, Joseph Brodsky, Louis de Bernières and many others.