A Beginning: Review of Joseph Anton (and some personal nostalgia)

Begun 30 January 2013

DSCN1357 - Version 2So. .  . . where to begin my blog, which is to focus primarily on books? I have spent a week constructing pages of background information, some of which may be interesting, and now I must actually write a post. There can be no more excuses. So, if you “are sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.” Pause for a nostalgic digression into memories of Listen With Mother. (If you are of a certain age and were raised in England, you probably get the reference). I was sure I had a recording of Fauré’s Dolly Suite, the theme tune, but I can’t find it, and I organize my music as obsessively(?) as I organize my books.

I should get to the point, which is with what book to begin.  I think I’ll begin with Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie, Salman. Joseph AntonA Memoir. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2012.

DSCN1362When it comes to the lives of writers and artists, one wants, I suppose, to see if the life somehow explains the work or whether the work explains the life. I always experience a slight frisson of guilt—no not quite guilt but possible self-doubt—whenever I read the autobiography of a living person. It is just morally easier at times, I think, to read the life of someone long gone, who has already become, for want of a better word, history. When reading about those still living, I’m afraid I’m pruriently gazing into someone’s private drawing or even bedroom room. But then, of course, if the book is autobiography or an authorized biography, I suppose I could argue that the subject of the work has actually raised his or her blinds and turned the light on. But if the autobiographer has raised the blinds, turned the light on and invited the reader into his or her private sanctum, to what extent can we believe what he or she reveals to us?  To just what extent is an autobiographer actually a trustworthy narrator? When we write, especially about ourselves, do we not construct fiction? And with Rushdie, we are dealing with one of our time’s great fabulists.

DSCN1362Despite these reservations, I read the book and found it something of a page-turner for reasons both political and personal, private and public. We all know the bare facts about what happened to Salman Rushdie. We know about the fatwa, about the years he needed protection. We also probably realize that, as the dust jacket to the Knopf Canada edition says,  “what happened to Salman Rushdie was the first act of a drama that. . . is still unfolding every day.” So I approached the book hoping for some insights into that public, political “drama” even as I  also wondered just how he coped with the situation of being condemned to death for something he had written and how he dealt with the protection that differed at times very little from long-term house arrest with little opportunity for parole. And then, too, there was the desire to catch a glimpse possibly of the person. What is he like? Would I like him? Would he like me? What do we share? I did discover that for a short while we actually lived only a few blocks from each other in SW6. Did we pass on the street, pick over the same potatoes in the greengrocer’s shop?  Were we on the same number 22 bus? Who knows? What I do know is that Joseph Anton  is a thought provoking volume.

DSCN1362Covering the period 1989 to 2002, the book is in no way a daily journal; it is a thoughtfully arranged narrative describing how an unhappily married husband, divorced father, well-known writer, and ordinarily complex human being is forced to the apparent margins of his own life, compelled to be the main character in an absurdist nightmare. Joseph Anton reveals the paradox of a public life being forced into hiding and a private life being lived in full view of strangers. How do you fall in love when Special Branch is making coffee in the kitchen or watching television? Or worse, how do you deal with fracturing relationships when your every movement is monitored? And just how do you deal with the mind-numbing irritation of every day life being lived with long-term uninvited guests who call you “Joe”? With returns to smoking, anger, near despair, with the support and courage of friends, eventually with hope and self-assertion, and ultimately, one suspects, by writing a memoir, a memoir written in an often ironic third person.

DSCN1362This choice of third person narration suggests a carefully constructed distance from the writer’s recollections even as he shares them. Further, it underscores the “gulf between the private ‘Salman’ he believed himself to be and the public ‘Rushdie’ he barely recognized” (130) and allows the reader to understand that the narrator of Joseph Anton, having been driven to turn “himself into a sort of fictional character” (165) is distancing his personal self from Joseph Anton, the character he was forced to create.

DSCN1362The biographer narrator records with candour some of the most intimate events of Salman’s life, events in many ways unrelated to the political situation of Rushdie and events that, at times, leave the reader feeling something of a voyeur. This technique retains for Salman his personal self. For the reader, the biographer crafts a narrative that fulfils quite closely what one might expect of a traditional comic arc for a story: background and scene setting, the disruptive event/challenge, the descent into chaos and the despair of having “fallen into the trap of wanting to be loved…and paying the price” (277), the glimmers of hope and glimpses of freedom, and then freedom and insight that “it was better to lose one’s illusions and live in the knowledge that the world was real and that no woman could make it what he wanted it to be. That was up to him” (631). This is a rather satisfactory ending to the narrative and perhaps to the personal elements of the work. The last sentence reads, “He walked out of the Halcyon Hotel onto Holland Park Avenue and stuck out an arm to hail a passing cab” (633). Joseph Anton no more, Salman Rushdie is free.

DSCN1362But the reader is not totally free. One cannot close this book, put it on a shelf and forget about it. Joseph Anton confronts the whole question of freedom of thought and speech and challenges its reader, me, to consider just what I would be prepared to risk in support of a principle. At what point do inactivity and silence actually become collaboration with evil? Where would I/do I stand?  In support of the beleaguered writer or with the pusillanimous and worse individuals and institutions who urged appeasement, silence, retraction, accommodation with the forces of oppression, who accused Rushdie of causing his own problems? I can only hope that I will never be brought to such a trial, even though, as the last chapter of Joseph Anton reminds us, we live in a world of “menaces and fears” (629).  I hope I would have the strength for irony.

DSCN1362All in all, Joseph Anton, though it has something of a comic structure, is not a happy book and is not particularly optimistic about the future. It is, however, a highly satisfying book. It works on the level of narrative, it presents us with a frank portrait of a very human man, and it asserts the efficacy and morality of literature which “journey[s] to the truth upon the waters of make-believe” (630).

finished 1 February 2013

Odd thought about synchronicity. Earlier this week as I was drafting this post, I commented on not being able to find my recording of Fauré’s Dolly Suite. Well as I worked away on the afternoon of 30th January at 2:30 pm, what should CBC’s Radio Three play? Gabriel Fauré, Suite (Piano) N1- Op56- Berceuse performed by Katia and Marielle Labeque.



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