As chronicled

August 12, 2022 may be marked down as yet another sorry date in the sorry history of what was once quaintly known as the Rushdie Affair. This was the date on which Salman Rushdie was severely assaulted at the Chautauqua Institution, in New York state; it has some ugly predecessors.

As a reminder: Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, was published in September 1988; a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran on February 14 the following year, called for “valiant Muslims” to kill not only the novel’s author but also his editors and publishers. In the summer of 1991, both Rushdie’s Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, and his Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, were attacked, Igarashi fatally. On July 2, 1993, the Sivas massacre took place: thirty-seven people died in an arson attack that nonetheless missed its intended victim, Rushdie’s Turkish translator, Aziz Nesin.

A parallel chronicle may be extracted from the TLS of those years; its starting point is all but prelapsarian in tone. Robert Irwin could review The Satanic Verses (in the TLS of September 30, 1988) with no hint of the nightmares to come. Instead, Irwin notes Rushdie’s copious inventiveness, his playing on “a well-known incident in the life of the Prophet Muhammad” and something about a “grim religious bigot in exile in London (who is and is not the Ayatollah Khomeini in exile in Paris” )”. In Irwin’s view, The Satanic Verses is “several of the best novels [Rushdie] has ever written.” Writing in the TLS a couple of months later, Malise Ruthven thinks it “no great surprise” that the novel has become controversial, given the precedents; “the row seems set to last for months”.

Just before the fatwa is issued, Eric Korn dares to imagine how the contention over The Satanic Verses is being received in hell. The situation in England is “particularly pleasing”, as those who “eagerly shouted for the banning of Gay News“are outraged to find foreigners can play the same game; A taste for drawing comparisons between “Islamic bigotry and Christian forbearance” is swiftly discovered. All this is good for the Satanic “recruitment drive”. (This would be condemned today by the zealots of Twitter – as has been a flippant tweet from the novelist and the chair of the Society of Authors Joanne Harris – as cause for the author to lose their job; what a contrast between such righteousness and Rushdie’s irreverence.)

After the fatwa, by contrast, the TLS devotes its cover wholly to an open letter that calls for the withdrawal of threats against Rushdie’s life and support for the right to freedom of expression. The signatories – more than 700 of them – include Chinua Achebe, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Brodsky, Caryl Churchill, Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, Ved Mehta, Susan Sontag, Mario Vargas Llosa … just a typical issue of the TLSreally.

The “row” does not go away as the 1990s roll on. Timothy Brennan deplores the “relentless moral posing” prompted by the Rushdie affair; At an international book fair in Brussels, Kristien Hemmerechts notes that Iran is represented by a single book, the Qur’an, while a single novel is conspicuously missing from Penguin’s stand. Christopher Hope reports from a conference during which Hanif Kureishi makes a “temperate and eloquent plea” for the publication of the novel in paperback. (Rushdie’s publisher does not respond.) When The Satanic Verses does finally appear, in very plain paperback form, the following year, it is by an anonymous consortium (of publishers, writers et al) to whom it is now dedicated. Review copies come with the hapless request that the book be reviewed “outside the context of the political/religious issues which has so distorted its merits as a work of art and the life of the author”.

By this point, an uncontroversial passage from The Satanic Verses is deemed good material for the TLS‘s weekly guessing game, “Author, Author”; in Zimbabwe, the novel is still banned, alongside the works of Jackie Collins. The TLS‘s editor Ferdinand Mount argues for every effort to be made to have the fatwa lifted (“it may take 20 or 30 years of explanation and isolation”). Rushdie is heard, on the fatwa’s third anniversary, rejecting the idea that he should retreat to “well-guarded obscurity”: “I refuse to be an unperson. I refuse to forego the right to publish my work”.

Back to the boring old world of literary pique, ill temper, etc. Philip Pullman – formerly president of the SOA to Harris’s chair – tweeted thus, on August 18:

I don’t care how many people enjoy it, fiction in the present tense is an ABDICATION OF NARRATIVE RESPONSIBILITY. I resent having to re-calibrate my entire attitude to time whenever I open a novel in the present tense. Away with them!

This recalls an argument Pullman aired twelve years ago, when the Daily Telegraph ran a story with the headline “Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher criticize Booker prize for including present-tense novels”. Pullman smartly countered in the Guardian. He hadn’t read that year’s Booker-shortlisted novels. He just found the present tense rather “claustrophobic”: “if every sound you emit is a scream, a scream has no expressive value.”

Perhaps “all the young present-tense storytellers” who Pullman accused of inexpressive screaming disagreed, but there was food for thought here. Perfect material, twelve years on, for reduction to a SHOUTY TWEET!

Pictured above: the cover illustration, by Jack Larkin, for the novel Spella Ho by HE Bates, as reissued by Sphere Books in 1967. Our split-spined copy emerged from the corner of an unpromising bookshop in Portsmouth, where the proprietor offered remorseless doses of local gossip into the bargain. We regret that we hadn’t read the novel until now (is Bates one of those authors whose prolific energies may put a reader off?), forceful as it is in its blending of Dickens, D. H. Lawrence and (an obscurer influence) TF Powys . We can see why the TLS made it “First Choice” among the “Novels of the Week” when it was originally published by Jonathan Cape in 1938. The Sphere blurb (“very inventive, very exciting”) came courtesy of VS Pritchett – another signatory to that open letter about the Rushdie Affair.

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