Close Encounters of the Literary Kind, Part IV: Salman Rushdie

The first time I went to hear Salman Rushdie speak was when he published “Fury.” The official publication date of that novel was September 11, 2001 and I saw him just a few months later. He was speaking at the 92nd Street Y on the upper east side of Manhattan and the city was still in a state of shock. The fatwa against Rushdie had just been “lifted” and he was emerging from nearly 10 years of hiding and running for his life. I recall being slightly nervous that something would happen to him while we were in the hall. It’s a curious feeling that overcomes you when you find yourself in a room with a man that so many people want dead. I’m ashamed to say that in a way it was almost exhilarating. I felt as if I was taking part in some global rebellion against the fanatics who wanted to stifle free speech.

Since that time I have heard Rushdie speak on several occasions. Each time I found him to be charming, witty, and quite approachable. He has a magnificent voice and is able to read with a dramatic intensity that few “famous” authors are able to pull off. If there are two categories of the modern writer, the romantic loner who suffers for his art, and the public intellectual, then Rushdie certainly falls into the latter category. Now Rushdie seems to be (at least to me) more at home in being a celebrity than a serious writer. This is not to say that I think his writing has suffered for his celebrity. Well, maybe it has; “Fury” was an unbelievably bad book and “The Enchantress of Florence,” while better than “Fury,” is really a thinly disguised version of Italo Calvino’s magnificent “Invisible Cities.” Nevertheless, every time Rushdie publishes a book I buy it and when he comes around (which is quite often) I try to go and see him.

The thing that strikes me most about Rushdie is how incredibly funny he is. His comedic wit does come through in his fiction, but it is still surprising that he is so funny in person. This is especially heroic considering what Rushdie lived through from Valentine’s Day 1989 to 1999. Part of Rushdie’s charm, I think, is his ability to make light of a world where tragedy lurks around every corner. Although I consider his work (both fiction and non-fiction) to be serious and highly literary, his use and manipulation of language, combined with his ability to beguile us time and again, makes him one of the most imaginative writers of our time. I feel incredibly lucky to have met him on more than once occasion.

His latest novel, “Luka and the Fire of Life,” is just out. Although I have yet to read it, I’m told that book marks a return to form for Rushdie. The book was written for his youngest son, Milan, and is a sort of sequel to his tremendously popular “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” written for his older son during the ten years he lived under the fatwa. Both books deal with the presence and importance of stories in our lives.

This past Monday (November 29, 2010 to be exact) I took a group of four SNHU University Honors students and a former student who now adjuncts for us to see Rushdie speak with the fabulous Maria Tartar at Harvard. Although Rushdie did not give a reading, he did read two brief passages from “Luka and the Fire of Life.” In addition he discussed literature, especially folklore, fairy tales, and children’s literature with Tartar, a specialist in that area. The conversation was extremely interesting and often enlightening. Rushdie has so much to teach us about understanding not only literature, but the human condition as well. One of the main points Rushdie made (and has made several times in the past) is that humans are the only story-telling animals that we know of. I couldn’t agree with Rushdie more here. It seems to me that our humanity is based largely upon our capacity to imagine and recount stories.

So, last Monday I made my way down to Cambridge with some students to hear Rushdie and have some books signed. It is truly a pleasure to share my passion with students and see them take to it in the way that a teacher can only hope they will. For each of the students, this was the first time they met Rushdie and had a book signed by someone of Rushdie’s stature. And although “they” (his people?) would not allow us to pose for a picture with the great story-teller, we did come away from the event with a sense that we experienced something rather special.

Next semester I am teaching a course for the University Honors Program called “Books to Die For,” (thanks to Nicholas Hunt-Bull for the fantastic title) and Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” is on the syllabus. Two of the students who were at the reading will be in that class.


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