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Peer Review: Rushdie on the Richter Scale

By (July 1, 2008) No Comment

The Enchantress of Florence

By Salman Rushdie
Random House, 2008

In this regular feature we review the reviewers who review new books

An ambitious new book from a world-renowned novelist is an earthquake on the bustling islands of publishing houses, periodicals, and bookstores, and what follow the earthquake are the aftershocks of book reviews. None of the reviews of Salman Rushdie’s newly-released The Enchantress of Florence is going to surpass the magnitude of the book itself, as sometimes happens—can you even remember which book Dale Peck was reviewing when he famously lambasted Rick Moody?—but what’s notable is the sheer quantity of the resulting tremors. If we disregard the dystopian future when new J.D. Salinger novels come to light, it’s probably safe to say that only Thomas Pynchon can produce such long-lasting reverberations.

Whether Rushdie’s prominence is due to his literary achievements or to the fatwa issued against him in 1989 is by now beside the point; notoriety attaches itself to whom it will and has never been much swayed either way by artistic superiority. So it’s refreshing and not a little surprising that only 2 of the 19 reviews considered here (a record for this feature, I wearily report) include speculations about the role the fatwa played in the creation and meaning of The Enchantress of Florence. In her squawkingly dumb piece for The Australian, Stella Clarke asks, “Would Rushdie now say that 10 years in hiding, 10 years of terror, was worth it?” (Elsewhere Clarke gives us these charmingly crafted sentences: “Rushdie has covertly…and overtly accused aggressive Islamic fundamentalism of a cowardly fear of women’s sexuality. One expression of this is the insistence on women wearing the veil, which he has said, publicly, sucks.”) Amy Wilentz, writing in The Los Angeles Times, deals with the issue more cogently:

The fatwa utterly changed the trajectory of his career. Not often are integrity and righteousness thrust upon a person, much less a novelist. The fatwa granted Rushdie every artistic permission. He could publish whatever he liked.

Wilentz is establishing her argument that The Enchantress of Florence is half-baked and self-indulgent, but her fixation on the fatwa blinds her to the fact that Rushdie earned artistic carte blanche when he won the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children in 1981, and that The Satanic Verses itself was seen by many as something of a self-indulgent mess. Artistic laziness requires far less than a death sentence, and Wilentz is grandstanding by rehashing that famous event.

No, for the most part these reviews are blessedly free of Ayatollahs, as well as happily unfettered by celebrity chef supermodels—only Christopher Hitchens, himself the lone celebrity critic of our cortege, mentions Rushdie’s ex-wife Padma Lakshmi in his review in The Atlantic. (Hitchens also happens to be Rushdie’s personal friend, so his praise of the novel will be ignored here.) The general agreement that these extra-literary items are irrelevant to the book at hand is matched by the remarkable consensus reached by these myriad reviewers about the kind of book Rushdie has written and how it can be categorized in the annals of literature. The grand poobah of reference librarians, Michael Dirda of The Washington Post, describes the novel this way:

Set during the 16th century, The Enchantress of Florence is altogether ramshackle as a novel—oddly structured, blithely mixing history and legend and distinctly minor compared to such masterworks as The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children—and it is really not a novel at all. It is a romance, and only a dry-hearted critic would dwell on the flaws in so delightful an homage to Renaissance magic and wonder.

And indeed, although tastes vary as to the worth of the book (it’s about half and half each way, with a slight majority in Rushdie’s favor), most of the reviewers recognize Dirda’s dichotomy—The Enchantress of Florence is an unstructured heap of a book in the debt of historical romances like Orlando Furioso (four reviewers make this connection) and postmodernist fantasies like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (eight make this one), and its worth, or lack thereof, lies in the richness of Rushdie’s imagination and the wisdom yielded by his adventures.

An uncommon amount of top-tier criticism illuminates Rushdie’s fantasy, describing its fixations and inheritances, the ways in which it is most vibrant and the parts where its spell flickers; and the best of these reviews provide a stronger interpretative supplement to The Enchantress of Florence than any novel has the right to expect.

Of course, in such a large grab-bag there are going to be lazy reviews, and I’ll start by picking on these since, in an ideal world, laziness would never go unridiculed. The eminent John Sutherland, for instance, writing in The Financial Times, is so hardened an offender that he actually advertises how little work he put into writing his piece:

Then Akbar takes centre stage. He is just back from some ingenious torture of an uppity local potentate who made the mistake of growing a mustache longer than the Grand Mughal’s. The emperor has earned rest and recreation with his many wives, among whom his favourite is she whom he has created, Pygmalion-like, in his own mind. She is called Jodha. A quick ride on Mr Google’s mighty engine informs us that a current Bollywood blockbuster (released in February 2008), Jodhaa Akbar, broke all box-office records. It recounts the love story of the Grand Mughal (played by Hrithik Roshan) and a Hindu princess, Jodhaa Bai (played by Aishwarya Rai). The inter-faith theme has provoked riots on the subcontinent. As did The Satanic Verses. Interesting.

Sutherland’s definition of “interesting” is apparently looser than most people’s, but the point is that it’s rare a paid writer openly announces that he composed his review while surfing the Net. Sutherland doesn’t care because he’s relying on his tag-line to do his work for him, and so he ends with the kind of zingy sound-bite you usually get from basketball odds makers: “If The Enchantress of Florence doesn’t win this year’s Man Booker I’ll curry my proof and eat it.”

Elsewhere, in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani prints out a boilerplate denunciation that so closely resembles every other denunciation she’s ever written that you suspect she’s merely replacing the summaries and altering the adjectives from her previous piece. It’s tiresomely ironic to see her write that “the fecund language and exuberant inventiveness that have distinguished Mr. Rushdie’s best novels have given way here to more conventional, even academic constructions”—ironic because in every one of Kakutani’s reviews you are guaranteed to find an equivalent construction, informing you that the adjective novel lacks the adjective noun and adjective noun of the author’s previous work. When Kakutani ends by informing us (without accompanying that information with a trace of analysis) that The Enchantress of Florence is “quite devoid of magic,” you want only to tell her to look to the beam in her own eye.

The redoubtable Joyce Carol Oates’ review in The New York Review of Books is lazy in a different way. Oates’ piece is the longest of any of these by a gaudy margin, and yet take away the endlessly unspooling plot summarization and virtually nothing remains. Oates turns out to have nothing in particular to say, and she goes on and on in her fluent, blandishing prose purely because it is her habit to go on and on. She begins the piece, for instance, with a long disquisition about Rushdie’s 2001 novel Fury, and eventually transitions to the present novel by explaining that

Where the strategy of Fury is to miniaturize by way of corrosive satire, the strategy of Rushdie’s new, tenth novel…is to inflate in the more genial, disingenuous way of fables, fairy tale, and The Thousand and One Nights as narrated by the archetypal storyteller Scheherezade.

This may be so, but it’s an exceedingly minor point coming after ten paragraphs of set-up. You get the sense reading this ambling, arbitrary review that Oates devoted so much space to summarizing Fury for no reason except that she had recently read it.

(Dishonorable mention goes to David Gates in The New York Times Book Review. Gates is a smart and appealingly down-to-earth critic, but he begins he piece with the following disclaimer: “I’m probably not Rushdie’s target audience: in literature, at least, I find the marvelous tedious, and the tedious—as rendered by a Beckett or a Raymond Carver or even a Kafka—marvelous.” Then, having announced his dislike of historical fantasies, Gates proceeds to criticize Rushdie for writing an historical fantasy, leaving the reader to wonder if Gates considers the tautological tedious as well.)

Happily though, most critics rose to the occasion in anticipation of this novel’s shelf-rattling arrival, and taken in sum their reviews address all angles of Rushdie’s style and method. The social and political reverberations of this fable-like fiction are Jerry Brotton’s focus in his Telegraph review. Brotton sees the novel doing double-duty as a stimulating revisionist history, drawing overdue attention to a golden age in the subcontinent that has been obscured in time by the remarkable achievements in Europe. “The spirit of the Renaissance was not confined to Italy,” Brotton writes, “and the Mughal, Ottoman, and Persian courts were also part of the cultural and philosophical conversation of the time.”

In his intelligent piece for The Independent, Aamer Hussein likewise appreciates “Rushdie’s deft reversal of the orientalist gaze.” Tim Adams, writing in The Observer, agrees, declaring that “It is Rushdie’s contention that there was, by the end of the 16th century, not one Renaissance but two.”

But Adams does the reader another boon when he, alone amongst his peers, digs deeper into Rushdie’s debt to Calvino, establishing a contrast between the two novelists that is highly instructive in the reading of both, and which deserves to be quoted at length:

Namechecked in [the endnotes to The Enchantress of Florence] is the writer that Rushdie has most often claimed as a touchstone, Italo Calvino. In his recent collection of essays, Step Across This Line, Rushdie noted that he wanted his later writing to aspire to Calvino’s stated virtues of “lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity.” He suggested that he was searching for something like the Italian’s tone of voice, which “used the language of fable while eschewing the easy moral purpose of, for example, Aesop.” Calvino might be mentioned in the compendious endnotes, but oddly not for the book this one most resembles, Invisible Cities, which played out exactly Rushdie’s storytelling scenario, though between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.

The comparison is in many ways telling, not least because it is hard to imagine two more variant interpretations of the ideas of “lightness, quickness and exactitude.” Calvino prized concision; Rushdie brings to his cross-cultural exchange his expected garrulous hyperbole. The seduction of Calvino’s book lies in the contrast between the modesty and minimalism of his structure and the ornate imagination it contains; all of his ironies arise from that tension. Rushdie forgoes such possibilities by creating a structure often every bit as grandiose and bewildering as the palaces and harems it describes.

The “ornate imagination” and what Helen Dunmore of the London Times calls the “magpie glee” of The Enchantress of Florence are what most often bewitch our reviewers, as when Stephen Abell, in an otherwise pedestrian piece for the Telegraph, delightfully says that Rushdie “has produced his own version of Akbar’s life, happily splashed with its own startling hues; an all dancing, colourful performance leaping up from the pages.”

But it’s also this emphasis on ornamentation that diminishes the structure of the book for many reviewers. Michael Dirda, as we have seen, claimed that The Enchantress of Florence wasn’t really a novel at all. Marco Roth, in his witty and trenchant review for The New York Sun, echoes the sentiment when he writes that it’s “Not so much plotted as patterned in concentric circles of repeating motifs.” Roth, perhaps because he’s young and talented and believes, as all young, talented people should, that he can do better, appreciates Rushdie’s strengths without being dazzled by them, and he describes with amused skepticism even the parts of The Enchantress of Florence he seems to like:

There are pirates, shipwrecks, hidden princesses, lost heirs, and magic mirrors. There are giants, epic battles, and potions that “facilitate one hundred consecutive ejaculations.” “In Andizhan, the pheasants grew so fat that four men could not finish a meal cooked from a single bird,” begins one chapter, and that note of superlative excess gives the tone of the whole.

Good as this is, though, Roth’s bravura diagnosis of these “excesses” in light of recent literary trends is, if poorly fact-checked, even better:

Sir Salman (now a valiant English knight!) appears to be entering the lists to compete with younger novelists of adventure. Recent American novels such as The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay [sic] and The Fortress of Solitude accomplished the elevation of comic book superheroes into intellectual respectability, so much so that it now often seems a young man can only announce himself a proper and popular literary novelist by flaunting his adolescent tastes in print. But none of the current generation of American “boys’ own” novelists has dared to reach back as far beyond his own adolescence to the youth of the novel itself. Take that, Batman; here comes the original caped crusader, Arcalia of the Enchanted Lance!

The Enchantress of Florence is a work of “great intelligence and remarkable egoism,” Roth determines, and it’s the latter vice that Ruth Morse objects to in her notably negative piece in the TLS. In Morse’s view, because Rushdie lards his performance with such an awe-striking quantity of sources and legends, “many stories are sketched rather than told; no character is more than a suggestion and no speech is individual to its speaker.” Morse may be something of the “dry-hearted” critic Dirda invokes, but she has earned her disenchantment by reading as closely into Rushdie’s novels as anyone else. Here she finds common elements in The Enchantress of Florence, Shalimar the Clown (2005), and Fury, linking these novels in the meaningful ways we sought in vain in Oates’ review:

This ninth long fiction is a pendant to the previous one, Shalimar the Clown…. And that book reprised aspects of Fury…. All three books use breathtakingly paced sets of plots, interlinked with back stories, delightedly offending the boundaries of verisimilitude. All repeat elements which combine stereotypes with the writer’s own obsessions: Kashmir, revenge, the longing for peaceful religious and ethnic coexistence, and a savage anger about the perpetual dying of love…. The introduction of Sun Tzu’s Art of War in Shalimar the Clown is more explicit here, emphasized by the contrasts between Italian oligarchy and Mughal monarchy. In Shalimar the Clown, Akbar appeared as the murderer of Anarkali, the dancing girl who enchanted his son, Prince Salim; Salim, better known as the Emperor Jehangir, built the Taj Mahal to memorialize another real, dead, love. In The Enchantress of Florence he is an opium-soaked, conspiring degenerate, a faute-de-mieux crown prince….

You’re not alone if you’ve spotted the error in this otherwise strong passage and know that the Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan, not Jehangir. The mistake provided Rushdie with excellent ammunition to strike back at Morse in a deliciously nasty letter that appeared in the following week’s TLS. As well as glorying in this mistake, which he calls with pointed gender specificity a “schoolgirl howler,” Rushdie mocks Morse for her comparative ignorance of a few picayune details of Mughal court life.

But these are just softening blows before the haymaker. This is the only review to which Rushdie has reacted in print, and one doubts he would have been moved to do so by a few factual errors. Indeed, as we’ve seen, there are far more savage pillories of The Enchantress of Florence than Morse’s, and no critic has been more assiduous than her in uniting Rushdie’s 21st-century novels in common themes and motives. But one line of Morse’s has clearly struck a nerve. Developing her argument that the women in Rushdie’s books tend to be characterized by their “scheming and egotism,” she writes that “the wise women are post-menopausal (and therefore out of erotic action); the young women are dangerously beautiful, and cast the spell of desire.” And she forcibly concludes, “the way the characters repeat what they say and do from book to book, amounts to an assault, which goes beyond the fictional women who are its target.”

Rushdie’s rebuttal is classic:

Finally, the prejudice. Underlying her review is a primitive feminist attack whose thrust is that I take “revenge” on women in my books, which collectively amount to an “assault” on the female sex. Like all beating-your-wife accusations, this is hard for me to disprove. I can only deny it, and point to the many readers, many of them female, who have greatly appreciated the strength of the female characters in my work, from Amina Sinai to Aurora Zogoiby and Vina Apsara. And I must hope that my novel will find more generous and less clumsy readers than Professor Morse.

Ignoring the alarming way that Rushdie correlates bad writing and wife beating, his contention that it’s Morse who is afflicted by prejudice is so badly undermined by this vengeful and sexist little tantrum that it’s hard to imagine any reader, even such estimable people as Aurora Zogoiby and Vina Apsara, surging to his defense.

In fact, Morse is not unique in arguing that perhaps Rushdie’s most significant weakness in The Enchantress of Florence is his chauvinism. Amy Wilentz is nonplussed by the “many women in this book portrayed as desirable objects.” Helen Dunmore likewise spots the “clichés of the pragmatic, good-hearted whore, the disappointed, querulous wife, and the beauty before whom all men bow down.”

Paradoxically, although splendidly, the most stinging critique on Rushdie’s treatment of women comes from Ursula K. Le Guin’s rave review in The Guardian, which also stands out as the best piece of writing to appear in response to the groundswell of The Enchantress of Florence. Le Guin is enthralled by the novel, but look at the deft and devastating way she takes Rushdie to task for his superficial rendering of the distaff side of his dramatis personae:

The men in the book are as hormone-besotted as adolescents. All their derring-do, their battling for cities and empires, comes down to little more than a desire for a bed with a young woman in it. Machiavelli becomes a disappointed middle-aged lecher whose middle-aged wife “waddles” and “quacks” while he looks at her, of course, with loathing. But then suddenly, for a page or two, we slip into her soul; we feel her anger at his disloyalty, her hurt pride as a woman, her unchanged pride in his “dark sceptical genius” and her puzzlement at his failure to see how he lessens himself by scorning what he has that is treasurable and honourable. For that moment I glimpsed a very different book, almost a different author. Then it was back to the dazzling play of fancy and the powerful dreams of men.

Le Guin is too generous to say it outright, but the “different book” she briefly glimpsed is a better book, and the “different author” is one capable of extending the same well-rounded humanity to women as to men.

But it is finally Rushdie’s much-acclaimed inventiveness that wins the day for Le Guin, and it is Le Guin’s open mind and heavyweight intellect that wins the day for us. Inspired by Rushdie’s mainstream fantasy, the great science fiction novelist digresses from The Enchantress of Florence to issue a brilliant defense of “literary fantasy” in a secular and empirical age, and one wishes that David Gates would set aside his Raymond Carver long enough to read it:

Some boast that science has ousted the incomprehensible; others cry that science has driven magic out of the world and plead for “re-enchantment”. But it’s clear that Charles Darwin lived in as wondrous a world, as full of discoveries, amazements and profound mysteries, as that of any fantasist. The people who disenchant the world are not the scientists, but those who see it as meaningless in itself, a machine operated by a deity. Science and literary fantasy would seem to be intellectually incompatible, yet both describe the world; the imagination functions actively in both modes, seeking meaning, and wins intellectual consent through strict attention to detail and coherence of thought, whether one is describing a beetle or an enchantress. Religion, which prescribes and proscribes, is irreconcilable with both of them, and since it demands belief, must shun their common ground, imagination. So the true believer must condemn both Darwin and Rushdie as “disobedient, irreverent, iconoclastic” dissidents from revealed truth.

It’s for gold like this that we read criticism—to learn something even more important than the value of the book under the spotlight. Rushdie’s greatness as a writer may be in dispute amongst these critics, but let’s hope that Le Guin’s is not. May The Guardian keep her evermore well stocked in proof copies.

So it’s on an amicable note that we leave our reviewers. And until the next tectonically huge novel hits the stands, we’ll be lucky if the argument between Rushdie and Morse keeps rumbling in the letters page of the TLS.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, thefanzine.com, and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in New York City.