The latest from the 2013 reading list: a work by a writer I have felt guilty for not having read enough of, Salman Rushdie. Rather than one of the obvious choices like Midnight’s Children or The Satanic Verses (which I have read and was sort of “well, okay” about and which I read because Ayatollah Khomeini threatened everyone who dared to read it and, you know, screw that guy), I just finished his most recent novel, The Enchantress of Florence.
In many ways this is a wonderful book – it’s full of marvelous moments and storytelling and I’d like very much to say that wow, this is a great, great book and Rushdie is a brilliant writer and I’m going to go read everything he ever wrote and you should, too.
Well, some of that is true.
Rushdie is a brilliant writer, and The Enchantress of Florence has elements that make for an engrossing read. We meet (or hear about) historical figures (Andrea Doria, Amerigo Vespucci, Sir John Hauksbank, Niccolo Machievelli, even Vlad Tepes and Akbar the Great) and there’s lots of history and myth, fantasy and fact interwoven as we move from Europe to India to the Middle East to Europe again to India again. It rollicks along nicely – challenging to a casual reader, charming for a scholarly one. As is always the case with Rushdie, magic and reality intertwine in expected and unexpected ways. It’s certainly proof that Rushdie is a brilliant writer. He’s as good at handling the language as any writer in English.
And there’s the problem – for this reader, at least.
Those who read this tripe of mine know that I have serious doubts about the influence of the “creative writing system” on literary work over the last, say, 70 years (since WWII, anyway). There are certain styles, certain tropes, certain memes, certain styles that are “the proper mode” for literary fiction (and it’s even worse in poetry) and those who don’t adhere to these are asking to be ignored – or worse yet, treated as if they are not “serious” writers.
And so, while Rushdie’s work is superbly researched, beautifully written and – I say this with the deepest respect for the marvelous talent which he most certainly is – carefully calculated to meet all the criteria that he knows both the “literary community” (you know who you are) and the “cool kids” (the critics at the “best” magazines, etc.) expect from him.
I tend to agree with one of the few naysayers in noting this: when you spend too much time making sure that you cover all the bases you’re expected to cover when you are a “respected” writer (I feel like there ought to be a quote from Twain here about why writers should not be respected), what you get is The Enchantress of Florence – a careful pastiche designed to show that you know you’re writing a story that is a story about telling a story. You know, being a great postmodernist.
Which reminds me of the words of an even greater postmodernist” Oh well/Whatever/ Never mind….”
XPOST: Scholars and Rogues