Like most Americans, I have trouble taking knighthood seriously. But I guess I’m pleased to know that a writer I’ve encountered in real life more times in the last few years than I’ve encountered some members of my own family (mainly because I go to a lot of PEN World Voices events, and occasionally indulge in some Manhattan literary nightlife) is actually a Sir. Then again, Ginger, the Irish setter I had as a kid, was actually a Sir too, according to his pedigree certificate. And I am not pointing this out in an attempt to mock Sir Salman Rushdie, a writer I like and respect very much, though I’ve always had mixed feelings about him.
In fact, I feel more ambivalence towards Salman Rushdie than almost any other writer alive today. For example, I hated the apathetic, uninspiring introductory speech he gave at a recent PEN festival, which captured none of the excitement many of the audience members felt. He then went on to close the show with the best performance of the night.
Likewise, I absolutely loved the first segment of The Satanic Verses, an instantaneous tour de force involving two men falling from an airplane that could easily be extracted from the novel and anthologized as a riveting stand-alone piece. I marveled at the opening to this novel … and yet the postmodern denseness of the endless pages beyond oppressed me, and I found I did not continue. I’ll always remember the beginning of Satanic Verses, and I may never read the end.
All in all, I have to admire this brave and hardworking man for his experimental writing as well as for his tireless stewardship of New York’s best and most progressive literary festival. I say this even though his New Yorker article on The Wizard of Oz was cloyingly cute, and even though I don’t understand any of his books, and even though he annoyingly shows up in a tuxedo at every damn literary event he goes to (raising the dress-code curve for the rest of us, and it doesn’t even look good on him). I respect him, and I suppose I’m glad he’s now a knight, even if it is silly.
As for various controversies regarding this selection, such as the Pakistani government’s official protest that the gesture is offensive to Muslims, I’m sorry to hear that this argument seems to be reaching a high pitch very quickly, which serves no positive purpose for anybody. Authors Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan have been quoted as demeaning the Pakistani government’s official notice of protest, and this is about the thousandth time this week I’ve been painfully disappointed by the lack of sympathetic dialogue between the different corners of our world. Why can’t these British intellectuals simply listen to what certain Muslim governments, organizations and individuals have to say and respond with calm civility that their objections have some merit, but that the Queen is not going to change her mind? I expect a more intelligent level of discourse from the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan (and the fact that I raved about McEwan’s great new novel just three days ago doesn’t mean I can’t criticize his rather limited political vision today).
Anyway, congrats to Sir Salman, and may he continue to be as brave as the greatest literary knight of them all, Don Quixote de la Mancha.