Salman Rushdie, Great Literature, and Sex in Books

On my most recent jaunt to the library, I picked up the latest book by Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence).  Rushdie, you will recall, is the writer for whom the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, death sentence, over his book The Satanic Verses, which according to the Ayatollah insulted the prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him).   Rushdie went into hiding for 10 years, but now lives rather openly.  Once the Ayatollah Khomeini died, Rushdie applied for a reprieve from the new Ayatollah.  After careful consideration the new Ayatollah concluded that only the person who issued the fatwa could lift it, which was hard for Khomeini to do, being dead.  Therefore, the fatwa still stands but it seems the interest in killing Rushdie has waned, what with radical extremist Muslims having so much on their plate these days.   

I was under the impression all these years that Rushdie was Iranian, since they were paying so much attention to him, but in fact he is British-Indian, born in Mumbai of Indian Muslim parents who were British citizens.  Rushdie seems to be an atheist, despite a little white lie to the new Ayatollah saying he had converted to Islam. 

I was a little reticent to get Rushdie’s book, because I generally try to avoid anything that seems to fall into the category of “great literature”.  That hasn’t always been the case.  There was the summer I decided to read all the books by the great Russian writers, although I did draw the line at Tolstoy, because I had no intention of ever reading War and Peace.  I had already read almost everything by Dostoyevsky, so I moved on to Gogol and Solsenitzyn.  About the time I finished the latter’s book Cancer Ward I found myself thinking that being struck by lightning would be better than reading another one of his books, or anything else that smacked of great literature.  Danielle Steele was looking really good. 

I am sort of kidding.  I have never actually read anything by Danielle Steele.  But I did move on to popular fiction writers, and many of them are amazingly good.  I appreciate good writing and a good story, and not every book has to address the existential crises of life. 

But once in a while I get this twinge of conscience that says I need to read something significant, so that’s why I picked up Rushdie’s book.  At the same time I picked up Walter Mosley’s Cinnamon Kiss and read it first.  Mosley is most well known for writing Devil in a Blue Dress, which was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington.  I had forgotten all about Mosley, but since last week it was still Black History month, he was one of the featured writers on the featured table of black writers. 

Which brings us to sex in books.  My friend Judith and I were discussing this recently, I think as a result of her having read The Horse Whisperer, which I recommended.  It was good, except for the sex parts.  And that’s the genius of good writers.  You probably can’t name a good book in the last 200 years that didn’t have sex in it.  But almost nobody does it right.  Most of the time it’s the very definition of “gratuitous”.  You’re following a good story, then all of a sudden you have to take time out to read about two people gazing into one another’s eyes, and a spark flames, and they are totally overcome by passion.  Give me a break.  The truth is, that actually does happen, but 99% of writers aren’t able to get it right.  More often than not, when I read sex scenes in books I feel like I’m watching a commercial for Johnny Walker Red. 

Not so with Mosley.  And who knew…not so with Salman Rushdie.  The Enchantress of  Florence takes place partially in 16th century India, during the reign of Akbar the Great, who was a real person, ruler of the Mughal Empire from 1556 until his death in 1605.  It also switches at times to Florence.  The reviewer for the NY Times Book Review, who is either normally clinically depressed, or who was having a very bad day, panned the book.  In essence he said the language in it is too flowery and Rushdie is full of himself.  In fact, it’s a treasure of a book.  It is poetic, it’s dreamlike, it’s fantastical, weaving the real and the unreal together, but it never gets too far afield from the story.  It’s also often very subtly funny.  Take this passage:   

“Simonetta possessed a pale, fair beauty so intense that no man could look at her without falling into a state of molten adoration, and nor could any woman, and the same went for most of the city’s cats and dogs, and maybe diseases loved her too, which was why she was dead before she was twenty-four years old.”

In another great passage, one of Akbar’s ministers says that an atheist only believes in one god less than anyone else.  Since all religions argue that their god is the only god, between them, he says, they give him all the arguments for believing in none. 

So…funny, philosophical, surreal, and sensual.  What’s not to like?  This is my first Rushdie novel, it will not be my last.

13 responses to “Salman Rushdie, Great Literature, and Sex in Books

  1. > You probably can’t name a good book in the last > 200 years that didn’t have sex in it.

    So it’s all about the sex is it? ;)

  2. Yes :). Actually it’s mostly how they talk about sex that makes the difference.

  3. I love the Eazy Rawlins series by Mosely and sex is par for the course. Being a man, I don’t care how it is written. I pay more attention to how Mouse is going to put a cap in someone’s ass.

  4. “You probably can’t name a good book in the last 200 years that didn’t have sex in it. ”

    The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara won the Pulitzer without sex. But he wrote about sex well in The Broken Place and For Love of The Game IMHO

    I shall add Rushdie to my growing list of “to reads”

  5. And I’ll add Shaara to mine. After looking it up, The Broken Place sounds the most interesting to me.
    ee, Cinnamon Kiss is an Easy Rawlins novel, and Mouse is one of the great characters ever.

  6. The Broken Place was his first novel after many years of short stories and fsu tv lectures. It is an excellent first novel. I have 2 copies, one is old and beaten up (and autographed). The other is a first edition in excellent shape that my daughter gave to me for Christmas 3 years ago at my request. It has the original cover jacket which displays a harsh pencil drawing of Mike portraying the protagonist.

    Mike was a friend and mentor and one of the two most infuential men in my life. I hope you will enjoy it. Probably have to get it at the library where they should have several copies since he lived in Tallahassee for over 20 years.

    There is a typo on the jacket which lists him as writing at the University of Florida in Tallahassee.

  7. I read Shaara’s biography on his son’s website…www.jeffshaara.com. Very sad about Michael’s untimely death, and his relative lack of recognition during his lifetime.

  8. Mike had a heart attack on the steps of the old Chemistry Building in the 60′s. There was no time to get him to a cardiac unit. So they took him to the campus infirmary. His brother performed open heart surgery on him and saved him. (Cover of Saturday Evening Post my memory tells me)

    So he was not supposed to smoke.But he identified easy targets from his students and I quickly became a smoking and coffee buddy. He was fascinating to talk too. Had met Hemingway and others. He kept writers late night hours and probably got as much out of life as he could. He wouldn’t have wanted to hang around without capacity to enjoy IMHO.

    He used to sit on his desk and tell us stories about his research on a novel he was writing about Gettysburg and how his technique was going to be different than conventional historical biographies. He focused on the letters and documents from the period (and read some of them to us) and he walked the battleground with Jeff.

    Jeff has carried on his narative technique in both a prequel and a sequel to Killer Angels. But Jeff is much better with his own war (WWII). He has come into his own now. I eagerly await the third part of that trilogy.

  9. That is quite a story, Pt, makes me wish I’d known him. I’ve never known a published author although I’ve met a couple. When I lived in West Palm Beach I volunteered one winter season for the library’s writer series. My job was to meet and greet at the entrance to the theater or wherever the talks took place. I was persuaded to do this by a library employee, who showed me a picture of the first guy on the program: Nicholas Sparks (Message in a Bottle), who was a total hunk, regardless of the sappy nature of his writing. As you can see, my motivations are not always intellectual. I did get to shake his hand. Later on, I met the writer James Patterson (Along Came A Spider) and actually got to converse with him while sharing a cigarette. He was quite cool and funny. He autographed a poster for me, which I seem to have misplaced…

  10. “Nicholas Sparks (Message in a Bottle), who was a total hunk, regardless of the sappy nature of his writing. As you can see, my motivations are not always intellectual”

    lol fn Sparks is sappy but when you are looking for candy its the taste not the story that counts. His stories border the romance novel tag. ( I am guessing here of course).

    I got Rushdie’s Fury yesterday and will give it a look. It was the only Novel at the branch library nearest to me. I try to stay out of bookstores lately cause I have a serious addiction to absolutely needing 50% of all their 40% off new books. I mean after all it’s almost half price right? How can you go wrong at half price?

  11. LOL, Pt, I see your point about candy! Sparks indeed borders on romance, heck he may have crossed that line all the way. I read one of his books: A Walk To Remember, which will be my last unless I’m stuck on a desert island with only his books.
    I finished The Enchantress of Florence during lunch today, and though it’s not my usual fare, I liked it. You’ll have to let me know about Fury. I plan to read The Satanic Verses, just because of all the brouhaha about it.

  12. Fine portrayal of the novel in true spirit

  13. pt…just a quick revisit to this post to tell you that a friend of mine that I knew long ago in Memphis–who now lives in New Orleans and part-time in Houston–posted a kind of rant today on Facebook. And he said, if you really want to know about the Civil War, read The Killer Angels. I was just astonished that he knew about Shaara.

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