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Clowning with Salman Rushdie

"I was always mesmerized by tightrope walkers," Salman Rushdie recalls, thinking back on childhood trips to the circus in Bombay, "especially the ones who would clown on the tightrope, which is why I made Shalimar a tightrope clown. Clowning without a safety net, playing with the center of gravity as your trick, endlessly making the audience think you're going to fall but never falling, I thought was just magical." Salman Rushdie

The metaphor is apt for Rushdie's own work. First, the clowning. News for the uninitiated: the author can be laugh-out-loud funny. Don't let the fatwa fool you—a punning, slapstick-y wit leavens even his most "serious" fiction. Meanwhile, the tightrope element. Thirty years and nine novels along, Rushdie remains a risk-taker, playing with forms and styles, restlessly evolving, surprising readers with each new book.

In September of 2002, Rushdie spent an hour at reflecting on the arc of his career, from the early, attention-grabbing novels to the nonfiction collected in Step Across this Line. Three years later, he returned to talk about Shalimar the Clown.

Dave: Last time we talked, I think you'd already started Shalimar the Clown.

Salman Rushdie: I actually did start it long before I wrote Fury. I probably had the germ of it around the time I finished The Ground Beneath Her Feet, in '98 or '99, but I couldn't make it work.

I think the reason I couldn't is that I'd conceived it on too small a scale. You know that murder scene at the beginning? Originally, I had thought the book would stay in the present moment of that crime. After he gets captured, there would even be a long epistolary section where the daughter writes him letters, et cetera. I thought it would be like that, this intense threesome: Shalimar, India, and Max.

Maybe another writer could have made that work. I still think it wasn't a bad idea to do it that way, as a very taut, extreme close-up novel, sort of like an Ingmar Bergman movie. But it just stalled. And then along came the idea of Fury, which seemed much more ready to go.

Of course, you always have a feeling when you set a book aside that you'll never go back to it. What happened is that in the interim I came to understand very, very clearly what I'd misconceived: I couldn't do it with that narrow focus; in fact it would be unfair to the characters not to let them have their full story.

There's a moment when you realize that means the book is going to be much bigger, and therefore require much more work, including research—that it's going to take much longer to write, but if you don't do that it's not going to be any good.

At that point the canvas got much bigger and took in all this stuff that wasn't originally part of the design, like Nazi-occupied Strasbourg. Even the Kashmir material I had originally thought would be back-story; it would be alluded to rather than fully dramatized. Then I thought, No, you're being stupid because that's the heart of the story, and you can't write the book without its heart. So I went for that, too, and it became a huge part of the book.

Dave: One of the epigraphs is pulled from Shakespeare. The story mingles elements of drama, history, and comedy. They're all mixed in there.

Rushdie: Many, many years ago, when I was just starting out as a writer, I heard the British playwright Howard Brenton talk about Shakespeare. He said some things I've amplified in my mind, so I don't remember what was him and what's me, but the gist of it was that one of the great gifts of Shakespeare to writers in the English language was to show that a work of literature can be many things at once—it doesn't have to be just one thing.

An example I sometimes use: look at the sequence of opening scenes of Hamlet. The first scene is a ghost story. The second scene is intrigue at court. The third scene is a love story. The fourth scene is knockabout comedy. And the fifth scene is a ghost story again. What Shakespeare showed is that you could do all that. It's completely unlike the French classical tradition, which is much more purist. Shakespeare said, Mix it all up. You can have comedy, history, and tragedy all wrapped into one. And all you have to do to pull it off is be Shakespeare.

But it's a great liberation for writers of the English language to see that the greatest writer was free-form in that way. I've always liked that. A book doesn't have to be just a thriller, or just a comedy, or just a psychological novel. It can be all those things at once.

Dave: How old were you when you went to your first circus? What do you remember of it?

Rushdie: In Bombay, when I was growing up, circus was really big. It used to come all the time. As far back as I can remember we used to get taken to the circus a couple times a year. I loved it—and particularly tightrope walkers. I was always mesmerized by tightrope walkers, especially the ones who would clown on the tightrope, which is why I made Shalimar a tightrope clown. Clowning without a safety net, playing with the center of gravity as your trick, endlessly making the audience think you're going to fall but never falling, I thought was just magical.

I was in the south of France for a literary event earlier this year, in Toulouse. They had set up a high wire in the main square, this beautiful old main square of the town. And there was this guy, very, very high—a big high wire —and it was quite a windy night. Even though it was a steel wire, nevertheless there was great vibration in it, and this guy was doing astonishing things up there: he was lying down on it, stretching out and reading a newspaper more or less. I thought, That's my guy.

It's a great question actually because my interest in clowning on the tightrope goes back to when I was six or seven years old. I then did meet a group of traveling players in Kashmir who very generously took me to their village and showed me their life, but the tightrope player came from this other place.

Dave: It's not until halfway through the novel that you give the title character his own section. I wondered how that reflected your conception of the book.

Rushdie: The book is conceived as a five-act play, and each act has one of the four major characters at its heart; the first and the fifth act are both the same character.

Because the first image I had of the book was the murder and everything I learned about the characters flowed from that, I thought it was right to begin there, where it began in my imagination.

Salman Rushdie
The 2002 Interview

(an excerpt)

Salman Rushdie: If I look at the language project of my writing... I'd started with a slightly different project, which was not to find these fast slides between, as you say, high and low culture. Trying to suggest that Homer and Homer Simpson are the same kind of thing? there are still people who really resist that stuff, but for me it just seems natural. If I like The Simpsons and I like The Iliad, why shouldn't I talk about them in the same sentence?

But talking specifically about the language project, if you look at Midnight's Children, it's not quite that; it's to try and find a way of making English acquire the rhythm and flavor and music of Indian languages. To try and bring a kind of Indian vernacular speech, an Indian sense of metaphor, across into English.

Then there's a certain point at which I felt that I'd done enough of that as felt fresh. Your relationship to language shifts as you go through your books and as you get older. I thought, Well, I know how to do that and, if I want to, I can do that now, but it's more interesting to look at this other thing, to try to make the language more capacious, to try to bring into it every kind of material.

I was very interested in what you describe as these fast transitions inside a sentence. Initially I'd been interested in fast transitions of mood: that a paragraph can begin as tragedy and end as farce, or the other way around. I'd tried often—Shame does it a lot—tried to make a book in which, so to speak, the clouds are moving very fast across the sun: you have light, dark, light, dark. That should be able to happen in a page, in a sentence. I guess then I started thinking about other kinds of rapid transition, of the sort that we're talking about now.

Speed has always been something I've been interested in in prose. At least that you should play strange games with it, with speed. A strange thing happens if you take tragic material and speed it up. There's a story by Kleist called "The Earthquake in Chile," which is only about four or five pages long. It's about an earthquake in Chile and lots of people get killed. Every single thing that happens in the story is hideously tragic and sad, but there's so much that happens, and the story is told at such breakneck speed, that it becomes funny. The tragedy doesn't stop being a tragedy, but it acquires a comic note by the acceleration of the telling.

I remember when I read that I thought, There's something to be learned here, which is: if you play with the tempo of something, it actually affects the meaning quite dramatically. You can take something mournful, speed it up, and it becomes like The Keystone Cops. Or you can take something funny, slow it down, and it becomes melancholy or it reveals other dimensions, and so on. So I've often been very interested in the issue of tempo in writing and what it does if you tell the story at the wrong speed....

Read the complete 2002 interview.

What's important in that first movement is to create the relationship between Max and his daughter. If you're going to kill him rather soon, you first have to make people care about him, and the fastest way I could think of to do that was to concentrate on the father-daughter relationship right at the beginning, this rather flawed relationship, but nevertheless a quite deep one. The first part of the book is about that, and then it exfoliates; it goes backwards. And yes, the interesting thing: the book is driven in a way by the women, even though Shalimar is the title character.

One way of describing the book is that it's about the process by which India finds out the story of her life. The novel in fact is the discovery or the exposition of the story of her life; by the end of the novel she knows that story. After all, her real mother's decision to leave Shalimar the clown on behalf of the American ambassador really is the engine of the plot.

The two women drive the story, so I wanted to go into them first. That's why Boonyi is at the heart of the second part of the book.

It's not until his heart gets broken that Shalimar the clown comes into his own. Until that point, he's very sweet, but Boonyi is more interesting. He became more interesting, for me, anyway, after she broke his heart. Then he moves into the center of the story.

Dave: Throughout the novel, you seemed to be having a lot of fun with voices. The Russian super comes to mind.

Rushdie: I'm very fond of her. I'm glad you brought her up.

Dave: "Marriage is what, car rental."

Rushdie: Exactly. "We'll pick you up."

Olga arrived with that voice. She could have taken over the novel, which isn't really about her, of course. I so enjoyed writing her stuff.

I think the novel does need that kind of comic leavening. A lot of it is tragic. I hope she's funny—she seems to go down a great treat with audiences; I find myself reading Olga quite a lot. But also, she's a woman who has become estranged from her daughters and is therefore in need of a daughter; and India is in need of a mother. They become, in a way, each other's surrogates, in that Los Angeles part of the novel. So Olga has that human, more poignant dimension to her, which I was very happy to find. It justified in my mind allowing her to be a significant character.

The opposite of Olga in the book are the Indian colonel and the iron mullah in Kashmir, who are also comic characters, but dark-comic instead of bright-comic.

Dave: What book is on your nightstand right now?

Rushdie: I've been reading this book by a young Nigerian writer called Uzodinma Iweala. I don't even know if it's published in the United States yet. He's ridiculously young, just out of Harvard. It's a book called Beasts of No Nation. It's set in an imaginary African country, which is a little bit Uganda, a little bit Nigeria, a little bit Rwanda. It's a book about horror, but he writes in this first-person, African patois, which gives it a lightness and wit, a buoyancy, which is very unusual considering what he's writing about.

It's one of those rare occasions when you see a first novel and you think, This guy is going to be very, very good. Very differently, I remember being shown seventy or eighty pages of the manuscript of White Teeth, before she'd even got an agent, and I thought, This girl's going to be gigantic. Now she is.

Dave: Have you read her new novel?

Rushdie: I have. I like Zadie's stuff.

I think what Zadie is good at—and she knows what she's good at—is light comedy. The book is fantastically vivacious, very intelligent light comedy. Sometimes people over-claim for her and I think mislead people about the kind of writer she is. I don't think she's E. M. Forster; she's actually closer to Evelyn Waugh. Even though the book is based on Howard's End, I think the actual note of the book is more of a Waugh-like comedy, rather than Forsterian stuff, which is rather darker.

Dave: Who's going to win the American League East?

Rushdie: Of course the Yankees are going to win it. They've just been pulling up there, and now they're ahead.

Dave: Did I mention earlier that I'm from Boston?

Rushdie: Well, bad luck. Once in eighty-six years is good!

Dave: I'm still high from last year. As much as I'm rooting and following every game, it doesn't matter the same way it did in the past.

Rushdie: Truthfully, it's going to come down to those last three games of the season; I'm sure it is. Whoever comes out on top in those. Because Cleveland is getting to be so scarily good. I don't think either the Yankees or the Red Sox can rely on the wild card. They've got to actually win.

Dave: Now, the all-important question, supplied by a friend of mine, actually: boxers or briefs?

Rushdie: Boxers, for preference, but I still have some old briefs lying around.

Salman Rushdie visited the office on September 23, 2005, shortly before his Powell's-sponsored reading at the First Unitarian Church, downtown at Twelfth and Main.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to... Used Trade Paper $6.95
  2. The Enchantress of Florence
    Used Hardcover $6.95
  3. Midnight's Children
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  4. Step across This Line: Collected... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  5. Shalimar the Clown: A Novel
    Used Trade Paper $5.96
  6. Fury
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  7. The Ground Beneath Her Feet
    Used Trade Paper $1.95
  8. Shalimar the Clown: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $8.95
  9. Step across This Line: Collected... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  10. White Teeth (Vintage International)
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  11. The Marquise of O and Other Stories... Used Trade Paper $3.50
  12. Shame Used Trade Paper $8.50
  13. Midnight's Children
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  14. The Iliad Used Trade Paper $5.50

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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