The next instalment of my column for The Sunday Guardian.
Salman Rushdie’s memoir of the fatwa years, due to be published this September, is one of the most keenly-awaited books of the year and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy before someone in India decides that it’s caused offence. The recently-announced title, however, surprised me: it’s called Joseph Anton, which was one of Rushdie’s aliases when he was in hiding. As Rushdie says in the publisher’s description of the book, “I made up a name from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov”. They’re two of the writers he loved, the release states, quoting Rushdie again: “I made it the title of the book because it always felt very strange to be asked to give up my name, I was always uncomfortable about it, and I thought it might help dramatize, for the reader, the deep strangeness and discomfort of those years.”
Semantically speaking, having a favourite writer and being inspired by a writer isn’t necessarily the same thing. However, it’s justified to assume that there’s a fair degree of overlap, especially when one’s profession is to create worlds from words. Which is precisely why the feeling of mild astonishment at the title.
The style of writing that Rushdie is known for is, to use a by-now shop-soiled term, magic realism. Go beyond the surface level of the fantastical, however, and there is much mischievousness, playfulness, inversion and other forms of inventiveness in Rushdie’s work – things it has in common with, say, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And this approach owes a lot to novelists of the 18th century.
In earlier interviews, Rushdie has confessed to his admiration for such writers, among them Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding and Jonathan Swift. The correspondences are evident. Yet another feature of Rushdie’s work is the well of wordplay he dips his pen into to sprinkle his prose with puns, spoonerisms and portmanteau words. By way of illustration, I still recall how I chuckled when I read of a character in The Moor’s Last Sigh with the name of Jamshedjee Jamibhoy Cashondeliveri, known as Jimmy Cash, an obvious reference to Mumbai’s Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney. Elsewhere, he’s notably used the word “disoriented” to refer to “a loss of the Orient”. This trait, so much a part of the appeal of his work, is in turn derived from his stated admiration for James Joyce.
To turn to the Joseph of his memoir’s title, it’s V.S. Naipaul who’s more commonly linked to Conrad, with the Swedish Academy anointing him as “his heir” when it awarded him the Literature Nobel in 2001. Naipaul himself has written perceptively about the Polish émigré – both of them, as has been said, were raised in one world and, via the English language, made themselves at home in another. Typically, though, Naipaul has insisted that Conrad hasn’t been an influence, adding for good measure: ''Actually, I think A Bend in the River is much, much better than Conrad”.
As for Anton Chekhov, his short stories, needless to add, have had a tremendous influence on many writers over the decades, with even the magisterial Nabokov calling The Lady with the Lapdog "one of the greatest stories ever written” (though he had his doubts about the rest of Chekhov’s oeuvre). Read Nabokov’s Spring in Fialta and you’ll find clear parallels with The Lady with the Lapdog. Chekhov’s reputation continues to grow: in America, in fact, writing programs across the country should just go ahead and install small busts of him in every classroom. The point really is that Chekhov’s stories are known for their undemonstrative yet masterly evocation of the agitations of everyday lives; as a realist, he’s nonpareil. Rushdie’s style is so very different.
Which makes it all the more odd that the author of Midnight’s Children would choose Joseph Anton as an alias. One would have thought it would be Laurence Fielding James. Or even the other way around.