Today’s New York Times book section contains an absorbing interview with Salman Rusdie, “By the book,” about the many books he’s read, which ones he liked and disliked, and evaluations of their authors. I’ve put below a few of the questions and his answers (indented), and added my own take (flush left). Readers are invited to give their own answers in the comments.
Who is your favorite novelist of all time?
“Of all time” is a long time. There are days when it’s Kafka, in whose world we all live; others when it’s Dickens, for the sheer fecundity of his imagination and the beauty of his prose. But it’s probably Joyce on more days than anyone else.
For me it’s a tie: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. That’s because Tolstoy wrote what I consider the greatest full-length novel of all time, Anna Karenina. But in terms of the quality of a writer’s overall oeuvre, Dostoyevsky noses him out. But of all novels, including the short ones (“novelettes”), I’d put The Dead by James Joyce at the top of the list. I’ve recommended that work many times on this site, and Joyce is certainly up there, as Ezra Pound put it, with “The Rooshians.” (Pound never read the Rooshians, and, as recounted in A Moveable Feast, recommended to Ernest Hemingway that he “stick to the French,” as he had “plenty to learn there.”)
What’s the last book that made you laugh?
P. G. Wodehouse’s “Code of the Woosters,” which also contains the speech which Christopher Hitchens (and I) believed to be the greatest anti-Nazi diatribe in English literature:
“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting, ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’ ”
I should add that more or less everything by Christopher Hitchens makes me laugh. The laughter is what I miss most about the Hitch.
I have to admit that I’ve never read anything by Wodehouse, though many readers, especially from the UK, have urged me to, and I expect I’ll get to it. The diatribe given above requires knowing both British lingo and something about the black shirts, knowledge I simply don’t have. But I agree that Hitch’s humor is one of his unappreciated virtues, and his combination of eloquence, passion about the human condition, and humor is something I find in no other modern writer (Dickens is a predecessor). Orwell comes close but lacks the pervasive humor. One example of Hitch’s that I like because it’s funny and true—and also because I’m an oenophile—is his piece in Slate, “Wine drinkers of the world, unite.” The lesson: if you’re hosting a restaurant dinner, or order a good bottle, never allow the waiter or sommelier to pour the wine for you. They simply can’t do it properly, and keep overpouring to inflate the bill.
What are your favorite books about India, or by Indian or Anglo-Indian writers?
“A Passage to India,” by E. M. Forster; “Clear Light of Day,” by Anita Desai; “Maximum City,” by Suketu Mehta.
I agree with the Forster, haven’t read the other two, but would surely add The Raj Quartet (four long novels) by Paul Scott, which I consider one of the greatest pieces of post-war (WWII) fiction. It’s also the most unappreciated great book of modern times. The writing is superb and the story deeply absorbing. To that I’d append its sequel, Staying On, an ineffably sad novel that won the Booker Prize. Scott’s work, like Forster’s, is really more about the British in India than about Indians themselves. I should add that Hitchens agreed with my ranking of The Raj Quartert, seeing it as superior to A Passage to India.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
“The One Thousand and One Nights.”
Books that actually change one’s life are rare. In fact I can think of only one that helped mold my character, and that’s Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, which I read during my formative years in college. It’s a particularly good book for atheists, as its lesson, imparted by the larger-than-life Zorba, is to appreciate life to the max, squeezing out as much pleasure and experience as you can. For Zorba, that experience was largely his involvement with women, but to me its message is about life as a whole. Two images: when the narrator, a Greek entrepeneur whose life is changed by meeting Zorba, travels to Crete with him on a boat to start a lignite mine, he comes topside one morning. There on the deck sits Zorba, sniffing a lemon with immense pleasure. That scene has stayed with me my whole life. And, at the end of his life, Zorba tells the narrator (known simply as “Boss”) how he wants to die:
“If some priest or other comes to take my confession and give me sacrament, tell him to clear out, quick, and leave me his curse instead! I´ve done heaps and heaps of things in my life, but I still did not do enough. Men like me ought to live a thousand years.”
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“The One Thousand and One Nights.”
I haven’t read that book and can’t comment, nor do I have any interest in picking a book for the President.
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Living: Auster, DeLillo, McEwan. Dead: Joyce, Proust, Kafka.
Living: Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, and Rusdhie himself (of course if Hitchens were alive, he’d be invited, though he wasn’t a novelist). Dead: Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, and Charles Dickens. I doubt Proust would be a scintillating talker, and I imagine McCarthy to be laconic.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Supposed to like and didn’t: I always get in trouble for saying this, but . . . “Middlemarch.”
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
I’m too old to be embarrassed by the many lacunae in my reading. I really should try to improve my relationship with “Middlemarch,” I guess.
Books that I am supposed to like but couldn’t get through: In Search of Lost Time by Proust. I found bits of it beautiful, but it was too ponderous, and I couldn’t finish it.
But I loved Middlemarch and recommend it highly. And it’s a good thing, too, as the first copy I read was sent to me by a friend (a teacher of literature) with the inscription. “If you don’t like this book, you can’t be my friend.” Fortunately, I did and I am.