Salman Rushdie on The Role of the Writer

pregnant woman, reading, Kindle

photo: Ed Yourdan, creative commons license

In a Princeton talk last week, Sir Salman not only discussed the role of the novel in, as he said, “a world of lies,” but also how writers must work in the modern world.

The fast pace of today’s world suggests that literary writers cannot be too topical without risking irrelevance in the near future. Shakespeare’s plays have survived four hundred years because they were about universal human truths, even if his characters bore the names of actual historical figures.

Nor can writers choose too large a theme (“everything”) without risking violation of the human scale at which the novel form excels. Thus it may be difficult to take on large-scale issues, as noted author  Amitav Ghosh encourages literary authors to do, especially around the central challenge facing humanity today, climate change. Another way of saying this emerged in a recent Rebecca Mead profile of Margaret Atwood. “A novelist necessarily imagines the fate of individuals,” Mead says, in harmony with Rushdie. “The human condition is what the novel was made for exploring.”

Yet in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood put her characters in a story with a huge theme: radically changed power dynamics in an American society that has become a fundamentalist theocracy. Imagining such alternative realities should be the literary fiction-writer’s strength, Gawande believes. I’d love to hear the three of them discuss this issue together. I think they’d agree that, regardless of the novel’s scope, it’s the characters that make it resonate with readers.

Another feature of modern life affecting authors is the loss of space between public and private action. He said that Jane Austen’s books, though replete with soldiers, never referred to the Napoleonic wars. Nor did Dickens ever mention the British Empire. The characters in these books lived unimpeded and unaffected by world events. Such is no longer true. “The history of the United States is now the history of everywhere else,” he said. We live in a world where we are barraged by outside forces, many of which can change our lives. It is not only our character that shapes our destinies, or those elements of chance and randomness that have always entered in, but the world around us (another point of agreement with Ghosh).

Today, it seems people try to narrow their identities to one feature of themselves—Republican, feminist, Asian-American, computer nerd—which makes it harder to find common ground with others. The novel has always understood that we’re all a collection of selves, he said, and which comes to the fore depends on circumstances. I’m reminded of a conversation between Winston Churchill and portraitist Graham Sutherland in the TV series The Crown, when Churchill asks (paraphrasing here) “Are you going to paint me as a venerated statesman or as a sturdy English bulldog?” and the painter responds, “I imagine there are quite a few Churchills in there.”

Art tries to increase our awareness of what is possible for us to see and know. For that reason, artists must push the boundaries, despite inevitable opposition. Meanwhile, it’s the duty of everyone to work to protect our culture, the products of art. The power of art to outlast tyranny is great, but the power of artists, not so much, he said. They need to be defended too.

Love & Friendship

Lady Susan, Kate BeckinsaleIn this brilliantly funny movie (trailer), writer-director Whit Stillman takes on a lesser-known early Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan. It’s a a gem of female manipulation cut and polished on male cluelessness, and Lady Susan Vernon is the lapidarist in chief.

In this early epistolary novel (probably written when Austen was only 23), the author’s disdain for the treatment of women is evident, and her character gets her revenge, deliciously. Though it’s still the cake underneath  her better-known novels, there it’s masked by a thicker romantic frosting (see this recent post about the dark subtext of Austen’s novels).

Near-penniless, Lady Susan must find a husband for herself and her daughter, and Kate Beckinsale is a powerful Susan, “the most accomplished flirt in all England.” The cast is strong, with Chloë Sevigny as the American Alicia Johnson, Susan’s co-conspirator, eager to avoid being returned to Connecticut, Susan’s perceptive sister-in-law Catherine (played by Emma Greenwell), and long-suffering daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Jemma Redgrave, playing Catherine’s mother, immediately reveals herself as an heir to the British acting family through her strong physical resemblance to auntie Vanessa.

The men are cheerfully dim-witted, none more so than Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). With £10,000 a year, he’s as rich as Darcy. But he’s also “a bit of a rattle”—“Regency slang for blithering idiot,” A.O. Scott reminds us in The New York Times. “How jolly! Tiny green balls. What are they called?” Sir James asks, pushing them around his dinner plate. “Peas.” Catherine’s brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel) is not dim, but even he is no match for Susan’s calculated charm offensive and her “uncanny understanding of men’s natures.”

Quite apropos of the current political season, friends Susan and Alicia blithely justify their most outrageous behavior, putting themselves always on the high ground. At one point, when confronted with her own irrefutable error, Susan snaps, “Facts are horrid things.” Clearly, a woman for this season.

Above and beyond the satisfying plot, delicious characters, and irresistible pull toward respectable matrimony, the charming countryside (filmed in Ireland) and gorgeous costumes are worth the price of admission. Over the story, widow Susan’s costumes go from all-black deep mourning, to light mourning (grey and lavender), to none at all. When she dons that scarlet dress, look out! “It all ends up pretty much as expected,” Scott says, “and yet also manages to take you by surprise.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 74% (I’m betting audiences find it “talky.” But in the talk, there’s wit.)

Jane Austen’s Dark Side


photo: Kirk Maddison, creative commons license

Mikita Brottman recently wrote in The American Scholar about the virtues of going deeply into a narrow subject, such as Jane Austen did in her fictional world. How often do we feel that in the sweep of novels that cover centuries and generations we have lost the particular that made the years and the individuals vivid and unique? How much more can be revealed by Austen and her magnifying glass for social mores? Stuff that’s not so pretty, Brottman thinks.

Austen is a popular fan fiction subject, with 1,266 entries, pastiches, and spinoffs on the Archive of Our Own fanfic website. The author, dead almost 200 years, is on coffee mugs, and board books, coloring books, air fresheners, iPhone covers, and teapot cookies. (This may be the place to recall that when I showed up at the local post office wearing my “I ♥ Mr. Darcy” t-shirt, the clerk said, “Oh, that must be your husband!” “No, Pride and Prejudice.” “Is that a tv show?”) All these commercial incarnations underscore the bright, romantic view of Janeworld.

What was Jane really saying?

Brottman’s favorite novel Austen novel these days is Mansfield Park, with its self-effacing heroine, Fanny Price. MP has long been thought Austen’s “problem novel” and “difficult” (interesting critique from another fan here). Over time, the other, better-known novels have become less romantic for Brottman because their heroines’ world was so small—an accurate portrayal for the times. Austen herself likened her writing to “painting with a ‘fine brush’ on ‘a little bit—two inches—of ivory.’” I’ll be interested to see what Whit Stillman does with Austen in his recently released movie, Love and Friendship.

While we may remember with deep nostalgia the innocence of our adolescent ideas about love and destiny, our visions of a rich and handsome partner, and our longing to move in a refined, elegant world (“someday, my prince will come”), maybe it’s “time to give up on childhood fantasies,” says the fanfic author heleanna, who writes as The Butterfly Dreamer and has her own take on overcoming Mansfield Park’s constraints.

Below the surface of balls and calling cards, Austen is not romantic at all, Brottman believes, but rather “a very dark writer.” Under the taffeta and lace, “these well-bred young women are trapped like rats,” prisoners of rigid social rules and expectations. As some 150 years later poet Maya Angelou wrote about a different set of social constraints, “I know why the caged bird sings.”

(Brottman is a prolific author and cultural commentator. I’d like to read her brand new book The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison, published June 7.)

Mr. Darcy Revealed?

Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

(drawing: C.E. Brock, 1895, wikipedia)

At last! According to numerous media stories, including this one in The Express of London, British journalist and historian Dr. Susan Law has discovered the real-life model for that Pride and Prejudice heart-throb, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Law says Darcy was patterned after “the intense, charming and often controversial 1st Earl of Morley John Parker.”

According to Law, Austen became acquainted with Parker when she spent time at his home, Saltram House in Plymouth (pictured below), which happened to coincide with her work on P&P. Parker’s second wife, Frances, was one of Austen’s near friends. Frances also had a literary bent and, Law says, initially Austen’s anonymously published novels P&P and Sense and Sensibility were believed to have been written by Frances.

Saltram House, Jane Austen

(artwork: wikipedia)

Coincidentally, Saltram House was used in filming S&S in 1995. It represented “Norland,” the home Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were forced to leave after Mr. Dashwood died. A scandalous end to John Parker’s first marriage may have inspired the adultery that shakes the family of Mansfield Park, Austen’s third novel.

Law maintains that in five years of research she has found letters and documents that bolster her case. These claims are detailed in her new book, provocatively titled Through The Keyhole: Sex, Scandal And The Secret Life of The Country House (I’m not planning to read and review this one, so I’ve provided the link below now, in case you want to). “The physical similarities in them are obvious,” she says. “The Earl was tall, dark, handsome and slightly brooding.”

Although she’s yet to find that “cast iron bit of evidence,” after spending so much time and effort on her researches, she says, “I am pretty convinced.” I haven’t read her evidence, OK, but I can’t believe the wife of my Mr. Darcy would ever cheat on him.

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