A fascinating hour or so spent tonight in a tent in the grounds of Charleston farmhouse, where Salman Rushdie was talking to The Times Literary Editor, Erica Wagner, as part of the Charleston Festival.
The tent was packed. And it was quite amusing. Lots of aging Bloomsbury types. Careful hippydom, with expensive glasses and designer handbags. Chris and I found seats at the back, with half an hour to go, so had an eagle’s eye view of arrivals, scurries for glasses of pink champagne and jostles to peck late arrivals on powdered cheeks. I’d say 90% of the audience was female. Old female. Like me, but with powder. And friends.
Salman Rushdie gave an excellent performance. I’d bought the book that was the subject of the evening (The Enchantress of Florence) on the way in, and read the first chapter when not making mental notes for wicked characterisation exercises.
Lovely. Mental note made to read it again without distractions, grey ponytails, (the women nearby) and the scent of Johnson’s baby powder.
He began by reading the same chapter. And that was very good… he has the most lovely voice, rich, and seductive. I will now read the whole thing hearing that ‘voice’ in the prose as I read.
The subsequent conversation and responses to audience queries took in the origins of the book (an historical novel that brings together 16th century Florence and the Mogul empire), his education (studied History at Cambridge), his views on the critics (they studied literature … and like to tell writers what their novels are about…even finding a couple of sentences in The Enchantress that seemed to prove a pre-held opinion)…his views on whether women readers/ writers do things differently to males (he carefully sidestepped the issue of chick lit and womags, saying that none of the female writers he respected wrote differently to the male writers he respected. It’s all in the respect! Mind you, he also said that he doubted whether many female readers would opt to read action novels full of ‘lots of explosions and machinery’. Hmm.)
He spoke about the difference between Homeric ‘storytelling’ (where the ‘stories’ were already known, and all that was being done was recording them) and the tensions caused by ‘unknown’ storytelling, where a storyteller is making up the unknown.
And in a flash of vulnerability he spoke about how the Satanic Verses debacle had changed his public persona… that people who hadn’t read him believed he was this awkward, serious, controversial figure who wrote heavy religiously controversial novels, when actually he is funny. He sounded hurt. Or … maybe not. Maybe he enjoyed the focus.
He kept telling us he was funny, and yes he was. Also utterly charming. A consummate entertainer.
Why do we read? Why does he read? For enjoyment. He likes to be taken into a world that is true, believable, in which he is made to feel joy, sadness, intrigue and so on, thanks to the rules of that world. He said the story, indeed all stories, have a single perfect way of being told. And that if the writer can find the perfect way to tell it (structurally, chronologically, etc etc, revealing information at the right time and in the right way, ) then they hold the reader in thrall. If however they miss, just once, the reader loses the thread, and it is hard to get it back.
That’s the fictive dream… James Frey. Just goes to show. There’s nowt new in this world.
A great evening. And a great book to come!