June 12, 2021
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Finally, Rushdie-Le Carré End Fatwa Feud

Finally, Rushdie-Le Carré End Fatwa Feud

Finally, 15 years after the literary feud between Salman Rushdie and John Le Carré erupted in the letters pages of the Guardian in 1997, the latter has told the London Times "that their mutual loathing has finally come to an end."

Back in 1997, Rushdie had accused Le Carré  of promoting censorship and had gone on to characterise him as a "dunce" and a " pompous ass.'' Christopher Hitchens too had jumped in the exchange and said that Mr Le Carré 's conduct reminded him " that of a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head." 

"Two rabid ayatollahs could not have done a better job. But will the friendship last?" Mr Le Carré had countered, pointing out that he was more concerned about saving lives than about Mr Rushdie's royalties, and that Mr Rushdie was ''self-canonizing'' and ''arrogant.''

Mr Rushdie was allowed the last word by the newspaper, and had gone on to say about Mr Le Carré:  It's true I did call him a pompous ass, which I thought pretty mild in the circumstances. "Ignorant" and "semi-literate" are dunces' caps he has skilfully fitted on his own head.

But that was then. Now, after the publication of his memoirs, Joseph Anton, at the Cheltenham literature festival, Mr Rushdie said that he "really" admired Le Carré as a writer. "I wish we hadn't done it "I think of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as one of the great novels of postwar Britain," he added.

Today's London Times, in turn, quotes Mr Le Carré as saying: "I admire Salman for his work and his courage, and I respect his stand. Does that answer the larger debate which continues to this day?"

"My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity," Le Carré told the Times:

"Should we be free to burn Korans, mock the passionately held religions of others? Maybe we should – but should we also be surprised when the believers we have offended respond in fury? I couldn't answer that question at the time and, with all good will, I still can't. But I am a little proud, in retrospect, that I spoke against the easy trend, reckoning with the wrath of outraged western intellectuals, and suffering it in all its righteous glory. And if I met Salman tomorrow? I would warmly shake the hand of a brilliant fellow writer."

For those who came in late:

On November 15, 1997, the Guardian carried an excerpt of a speech by John Le Carré to the Anglo-Israel Association where he complained of unfairly being labelled an anti-Semite in a 1996 review of his book, The Tailor of Panama, in the New York Times, that said his portrayal of his principal character suggested a preoccupation with the notion of the Jew as traitor. 

This soon resulted in the following exchange of letters on the pages of the Guardian that are self-explanatory:

November 18, 1997

John Le Carré complains that he has been branded an anti-Semite as a result of a politically correct witch-hunt and declares himself innocent of the charge. It would be easier to sympathize with him had he not been so ready to join in an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer.

In 1989, during the worst days of the Islamic attack on The Satanic Verses, Le Carré wrote an article (also, if memory serves, in The Guardian) in which he eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants.

It would be gracious if he were to admit that he understands the nature of the Thought Police a little better now that, at least in his own opinion, he's the one in the line of fire.

Salman Rushdie

November 19, 1997

Rushdie's way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. I never joined his assailants. Nor did I take the easy path of proclaiming him to be a shining innocent. My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.

I wrote that there is no absolute standard of free speech in any society. I wrote that tolerance does not come at the same time, and in the same form, to all religions and cultures, and that Christian society too, until very recently, defined the limits of freedom by what was sacred. I wrote, and would write again today, that when it came to the further exploitation of Rushdie's work in paperback form, I was more concerned about the girl at Penguin books who might get her hands blown off in the mailroom than I was about Rushdie's royalties. Anyone who had wished to read the book by then had ample access to it.

My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound less arrogant, less colonialist, and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers' camp.

John Le Carré

November 20, 1997

I'm grateful to John Le Carré for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be. He claims not to have joined in the attack against me but also states that "there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity."

A cursory examination of this lofty formulation reveals that (1) it takes the philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist line that The Satanic Verses was no more than an "insult," and (2) it suggests that anyone who displeases philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist folk loses his right to live in safety.

So, if John Le Carré upsets Jews, all he needs to do is fill a page of The Guardian with his muddled bombast, but if I am accused of thought crimes, John Le Carré will demand that I suppress my paperback edition. He says that he is more interested in safeguarding publishing staff than in my royalties. But it is precisely these people, my novel's publishers in some thirty countries, together with the staff of bookshops, who have most passionately supported and defended my right to publish. It is ignoble of Le Carré to use them as an argument for censorship when they have so courageously stood up for freedom.

John Le Carré is right to say that free speech isn't absolute. We have the freedoms we fight for, and we lose those we don't defend. I'd always thought George Smiley knew that. His creator appears to have forgotten.

Salman Rushdie

November 20, 1997

John Le Carré's conduct in your pages is like nothing so much as that of a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head. He used to be evasive and euphemistic about the open solicitation of murder, for bounty, on the grounds that ayatollahs had feelings, too. Now he tells us that his prime concern was the safety of the girls in the mailroom. For good measure, he arbitrarily counterposes their security against Rushdie's royalties.

May we take it, then, that he would have had no objection if The Satanic Verses had been written and published for free and distributed gratis from unattended stalls? This might have at least satisfied those who appear to believe that the defense of free expression should be free of cost and free of risk.

As it happens, no mailroom girls have been injured in the course of eight years' defiance of the fatwa. And when the nervous book chains of North America briefly did withdraw The Satanic Verses on dubious grounds of "security," it was their staff unions who protested and who volunteered to stand next to plate-glass windows in upholding the reader's right to buy and peruse any book. In Le Carré's eyes, their brave decision was taken in "safety" and was moreover blasphemous towards a great religion! Could we not have been spared this revelation of the contents of his hat— I mean head?

Christopher Hitchens

November 21, 1997

Anyone reading yesterday's letters from Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens might well ask himself into whose hands the great cause of free speech he has fallen. Whether from Rushdie's throne on Hitchens's gutter, the message is the same: "Our cause is absolute, it brooks no dissent or qualification; whoever questions it is by definition an ignorant, pompous, semi-literate unperson."

Rushdie sneers at my language and trashes a thoughtful and well-received speech I made to the Anglo-Israel Association, and which The Guardian saw fit to reprint. Hitchens portrays me as a buffoon who pours his own urine on his head. Two rabid ayatollahs could not have done a better job. But will the friendship last? I am amazed that Hitchen's has put up with Rushdie's self-canonisation for so long. Rushdie, so far as I can make out, does not deny the fact that he insulted a great religion. Instead he accuses me— note his preposterous language for a change— of taking the philistine reductionist radical Islamist line. I didn't know I was so clever.

What I do know is, Rushdie took on a known enemy and screamed "foul" when it acted in character. The pain he has had to endure is appalling, but it doesn't make a martyr of him, nor— much as he would like it to— does it sweep away all argument about the ambiguities of his participation in his own downfall.

John Le Carré

November 22, 1997

If he wants to win an argument, John Le Carré could begin by learning how to read. It's true I did call him a pompous ass, which I thought pretty mild in the circumstances. "Ignorant" and "semi-literate" are dunces' caps he has skilfully fitted on his own head. I wouldn't dream of removing them. Le Carré's habit of giving himself good reviews ("my thoughtful and well-received speech") was no doubt developed because, well, somebody has to write them. He accuses me of not having done the same for myself. "Rushdie," says the dunce, "does not deny he insulted a great world religion." I have no intention of repeating yet again my many explications of The Satanic Verses, a novel of which I remain extremely proud. A novel, Mr. Le Carré, not a gibe. You know what a novel is, don't you, John?

Salman Rushdie


The NYT had provided some footnotes to the epistolary exchange:

Some historical footnotes have emerged that may account for the high levels of vitriol. In October 1989, Mr. Rushdie was asked by The Independent on Sunday to critique Mr. le Carre's ''Russia House.'' From his hideaway, Mr. Rushdie sent in a review that mocked Mr. le Carre's pretension to be considered more than a successful popular writer, concluding, ''Close, but -- this time anyway -- no cigar.''

In his Nov. 15 article Mr. le Carre said he was warned by friends of the futility of responding to the Times review that appeared on Oct. 20, 1996, which he contended ''smeared'' him as an anti-Semite. The review, by Norman Rush, a novelist, praised the book as a ''tour de force'' but faulted it for portraying the principal character, a Jew, as ''yet another literary avatar of Judas.'' Mr. Rush said the association, ''however little Mr. le Carre intended it,'' left him with a feeling of ''unease.''

Mr. le Carre described his reaction in the article, saying, ''I realized that we were dealing not with offbeat accusations of anti-Semitism so much as the whole oppressive weight of political correctness, a kind of McCarthyite movement in reverse.'' He said he wished he had ignored his friends' advice and gone ahead and written to The Times.

But in fact he did. The Times published his letter complaining that he had been ''tarred with the anti-Semitic brush.'' on Nov. 3, 1996, along with a response from Mr. Rush denying the contention. ''I have not said or implied that Mr. le Carre is an anti-Semite, and I do not think it,'' Mr. Rush wrote.

Mr. le Carre and Mr. Rushdie now appear to have vacated the ring, but others have leaped in. William Shawcross, an author and journalist who is a declared friend of both men, said he felt Mr. Rushdie's claims were ''outrageous'' and carried the ''stink of triumphalist self-righteousness.''

Asked if there was any more to come, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, said today that he had asked Mr. Rushdie if he cared to respond to Mr. Shawcross and that the writer's answer was: ''If le Carre wants to get his friends to do a little proxy whinging, that's his business. I've said what I have to say.''

An additional comment, notable for its equitable abusiveness, was contributed by a past master of the art of ''slanging,'' Richard Ingrams, the former editor of the satirical weekly Private Eye. He said: ''As I have a low opinion of both of them and can't bear to read either of their works, I must say I think they are both as bad as each other. Perhaps the solution is they should both sit down and write a book together.'' 

Also See: When V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux Shook Hands

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