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Tales of two books

By Sophie Masson - posted Wednesday, 16 January 2013


First is new Australian novel, The Seaglass Spiral, by Alan Gould, published by Finlay Lloyd:

This is an absolutely beautiful book, in every way. An extraordinary mix of fiction and non-fiction, it tells the story of lovers Ralf Sebright and Susan Ravenglass and their various ancestors, weaving the stories across centuries and countries in such a vivid way that you feel you are constantly in the presence of life, and love, for this is very much a book about the links between people. The language is gorgeous, acute, observant; the feeling is tender, humorous, earthy and has an unusual elegance all its own.

The author is a poet as well as novelist and his acute perception of words as well as character and atmosphere makes the book a special delight. The book as object too is just gorgeous - lovely cover (based on an image by the author's wife, Anne Langridge), beautiful shape (taller than the average paperback) and beautiful inside, with some photographs printed on the same creamy paper as the text, so that it looks like part of the whole. It's published by a small press who really care about books. Highly recommended.

Second is Joseph Anton, a memoir, by Salman Rushdie, published by Jonathan Cape.

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This huge book is an account of the ten-year ordeal of the novelist as he struggled to cope with the severely restricted life of fear, rage, despair and stultifying boredom imposed on him by having to go into hiding after Khomeini's fatwa against him for writing The Satanic Verses became a death sentence.

It's written in the third person, a device I found rather distracting at first and then accepted as giving a flavour of how disconnected poor Salman Rushdie felt from not only his former, normal life (or as normal as that of any name-dropping member of the London literary glitterati can be!) but also from his actual self.

The demonic creature who deserved death which stared at him from every crazy placard and hateful utterance of every Islamic fanatic and opportunist on the planet; the alias self, Joseph Anton, named after the author's two favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, also known as 'Joe' by the down to earth Special Branch officers who protected him in those dreadful years; the 'author of the controversial book' about whom everyone had an opinion, whether good or bad or just plain silly; even the ineptly arrogant Salman of the cowardly, two-faced Dismayed Friends who tut-tutted about his situation as though he 'should have known better', as if he should have expected that a 'magic realist' novel could have you running in danger of your life: all these extra personae were drowning the human being as he was to himself, and the third-person narration makes that plainly and painfully clear.

If you imagine suffering should ennoble, however, you'd have a reality check with this book. This is unvarnished stuff (and often feels unedited), based on his journals in hiding. It isn't a pretty picture: character flaws come out glaringly, and he often reveals himself to be petty, arrogant, ungenerous, even downright nasty, and reveals details about certain people, particularly his wives, that I think would have been better left under a veil of silence (especially as he rarely if ever is so harsh on himself!)

It's true that the reported behaviour particularly of his second wife, Marianne Wiggins, is hard to justify, but still, it seems to me, it would have been better left to one side or at least not explored in as much detail.

But about Clarissa, his first wife, his beloved son Zafar and friends who stayed true, he has nothing but praise and love, and much respect and affection too for the Special Branch guys who looked after him (though nothing but dislike of their bosses, the government etc).

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And whenever I was tempted to think, good God, Salman, this is really rather appalling of you, I'd think, well, how would I behave if I was subject to those sorts of stresses? Would I act graciously or lash out in all directions? I have no answer to that, anymore than I have to the question of his irritatingly, rudely simplistic lack of understanding of religion and the religious impulse in its non-fanatical, non-murderously-literal-minded aspects, as experienced by the vast majority of people around the world.

However, to expect him to be judicious on these matters is too much to expect, given the circumstances! As it is to expect him to be sanguine about the often-cowardly way in which the publishing industry, public figures and indeed governments behaved when faced with the bullying of Iran - and their enthusiastic rent-a-crowd mobs in Bradford - on the 'Rushdie question'.

There are moments of humour, as in a hilariously dry evocation of the ridiculously inept death-wish Pakistani film, International Gorillay (they meant to say Guerillas, but it got lost in translation, clearly!) which imagines Pakistani 'gorillay' looking for the author, who is of course protected by Israeli commandos!

And there's some great sketches of the Special Branch guys and their rather lame 'policemen jokes'. But these flashes of humour are few and far between. Yet despite its many flaws, this is a book I really do recommend to other readers. It's not one you'll easily forget.

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About the Author

Born in Indonesia of French parents, Sophie Masson came to Australia at the age of five, and spent her childhood in both Australia and France. She is the author of more than 30 novels, for adults, young adults and children, and is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines, both print and online, all over the world. Sophie Masson's latest novels are The Phar Lap Mystery (Scholastic Press) and The Hunt for Ned Kelly (Scholastic Press). She is a regular blogger at Writer Unboxed.

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