by Salman Rushdie
A lecture delivered at the University of Torino, March 1999
The Australian novelist and poet David Malouf tells us that “the real enemy of writing is talk.” He warns particularly of the dangers of speaking about work in progress. When writing, one is best advised to keep one’s mouth shut, so that the words flow out, instead, through one’s fingers. One builds a dam across the river of words in order to create the hydroelectricity of literature.
I propose, therefore, to speak not of my writing but rather of my reading, and in particular of the many ways in which my experience of Italian literature (and, I must add, Italian cinema) has shaped my thoughts about how and what to write. That is, I want to talk about influence.
“Influence.” The word itself suggests something fluid, something “flowing in.” This feels right, if only because I have always envisaged the world of the imagination not so much as a continent as an ocean. Afloat and terrifyingly free upon these boundless seas, the writer attempts, with his bare hands, the magical task of metamorphosis. Like the figure in the fairy tale who must spin straw into gold, the writer must find the trick of weaving the waters together until they become land: until, all of a sudden, there is solidity where once there was only flow, shape where there was formlessness; there is ground beneath his feet. (And if he fails, of course, he drowns. The fable is the most unforgiving of literary forms.)
The young writer, perhaps uncertain, perhaps ambitious, probably both at once, casts around for help; and sees, within the flow of the ocean, certain sinuous thicknesses, like ropes, the work of earlier weavers, of sorcerers who swam this way before him. Yes, he can use these “in-flowings,” he can grasp them and wind his own work around them. He knows, now, that he will survive. Eagerly, he begins.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of literary influence, of these useful streams of other people’s consciousness, is that they can flow toward the writer from almost anywhere. Often they travel long distances to reach the one who can use them. In South America, I was impressed by the familiarity of Latin American writers with the work of the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The editor Victoria Ocampo, who met and admired Tagore, had arranged for his work to be well translated and widely published throughout her own continent, and as a result the influence of Tagore is perhaps greater there than in his own homeland, where the translations from Bengali into the many other tongues of India are often of poor quality, and the great man’s genius must be taken on trust.
Another example is that of William Faulkner. This great American writer is little read in the United States these days; certainly there are few contemporary American writers who claim him as an influence or teacher. I once asked another fine writer of the American South, Eudora Welty, if Faulkner had been a help or a hindrance to her. “Neither one,” she replied. “It’s like knowing there’s a great mountain in the neighborhood. It’s good to know it’s there, but it doesn’t help you to do your work.” Outside the United States, however—in India, in Africa, and again in Latin America—Faulkner is the American writer most praised by local writers as an inspiration, an enabler, an opener of doors.
From this transcultural, translingual capacity of influence we can deduce something about the nature of literature: that (if I may briefly abandon my watery metaphor) books can grow as easily from spores borne on the air as from their makers’ particular and local roots. That there are international families of words as well as the more familiar clans of earth and blood. Sometimes—as in the case of the influence of James Joyce on the work of Samuel Beckett, and the subsequent and equal influence of Beckett on the work of Harold Pinter—the sense of dynasty, of a torch handed on down the generations, is very clear and very strong. In other cases the familial links are less obvious but no less powerful for that.
When I first read the novels of Jane Austen, books out of a country and a time far removed from my own upbringing in metropolitan, mid-twentieth-century Bombay, the thing that struck me about her heroines was how Indian, how contemporary, they seemed. Those bright, willful, sharp-tongued women, brimming with potential but doomed by the narrow convention to an interminable Huis-clos of ballroom dancing and husband hunting, were women whose counterparts could be found throughout the Indian bourgeoisie. The influence of Austen on Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is plain to see.
Charles Dickens, too, struck me from the first as a quintessentially Indian novelist. Dickensian London, that stenchy, rotting city full of sly, conniving shysters, that city in which goodness was under constant assault by duplicity, malice, and greed, seemed to me to hold up the mirror to the pullulating cities of India, with their preening elites living the high life in gleaming skyscrapers while the great majority of their compatriots battled to survive in the hurly-burly of the streets below. In my earlier novels I tried to draw on the genius of Dickens. I was particularly taken with what struck me as his real innovation: namely, his unique combination of naturalistic backgrounds and surreal foregrounds. In Dickens, the details of place and social mores are skewered by a pitiless realism, a naturalistic exactitude that has never been bettered. Upon this realistic canvas he places his outsize characters, in whom we have no choice but to believe because we cannot fail to believe in the world they live in. So I tried, in my novel Midnight’s Children, to set against a scrupulously observed social and historical background—against, that is, the canvas of a “real” India—my “unrealist” notion of children born at the midnight moment of India’s independence, and endowed with magical powers by the coincidence, children who were in some way the embodiment of both the hopes and the flaws of that revolution.
Within the authoritative framework of his realism, Dickens can also make us believe in the perfectly Surrealist notion of a government department, the Circumlocution Office, dedicated to making nothing happen; or in the perfectly Absurdist, Ionesco-like case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, a case whose nature it is never to reach a conclusion; or in the “magical realist” image of the dust-heaps in Our Mutual Friend—the physical symbols of a society living in the shadow of its own excrement, which must, incidentally, also have been an influence on a ecent American masterpiece, which takes the waste products of America as its central metaphor, Don DeLillo’s Underworld.
If influence is omnipresent in literature, it is also, one should emphasize, always secondary in any work of quality. When it is too crude, too obvious, the results can be risible. I was once sent, by an aspiring writer, a short story that began, “One morning Mrs. K. awoke to find herself metamorphosed into a front-loading washing machine.” One can only imagine how Kafka would have reacted to so inept—so detergent—an act of homage.
Perhaps because so much second-rate writing is derivative—and because so much writing is at best second-rate—the idea of influence has become a kind of accusation, a way of denigrating a writer’s work. The frontier between influence and imitation, even between influence and plagiarism, has commenced of late to be somewhat blurred. Two years ago, the distinguished British writer Graham Swift was accused by an obscure Australian academic of something odorously close to plagiarism in his Booker Prize–winning novel Last Orders: the “substantial borrowing” of the multi-voiced narrative structure of his novel from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The British press whipped this accusation up into a sort of scandal, and now Swift was accused of literary “plundering,” and those who defended him were sneered at for their “lofty indulgence” toward him. All this in spite of, or perhaps because of, Swift’s ready concession that he had been influenced by Faulkner, and in spite, too, of the awkward fact that the structures of the two books aren’t really so very alike, although some echoes are apparent. In the end such simple verities ensured that the scandal fizzled out, but not before Swift had been given a media roasting.
Interesting, then, that when Faulkner published As I Lay Dying, he himself had been accused of borrowing its structure from an earlier novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. His retort is the best possible answer that could be given: that when he was in the throes of composing what he modestly called his tour de force, he took whatever he needed from wherever he could find it, and knew of no writer who would not find such borrowing to be completely justified.
In my novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a young boy actually travels to the ocean of imagination, which is described to him by his guide:
“He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that . . . the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.”
By using what is old, and adding to it some new thing of our own, we make what is new. In The Satanic Verses I tried to answer the question, how does newness enter the world? Influence, the flowing of the old into the new, is one part of the answer.
In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino describes the fabulous city of Octavia, suspended between two mountains in something like a spider’s web. If influence is the spider’s web in which we hang our work, then the work is like Octavia itself, that glittering jewel of a dream city, hanging in the filaments of the web, for as long as they are able to bear its weight.
I first met Calvino when I was asked to introduce a reading he gave at the Riverside Studios in London in the early 1980s. This was the time of the British publication of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and I had just published a long essay about his work in the London Review of Books—disgracefully, this was one of the earliest serious pieces about Calvino to be published in the British press. I knew Calvino had liked the piece, but nevertheless I was nervous about having to speak about his work in his presence. My nervousness increased when he demanded to see my text before we went out to face the audience. What would I do if he disapproved? He read it in silence, frowning a little, then handed it back and nodded. I had evidently passed the examination, and what had particularly pleased him was my comparison of his work with that of the classical writer Lucius Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass.
“Give me a penny and I’ll tell you a golden story,” the old Milesian oral storytellers used to say, and Apuleius’s tale of transformation had used the fabulist manner of these ancient tellers of tall stories to great effect. He possessed, too, those virtues that Calvino also embodied and of which he wrote so well in one of his last works, Six Memos for the Next Millennium: the virtues of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. These qualities were much in my mind when I came to write Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
Although the form of this novel is that of a child’s fantastic adventure, I wanted the work somehow to erase the division between children’s literature and adult books. It was in the end a question of finding precisely the right tone of voice, and Apuleius and Calvino were the ones who helped me to find it. I re-read Calvino’s great trilogy, The Baron in the Trees, The Cloven Viscount, and The Nonexistent Knight, and they gave me the clues I needed. The secret was to use the language of the fable while eschewing the easy moral purpose of, for example, Aesop.
Recently, I have again been thinking about Calvino. The sixth of his “memos for the next millennium” was to have been on the subject of consistency. Consistency is the special genius of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Calvino was planning to suggest—that heroic, inexplicable Bartleby who simply and unshakably “preferred not to.” One might add the names of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, so inexorable in his search for small but necessary justice, or of Conrad’s Nigger of the Narcissus, who insisted that he must live until he died, or of chivalry-maddened Quixote, or of Kafka’s Land Surveyor, eternally yearning toward the unattainable Castle.
We are speaking of an epic consistency, a monomania that strives toward the condition of tragedy or myth. But consistency also may be understood in a darker sense, the consistency of Ahab in pursuit of his whale, of Savonarola who burned the books, of Khomeini’s definition of his revolution as a revolt against history itself.
More and more I feel drawn toward Calvino’s unexplored sixth value. The new millennium that is upon us already shows signs of being dominated by alarming examples of consistency of all types: the great refusers, the wild quixotics, the narrow-minded, the bigoted, and those who are valiant for truth. But now I am coming close to doing what David Malouf warns against—that is, discussing the nature of my own embryonic, and fragile (because as yet uncreated), work. So I must leave it there, and say only that Calvino, whose early support and encouragement I will always remember, continues to murmur in my ear.
I should add that many other artists both of classical Rome and of modern Italy have been, so to speak, present at my shoulder. When I was writing Shame, I re-read Suetonius’s great study of the twelve Caesars. Here they were in their palaces, these foul dynasts, power-mad, libidinous, deranged, locked in a series of murderous embraces, doing one another terrible harm. Here was a tale of coup and counter-coup; and yet, as far as their subjects beyond the palace gates were concerned, nothing really changed. Power remained within the family. The Palace was still the Palace.
From Suetonius, I learned much about the paradoxical nature of power elites, and so was able to construct an elite of my own in the version of Pakistan that is the setting for Shame: an elite riven by hatreds and fights to the death but joined by bonds of blood and marriage and, crucially, in control of all the power in the land. For the masses, deprived of all power, the brutal wars inside the elite change little or nothing. The Palace still rules, and the people still groan under its heel.
If Suetonius influenced Shame, then The Satanic Verses, a novel whose central theme is that of metamorphosis, evidently learned much from Ovid; and for The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which is informed by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Virgil’s Georgics were essential reading. And, if I may make one more tentative step toward the unwritten future, I have for a long time been engaged and fascinated by the Florence of the High Renaissance in general, and by the character of Niccolò Machiavelli in particular.
The demonization of Machiavelli strikes me as one of the most successful acts of slander in European history. In the English literature of the Elizabethan golden age, there are around four hundred Machiavellian references, none of them favorable. At that time no work of Machiavelli’s was available in the English language; the playwrights of England were basing their satanic portraits on a translated French text, the Anti-Machiavel. The sinister, amoral persona created for Machiavelli then still cloaks his reputation. As a fellow writer who has also learned a thing or two about demonization, I feel it may soon be time to re-evaluate the maligned Florentine.
I have sought to portray a little of the cultural cross-pollination without which literature becomes parochial and marginal. Before concluding, I must pay tribute to the genius of Federico Fellini, from whose films, as a young man, I learned how one might transmute the highly charged material of childhood and private life into the stuff of showmanship and myth; and to those other Italian masters, Pasolini, Visconti, Antonioni, De Sica, and so on, and so on—for of influence and creative stimulation there can really be no end.
Step Across This Line – Collected Nonfiction 1992 – 2002.