Nobody I’ve read much likes Salman Rushdie’s third-person memoir, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, because nobody much likes the author. Zoe Heller writes the following in the NYRB: “A man living under threat of death for nine years is not to be blamed for occasionally characterizing his plight in grandiloquent terms. But one would hope that when recollecting his emotions in freedom and safety, he might bring some ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast. Hindsight, alas, has had no sobering effect on Rushdie’s magisterial amour propre. An unembarrassed sense of what he is owed as an embattled, literary immortal-in-waiting pervades his book. He wants us to sympathize with the irritation he felt when the men in his protection team abbreviated his grand, Conradian-Chekhovian alias to ‘Joe.’ [The horror! The horror! - PJL] He wants us to appreciate his outrage at being given orders by jumped-up Scotland Yard officers. (‘It was a shaming aspect of his life that policemen felt able to talk to him like this.’) He wants us to understand the affront he felt when diplomatic efforts on his behalf were held up by negotiations to bring back British hostages from Iran: ‘Terry Waite’s human rights had to be given precedence over his own.’ Above all, he wants us to share his aggrieved sense that he was a prophet without nearly enough honor in his own country.”
“Faced with a choice between exercising magnanimity and exacting long-awaited revenge,” Heller continues, Rushdie “almost invariably opts for the latter.” Especially, as other reviewers have noted too, toward his wives”
“Rushdie has a habit of excusing his own fairly frequent infidelities and betrayals with reference to the imperative nature of his own desires. (‘His own needs were like commands,’ he recalls when explaining why he had to leave his third wife, Elizabeth West, and young son to go gallivanting in America.) The various failings of the wives—their money-grubbing and nagging, their jealousy of his talent, and so on—are not so readily excused.”
Padma Lakshmi, the fourth, gets the worst treatment: “Rushdie presents her as the Marion Davies to his William Randolph Hearst—an erotically beguiling but fundamentally vapid gold digger, whose selfish ambitions as a model, actress, and TV host have, in the end, ‘nothing to do with the fulfillment of his deepest needs.’ The final revelation of her shallowness comes in the wake of September 11 when Rushdie, grieving and shaken and feeling the need to connect with loved ones, calls her in Los Angeles and finds her ‘doing a lingerie shoot.’” Shallow meets self-regard.
Heller quotes this amazing passage: “He would eat at Balthazar, Da Silvano and Nobu, he would go to movie screenings and book launches and be seen enjoying himself at late-night hot spots such as Moomba, at which Padma was well known…. Only by living openly, visibly and fearlessly, and being written about for doing so, could he reduce the climate of fear around him which was now, in his opinion, a bigger obstacle than whatever Iranian threat still remained.” The third person makes this more self-serving, not less.