Salman Rushdie’s “Joseph Anton” and Bob Dylan: Rushdie as ‘Dylan worshipper’?

(NOTE: I will be posting a full review of Joseph Anton as such here, soon)

Some years back, in an article still available at: http://yatrarollason.info/files/RushdieGFupdated.pdf, I outlined the (quite considerable) impact of Bob Dylan on the work of Salman Rushdie. The key work here is ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’, Rushdie’s novel of 1999 about the rock music world, but Bob Dylan also has the distinction of having his ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ featured in no less a work of literature than ‘The Satanic Verses’. As I showed in my essay, Dylan references are scattered right across Rushdie’s œuvre (indeed, I subsequently looked at the novelist’s post-‘Ground’ allusions in an appendix covering his later work up to 2006). His two novels since 2006, ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ (2008) and ‘Luka and the Fire of Life’ (2010), do not to my knowledge contain any Dylan allusions (other than that the first points up Rushdie’s and Dylan’s common interest in Machiavelli), but now Rushdie’s latest work, the autobiographical ‘Joseph Anton’ (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012, 636 pp), makes up for that omission with a fair sprinkling of Dylaniana.

‘Joseph Anton’, named after the pseudonym Rushdie adopted in hiding, is primarily about his experiences under Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa and under constant police protection from 1989 to 2002, but it also ranges back and forth across Rushdie’s personal and writerly life as a whole. Here and there, gleaming amid the book’s dense mosaic of cultural allusion, are significant nuggets namechecking or quoting Bob Dylan, In his confessed enthusiasm for the songs of the former Robert Allen Zimmerman, Salman Rushdie shows himself to be as much a representative figure of his generation as his friend the late Christopher Hitchens, who (as I have also pointed out, at: http://nicolamenicacci.com/bdcc/christopher-hitchens-bob-dylan-fan), in his own memoir of 2010, ‘Hitch-22’, staked a claim to Dylan fandom in rather similar terms.

In ‘Joseph Anton’, Rushdie tells how he was introduced to Dylan’s work as an adolescent, by a friend at Rugby School – becoming ‘an enthusiastic Dylan worshipper’ after hearing ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ (30). Two pages later, he draws on that album to include ‘hard rain’ among the emblematic phrases of ‘the golden age of rock music’ (32). Elsewhere, Rushdie recalls how ‘A folk singer plugged his guitar into an amp and a voice in the crowd shouted “Judas !”’ (343), conflating two well-known Dylan episodes (the Newport Folk Festival and the Manchester Free Trade Hall incident) to offer one response among several to the question: ‘How does newness enter the world?’ – which, Rushdie says, was exercising him when he wrote ‘The Satanic Verses’. Later, Bono (the U2 frontman is a friend of Rushdie’s and a part of the intertextual nexus around ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’) is cited as telling the novelist that ‘in a rock group the writer just became a sort of conduit for the feelings in the air, the words didn’t drive the work, the music did, unless you came from a folk tradition like Dylan’ (388); and, finally, evoking the endless climate of uncertainty over the fatwa (will-they-won’t-they drop it?), Rushdie muses of his third-person alias, quoting (or actually slightly misquoting) Bob Dylan’s most famous song of all: ‘If there was an answer blowing [sic] in that wind, he had no idea what it was’ (459).

The evidence from ‘Joseph Anton’ is that for Rushdie, ‘Bob Dylan’ is above all the Bob Dylan of the first half of the 60s, the acoustic protest singer who, of course, Dylan hasn’t been for over four-and-a-half decades. Even as rock artist, he is mentioned in the context of his mutation from folk performer. This is the 60s-icon « Bob Dylan » to be found too in Christopher Hitchens’ memoir. Rushdie has, though, shown, in ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ and elsewhere, that he does have some familiarity with the later Dylan; and surely he of all writers should be aware of how limiting it can be for an artist to be stuck forever in the metonymic groove of being famous for a statistically small but ever-retrodden segment of an œuvre that is in reality varied and abundant.

So in Rushdie’s pages, it’s the ‘60s Dylan’ once again – once more, the Dylan who wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ half a century ago, yet, believe it or not, is still a living (and touring) artist today. At least those who reduce Dylan to half-a-dozen protest songs do usually have some kind of first-hand acquaintance, however superficial, with the works they cite, which cannot be said of too many of those who have opined over the years about ‘The Satanic Verses’. Meanwhile and at all events, ‘Joseph Anton’, among its many other merits, usefully reminds the world that Salman Rushdie has things to say about Bob Dylan; though to the inverse question as to what, if anything, Bob Dylan might have to say about Salman Rushdie – well, to the best of my knowledge: the answer is still .. dare I say it? – blowin’ in  the wind …

**

Details of my article on ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ are as follows:

Christopher Rollason, ‘Rushdie’s Un-Indian Music: “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”‘, in Studies in Indian Writing in English, vol. II, ed. Rajeshwar Mittapalli and Pier Paolo Piciucco, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2001, 122-157; republished in Salman Rushdie: New Critical Insights, vol. II, ed. Rajeshwar Mittapalli and Joel Kuortti, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2003, 89-125; updated version (2006) on-line at: http://yatrarollason.info/files/RushdieGFupdated.pdf; and http://nicolamenicacci.com/bdcc/rushdie.pdf

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