Salman Rushdie is known to be a long-term Dylan admirer (indeed, Dylan is even quoted in ‘The Satanic Verses’), and in 2017 effusively welcomed the songwriter’s controversial Nobel Prize in Literature. I have been following Rushdie’s Dylan allusions, across a large part of his fiction and non-fiction, for some time, – notably with reference to his rock-era novel ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’:
and now bring the matter up to date with the Dylan harvest from his latest novel, ‘The Golden House’ (I did the same for the preceding novel, ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’, on this blog – entry for 9 October 2015 – at:
‘The Golden House’ (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), set mostly in New York, is a novel of contemporary life in which the Indian-born author addresses a whole range of current issues, from the rise of Trump to transexuality and identity politics. Despite Rushdie’s fame as practitioner of magic realism, it is written entirely in realist mode, with a first-person narrator who is an aspiring film director. As is typical with Rushdie, the text is shot through with cultural references, to books, films, songs and more, straddling high culture and mass culture, and amid this throng of allusions I am pleased to locate half-a-dozen, explicit or implicit, to Bob Dylan, in what is Rushdie’s first novel since the Nobel conferred a new gravitas on Dylan the songwriter.
Bob Dylan is mentioned by name twice (pp. 12, 27) as a former – if ‘long gone’ – resident of the part of Greenwich Village where the Golden family (the book’s main protagonists) live. There is also a reference to the famously demented Dylanite A.J. Weberman (p. 35) and his habit of searching through his idol’s trashcans.
Next, we are told that one of the Golden family, Petya, a young man diagnosed with high-functioning autism, boasts among his achievements that of knowing Dylan lyrics by heart, and proves it by reciting in its entirety one of Dylan’s longest songs, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’. It is not the first time Rushdie has cited this song: it also makes a bow in ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ and ‘Fury’. Here, Petya is said to recite it ‘as reverently as if it were a companion piece to [John Keats’ poem] “La Belle Dame sans Merci”‘ (p. 44), with Rushdie thus weighing in, it may be a shade late in the day, on the ‘Dylan vs Keats / popular art vs high art’ debate that at one time wracked the Anglophone academy.
Later, Petya engages in a melodramatic twelve-hour one-person walk across Manhattan, at which point the text exhibits a number of embedded quotations from Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ – uncredited, but too many to be anything but deliberate (again, Rushdie has quoted from this song before, in ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’). The narrator imagines the walk proceeding with ‘the sound of a tambourine at each footfall’: then come an explicit reference to a ‘tambourine man’ and the phrases ‘the haunted, frightened trees’ (p. 201), ‘far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow’, and ‘to dance. Beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free [Rushdie’s punctuation]’ (p. 202), all straight from a Dylan song which Rushdie may be reading as invoking the kind of parallel reality into which his afflicted character Petya retreats.
A final Dylan reference, again uncredited, appears in the run-up to Petya’s death at the hands of a demented gunman, when the narrator retrospectively asks: ‘Was I the only person in the Golden house that day who heard the beating of fatal wings, the proleptic sighs of the guilty undertaker, the slow falling of the curtain at the end of the play’? (p. 281): the ‘guilty undertaker’ hails straight from of the first line of Dylan’s ‘I Want You’.
Once again then, in ‘The Golden House’ Bob Dylan is numbered among the multiple textual influences on Salman Rushdie’s writing, and receives his due from a major literary chronicler of our time.
Note added 2 February 2018: I have now given ‘The Golden House’ a full review on this blog – entry for 1 February 2018.