Non-fiction books taking us to places both familiar and strange by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

Knife by Salman Rushdie is an account of the near-fatal attack on the well-known writer in 2022 by a lone knife-wielding terrorist who hated Rushdie for his writings, having read just two pages, and could only aver that Rushdie was “disingenuous.” The assailant, whom Rushdie calls “A” (for ass) but refuses to name, somehow eluded security at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York state. He rushed onto the stage, where Rushdie was set to deliver a speech on the need to protect writers from harm.  For an eternity of 27 seconds, “A” slashed away at Rushdie’s face, hands and torso, stopped only by other panelists and audience members who restrained the attacker until first responders arrived. Rushdie was not expected to live.

Unlike Rushdie’s fiction, Knife is a first-person detailed (often gory) account of the life-changing event, a granular account of his physical challenges, the slow grinding road to recovery, the emotional impact, and the role of his wife, family and friends in helping him survive. He struggled to come to grips with the banality of the assailant, using the awkward device of an imagined extended conversation with him, wrestling with “A”’s presumed psychology and ideology, and finally reaching the point where Rushdie could stop outside the prison where “A” is locked up and simply feel that “A” had become irrelevant.

Rushdie looks back at the fatwa against him imposed by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, which forced him to live in the shadows in London, always under heavy security.  He ruminates about his writing, (including the controversial Satanic Verses and Booker Award-winning Midnight’s Children), his harsh childhood with an alcoholic and abusive father, his friends and critics in literary circles, and the precarious state of art and freedom. He revels in the love and loyalty of his beautiful young (5th) wife, poet Eliza Griffiths, who barely left his side for weeks during his ordeal. In a stream-of-consciousness style, Rushdie explores aspects of psychology, philosophy, and lifestyle, frequently quoting from other writers past and present.

One reviewer said that “Knife” is too full of self-regard, but the life at the center of the account was on the brink of being extinguished. Is not the person clinging to the edge logically driven to reassessment of the life imperiled, a reconsideration of what-ifs? Rushdie says he had to write the story as a way, ultimately, of putting the savage attack behind him. Throughout the book, he is mindful of Socrates’ assertion that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The attack cost Rushdie his right eye, much of the use of one hand, and other residual effects of the slashing, but it gave him a much deeper sense of the sources of love in his life, the beauty of the world around him and the need to cling to the small things that make every day meaningful. Knife is an eye-opening look at a man who, has, despite his celebrity, been a mystery to many for decades. A very different – and thought-provoking – read.

The Years by Annie Ernaux is a memoir told through history.  In invoking his muse, ancient Greek poet Homer created the story of one man to tell the history of a people.  By contrast, Ernaux, chronicles 70 years of French history to tell her personal story, emblematic of her generation.

Born in 1940, she reconstructs provincial post-World-WarII France from pictures in a photo album. The literary device continues throughout the book. Ernaux details France’s history from Charles DeGaulle through student revolts of the sixties, the generation’s lurching from sexual repression to free love, the Algerian war and independence movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s, the resulting immigrant influx, the back and forth between socialist control and the emerging right wing under Le Pen. In the process, she reveals her student life, becoming a teacher, marrying, moving to a Paris suburb, having a baby, divorcing, aging and eventually developing as an author.

Ernaux also captures cultural and economic trends as reflected by music (e.g., French chanteuse Edith Piaf and the Beatles), literature (John Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir), feminism, the visual arts, obsessive consumerism and acquisition of household appliances, phones, cars, and other material ways people define themselves. She explores the promise and problems wrought by later emerging technologies. As Ernaux builds impression upon impression, fervent to set down memories lest they slip away, she usually refers to herself in the third person, creating distance between herself and her memoir. She also writes as “we,” as if to ensure her role as part of a generational cohort. Readers, especially women, of her age, will come to know her as her evolving memories resonate with their own.

When the central “she” retires, Ernaux comes to discuss her intention to write this book and the distinctive style that she intends. She envisions it as a “palimpsest,” written layer upon layer as a discovered ancient document, and gropes to see a future in which she is absent.

The impressionistic, often impersonal technique, the frequent long lists of things and events, does not always satisfy a reader more comfortable with traditional story telling, but it is historically and visually rich, and prompts the reader to capture similar recollections of one’s own life. Ernaux has been called the Proust of the 21st century. It’s a plausible analogy, and a worthwhile read.

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