Alfred Hitchcock specialized in films about marked men: innocents, more or less, who suddenly find themselves pursued by sinister forces to the ends of the Earth. Little wonder, then, that Salman Rushdie would count himself a Hitchcock fan. The novelist references the filmmaker more than once in Salman Rushdie: Writing Under Death Threats, the DW television documentary above. He remembers a sequence from The Birds that cuts between students in a classroom and the playground outside: in one shot a blackbird comes to sit on the jungle gym, and just a few shots later it’s been joined by 500 more. “The case of what happened to The Satanic Verseswas, it was something like the first blackbird.”
Rushdie refers, of course, to the fatwa called down upon him in response to that novel’s supposed blasphemies against Islam by Ayatollah Khomeini. As a result he had to spend most of the subsequent decade in hiding, under the protection of the British government. By the time of this documentary, which came out in 2018, the danger seemed to have passed.
“What’s happening now, as the scandal goes away,” he says of The Satanic Verses, “is that people are able to read it as a book, rather than as some kind of scandalous text.” But the danger had not passed, as we learned earlier this month when Rushdie was stabbed onstage at a literary event in upstate New York, avoiding death by what’s been reported as a narrow margin indeed.
This story has its ironies, not least that Rushdie’s attacker was born in California a decade after the Iranian government’s disavowal of the fatwa. But for Rushdie himself, the attempt on his life can’t have come entirely as a surprise: he saw the gathering blackbirds of violent fanaticism as well as those of metropolitan complacency. Reflecting on the 2015 attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, he laments that “even people who are on the liberal, progressive, leftist end of the spectrum now find ‘problematic’ the idea of supporting people who make fun of religion.” Always and everywhere, writing has been done under the threat of one kind of punishment or another; more than 30 years after The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s case remains the most harrowingly extreme illustration of the writer’s condition.
I have often been asked if Christopher defended me because he was my close friend. The truth is that he became my close friend because he wanted to defend me. –Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie remains in critical condition after suffering multiple stab wounds while on stage in New York, a shocking occurrence but not quite surprising given that the author has lived with a death sentence over his head since 1989. (You can read the history of that controversy here.) The nation of Iran has denied any responsibility for the attack on the author, but it’s probably safe to assume that his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses has something to do with it, over thirty years after the fact.
“Even before the fatwa,” Steven Erlanger writes in The New York Times, “the book was banned in a number of countries, including India, Bangladesh, Sudan and Sri Lanka.” Protests of the novel resulted in several deaths and attacks on booksellers. Rushdie had not set out to enrage much of the Islamic world, but neither had he any interest in appeasing its conservative leaders. Always outspoken, and a ferocious critic of British Empire as well as Islamic theocracy, his career since the fatwa has demonstrated a commitment to freeing the literary arts from the dictates of church and state.
On the subject of imperialism, Rushdie and the late Christopher Hitchens came to disagree after the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq and Hitchens’ “U-turn across the political highway to join forces with the war-makers of George W. Bush’s administration,” Rushdie writes in a Vanity Fair appreciation for Hitchens‘ after the latter’s death. But his book God is Not Great “carried Hitch away from the American right and back toward his natural, liberal, ungodly constituency”; a collection of people who see the free expression of ideas as a far preferable condition to the existence of theocratic death squads.
Wherever he fell at any given time on the political spectrum, Hitchens never gave up his defense of Rushdie, one in which, as he wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22, he was completely committed from the start:
It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship–
Hitchens was gravely disappointed in liberal writers like Arthur Miller who refused to publicly support Rushdie out of fear, as he says in the television interview at the top of the post. The ambivalent response of many on the left struck him as gross political cowardice and hypocrisy. He went on the attack, arguing roundly on popular shows like Question Time (below, with his brother Peter, Baroness Williams, and recently deposed prime minister Boris Johnson).
Hitchens “saw that the attack on The Satanic Verses was not an isolated occurrence,” Rushdie writes, “that across the Muslim world, writers and journalists and artists were being accused of the same crimes — blasphemy, heresy, apostasy, and their modern-day associates, ‘insult’ and ‘offense.'” Rushdie had meant no offense, he writes, “I had not chosen the battle.” But it seems to have chosen him:
It was at least the right battle, because in it everything that I loved and valued (literature, freedom, irreverence, freedom, irreligion, freedom) was ranged against everything I detested (fanaticism, violence, bigotry, humorlessness, philistinism, and the new offense culture of the age). Then I read Christopher using exactly the same everything-he-loved-versus-everything-he-hated trope, and felt… understood.
If the fatwa against Rushdie made him infamous, it did not make him universally beloved, even among his fellow writers, but he always had a fierce ally in Hitchens. Let’s hope Rushdie can pick up the fight for free expression once again when he recovers from this brutal stabbing.
Not long after publishing his most beloved novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy gave away his wealth, renounced his aristocratic privileges, and embraced the life of a peasant. His extreme experiment in Christian anarchism notwithstanding, however, Tolstoy was fascinated by new technology and allowed himself to be photographed and filmed near the end of his life. On one occasion, he supposedly confessed a love of the cinema to his visitors and told them he was thinking of writing “a play for the screen” on a “bloody theme.”
“All the same,” argues Rosamund Bartlett at the OUP blog, Tolstoy “would probably have taken a dim view of the twenty odd screen adaptations of Anna Karenina.” The author died the year before the first filmed adaptation of his work, a silent French/Russian adaptation of Anna Karenina made in 1911. Five more would follow before Greta Garbo stepped into the role for a loose 1927 adaptation titled Love, then again a 1935 film version directed by Clarence Brown, with Fredric March as Vronsky and Garbo as the “most famous and critically-acclaimed of all the Annas Karenina,” Dan Sheehan writes at LitHub.
Garbo’s version is often considered the pinnacle of Tolstoy film adaptations — largely because of Garbo. Or as Graham Greene wrote then, “it is Greta Garbo’s personality which ‘makes’ this film, which fills the mold of the neat respectful adaptation with some kind of sense of the greatness of the novel.” The problem of adaptations — of great novels in general, and of Tolstoy’s in particular — is that they must reduce too much complexity, cut out too many characters and vital subplots, and boil down the wider themes of the book to focus almost solely on the tragic romance at its center.
Maybe this is what Tolstoy meant when he allegedly called the camera (“the little clicking contraption with the revolving handle”) a “direct attack on the old methods of literary art.” Novels were not meant to be films. They’re too loose and expansive. “We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine,” Tolstoy presciently noted, aware that film required an entirely different conception of narrative art. Adaptations of Anna continue to proliferate nonetheless in the 21st century, from Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation with Kiera Knightley to, most recently, Netflix’s first Russian original drama series with Svetlana Khodchenkova as the title character.
Tolstoy scholars largely echo what I suspect Tolstoy himself might have thought of filmed versions of his novel. As Carol Apollonio put it in a recent online discussion, “If you want Anna Karenina, read it again (and again). If you want something else, then read or watch that, but don’t assume it has a lot to do with Tolstoy.” That said, we bring you yet another adaptation of Anna Karenina, just above, a mini-series from 2013 starring Vittoria Puccini, Santiago Cabrera, Benjamin Sadler, and Max von Thun. Its setting and costuming are period-correct, but does it meet the exacting literary standard of the original? Of course not.
Film versions of novels can’t approximate literature. But a good adaptation of Anna Karenina, whether set in 19th-century Russia, 21st-century Australia, or entirely — as in Joe Wright’s 2012 film — on a stage, can convey “the emotional tragedy of Anna’s story,” Apollonio writes. Adaptations shouldn’t just illustrate their sources faithfully, nor should they take so much license that the source becomes irrelevant. They are always tied in some way to the original, and thus in every cinematic Anna is a little bit of Tolstoy. But you’ll have to read, or reread, the novel to see how much of it the series above captures, and how much it frustratingly leaves out.
The Châtelaine de Vergy, a courtly romance that was wildly popular in the mid-13th century, would’ve made a crowd pleasing graphic novel adaptation. It’s got sex, treachery, a trio of violent deaths, and a cute pup in a supporting role.
Seeing as how the form had yet to be invented, medieval audiences got the next best thing – a Gothic ivory casket on which the story is rendered as a series of carved pictures that start on the lid and wrap around the sides.
In an earlier video for the British Museum’s Curator’s Corner series, Late Medieval Collections Curator Naomi Speakman admitted that the purpose of such deluxe caskets is difficult to pin down. Were they tokens from one lover to another? Wedding gifts? Jewelry boxes? Document cases?
Unclear, but the intricate carvings’ narrative has definitely been identified as that of The Châtelaine de Vergy, a steamy secular alternative to the religious scenes whose depiction consumed a fair number of medieval elephant tusks.
A very graphic novelesque conceit Speakman points to in the British Museum’s casket finds the Duke of Burgundy breaking the frame (to use comics terminology), reaching behind the gutter to help himself to the sword the Châtelaine’s knightly lover has just plunged into his own breast.
Peer around to the far side of the casket to find out what the Duke intends to do with that sword. It’s a shocker that silences the trumpets, quiets the dancing ladies, and might even have laid ground for a sequel: Chatelaine: The Duke’s Wrath.
Read Eugene Mason’s early 20th century translation of The Chatelaine of Vergi here.
Watch more episodes of the British Museum’s Curator’s Corner here.
War and Peace (watch here) has been made into four different films. But that’s nothing beside the at least seventeen Anna Karenina movies in existence, not counting Shakhnazarov’s. It was first released in a relatively short cut, its runtime truncated to a bit over two and a half hours, as Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story.
That version’s narrative focused, as you may have guessed, on the life of Anna’s irresistible aristocratic lover. Later, Russia-1 television broadcast Shakhnazarov’s work in full as an eight-episode series simply titled Anna Karenina, which you can now watch free online, in full, at Mosfilm’s Youtube channel. Stream all parts above.
In a sense, this serial format is well suited to Tolstoy’s novel, originally published as it was in installments between 1875 and 1877. But even those who’ve read Anna Karenina‘s thousand pages over and over again will have reasons to be surprised by Shakhnazarov’s version, which takes the story of family, class, infidelity, faith, and feudalism in directions of its own. It also incorporates material from outside Tolstoy’s oeuvre, such as “During the Japanese War” and “Stories About the Japanese War” by Vikenty Veresaev, a doctor, writer, and Tolstoy scholar who participated in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Like any “free adaptation,” Shakhnazarov’s version of Anna Karenina, will send its viewers back to the book — and ensure that they never read it quite the same way again.
In 1949, George Orwell received a curious letter from his former high school French teacher.
Orwell had just published his groundbreaking book Nineteen Eighty-Four, which received glowing reviews from just about every corner of the English-speaking world. His French teacher, as it happens, was none other than Aldous Huxley who taught at Eton for a spell before writing Brave New World (1931), the other great 20th century dystopian novel.
Huxley starts off the letter praising the book, describing it as “profoundly important.” He continues, “The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.”
Then Huxley switches gears and criticizes the book, writing, “Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.” (Listen to him read a dramatized version of the book here.)
Basically while praising Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley argues that his version of the future was more likely to come to pass.
In Huxley’s seemingly dystopic World State, the elite amuse the masses into submission with a mind-numbing drug called Soma and an endless buffet of casual sex. Orwell’s Oceania, on the other hand, keeps the masses in check with fear thanks to an endless war and a hyper-competent surveillance state. At first blush, they might seem like they are diametrically opposed but, in fact, an Orwellian world and a Huxleyan one are simply two different modes of oppression.
Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision but the power of both books is that they tap into our fears of the state. While Huxley might make you look askance at The Bachelor or Facebook, Orwell makes you recoil in horror at the government throwing around phrases like “enhanced interrogation” and “surgical drone strikes.”
You can read Huxley’s full letter below.
21 October, 1949
Dear Mr. Orwell,
It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake adds a note to the text that became a famous adage about John Milton’s Paradise Lost: the 10,000-line, 17th century blank verse epic about the war between heaven and hell and the failed testing of God’s premium product, human beings. Milton “wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote Devils & Hell,” Blake declared, “because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” The statement inspired “other Romantic and Gothic writers to view Satan as a hero,” the British Library writes.
Only 1,000 numbered, large format copies of this printing are available. (We do hope a subsequent edition will appear, maybe with a transcription and annotations. But it will not be as beautiful as this sky-blue cloth-covered book with Blake’s full-color illustrations.)
The book preserves the only part of the poem that survives in manuscript: 798 lines from Book One of Paradise Lost. These are not in Milton’s hand — he had been blind since 1652, and the poem was first published in 1667. He conceived the epic in his 50s, his career in government over after the English Civil Wars and the brief period of the Cromwells’ Protectorate ended in the Restoration of Charles II. “Milton composed ‘Paradise Lost’ aloud, in bed or (per witnesses) ‘leaning backwards obliquely in an easy chair,'” Lauren Christensen writes at The New York Times, “memorizing the stanzas to be transcribed in another’s hand.”
These first few hundred lines show why Satan seems so noble to Milton’s readers; speeches by and about him portray his doomed campaign as a righteous assault on heavenly tyranny. The Romantics’ use of Paradise Lost reflects their own preoccupations, while also echoing contemporary suspicions of the poem. “The authorities were concerned,” for example, Tom Paulin notes at The London Review of Books, by an image in Book One describing Satan:
as when the sun new ris’n Looks through the horizontal misty air Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds On half the nations, and with fear of change
“According to Milton’s early biographer, the Irish republican John Toland, Charles II’s Licenser for the Press regarded these lines as subversive,” Paulin points out, “and wanted to suppress the whole poem.” It’s surprising he was able to publish at all. Milton had vociferously supported the Puritan revolutionaries who overthrew the king’s father, Charles I, and removed his head. Milton later published several pamphlets in defense of regicide. In 1660, when Richard Cromwell’s Protectorate fell apart and Charles II returned, Milton’s works were banned by royal decree and the poet went into hiding until a general pardon.
Later critics have pointed to Milton’s political writings as evidence that he knew exactly whose party he was of. California State University’s Michael Bryson has gone so far as to argue that Milton was a secret atheist. In any case, he was a passionate believer in the overthrow of kings and the establishment of republics (for which he has become a libertarian hero). Paulin sums up the critical case for Paradise Lost as an allegory for the “lost cause” of the revolution:
Milton knew that the poem he was dictating to his amaneuensis would be scrutinized by the recently restored monarch’s Licenser of the Press, so he coded the English people’s formation of a republic as the creation of the “heavens and earth.” The idea passed the censor by, just as it has passed by many readers, but it was nonetheless Milton’s founding intention in composing his epic.
The charge that Milton made Satan a hero is hard to ignore when, reading Book One, we find the poet giving the Chief of Fallen Angels the best lines, as anyone who’s read Paradise Lost will remember. If you haven’t, just see the classic example below.
The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. What matter where, if I be still the same, And what I should be, all but less than he Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least We shall be free; th’Almighty hath not built Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: Here we may reign secure, and in my choice To reign is worth ambition though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.
Who was Stanislaw Lem? The Polish science fiction writer, novelist, essayist, and polymath may best be known for his 1961 novel Solaris (adapted for the screen by Andrei Tarkosvky in 1972 and again by Steven Soderbergh in 2014). Lem’s science fiction appealed broadly outside of SF fandom, attracting the likes of John Updike, who called his stories “marvelous” and Lem a poet of “scientific terminology” for readers “whose hearts beat faster when the Scientific American arrives each month.”
Updike’s characterization is but one version of Lem. There are several more, writes Jonathan Lethem in an essay for the London Review of Books, penned for Lem’s 100th anniversary – at least five different Lems with five different literary personalities. Only the first is a “hard science fiction writer,” the genre originating not with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but “in H.G. Wells’ technological prognostications.”
Represented best in the pages of AstoundingStories and other sci-fi pulps, hard sci-fi “advertises consumer goods like personal robots and flying cars. It valorizes space travel that culminates in successful, if difficult, contact with the alien life assumed to be strewn throughout the galaxies.” The genre also became tied to “American exceptionalist ideology, technocratic triumphalism, manifest destiny” and “libertarian survivalist bullshit,” says Lethem.
Lem had no use for these attitudes. In his guise as a critic and reviewer he wrote, “the scientific ignorance of most American science-fiction writers was as inexplicable as the abominable literary quality of their output.” He admired the English H.G. Wells, comparing him to the inventor of chess, and American Philip K. Dick, whom he called a “visionary among charlatans.” But Lem hated most hard sci-fi, though he himself, says Lethem, was a hard sci-fi writer “with visionary gifts and inexhaustible diligence when it came to the task of extrapolation.”
Much of Lem’s work was of another kind, as Lethem explains in the short film above, a condensed version of his essay. The second Lem “wrote fairy tales and folk tales of the future.” The third, “wrote just two novels, yet he could easily be, on the right day, one’s favorite.” Lem number four “is the pure post-modernist, who unified his essayistic and fictional selves with a Borgesian or Nabokovian gesture.” This Lem, for example, wrote the very Borgesian A Perfect Vacuum: Perfect Reviews of Nonexistent Books.
Lem number five, says Lethem, is “another major figure,” this one a prolific literary essayist, critic, reviewer, and non-fiction writer whose breadth is staggering. Rather than confining him with the label “futurist,” Lethem calls him an “anythingist,” a point Lem proved with his 1964 Summa Technologiae, a “masterwork of non-fiction,” Simon Ings writes at New Scientist, with the ambition and scope of the 13th-century Aquinas work for which it’s named.
This fifth and final Lem “will be a fabulous shock to those who know only his science fiction,” writes Ings. Only translated into English in 2014, his Summa presages search engines, virtual reality, and technological singularity. It attempts an “all encompassing… discourse on evolution,” commented biophysicist Peter Butko, “not only… of science and technology… but also evolution of life, humanity, consciousness, culture, and civilization.”
The last Lem makes for heady reading, but he imbues this work with the same wit and wickedly satirical voice we find in the first four. He operated, after all, as Lethem writes in his essay celebrating the Polish author at 100, “in the spirit of other Iron Curtain figures who slipped below the censor’s radar by using forms regarded as unserious.” Yet few have taken the form of science fiction more seriously.
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