The celebrated author of The Satanic Verses and Quichotte offers a collection of essays, criticism and speeches that explore his personal history, relationship to literature, thoughts on writing craft and takes on politics.
If you’ve read Languages of Truth all the way from start to finish, you’ll be feeling bloated (did you really need that extra helping of commencement address?) yet admiring of your insistent, generous host ... readers who begin at the beginning might not make it very far. 'Wonder Tales' and 'Proteus,' the two Emory lectures that open the collection, feel as if they’ve come in for problematically heavy revision. (I think the technical term is 'gussied up'.) They are twin manifestos, inadvertently revealing, only intermittently interesting. They suffer from the trait Rushdie professes to deplore: talkativeness ... But don’t leave the table just yet. After the first fifty pages, the prose clarifies. Sentences arrive at manageable length. Complacent puns make way for real humour ... And happily, from here the going continues to get easier. There are longueurs, but most of the time Rushdie is vital, expansive, the critic as storyteller, championing his subjects with gusto. If the pieces about other writers are necessarily toothless...Rushdie is unfailingly interesting when discussing a specific text ... The state-of-fiction schtick mirrors a grander grumpiness. Despite all the pop culture references, despite an apology on behalf of his generation, 'for the mess we are leaving', it becomes hard to avoid a pervasive sense of 'it weren’t like that in my day' ... Ironically, in these essays, which argue so fervently for the primacy of the unreal, it is when Rushdie is at his most directly personal, his most autobiographical, that the prose really comes to life ... Rushdie is still a writer to be reckoned with.
Despite its homage to happenstance, a consistent design runs through this miscellany. From the Indian-Persian-Arabic tales of the One Thousand and One Nights to classic American fiction with its 'comedy and tragedy of the reinvented self,' Mr. Rushdie salutes the 'protean' and 'metamorphic' art of change and multiplicity ... Languages of Truth stretches from blazing manifesto to nostalgic reminiscence, close-focus review to polite podium utterance. It shelters a few duds—ephemeral or routine records of the writer as public figure—but plenty of gems ... Even in such a ragbag, Mr. Rushdie makes his trademark leap from art to life as he frames all humankind—not only migrants—as 'constant adapters of ourselves' ... His years as headline and symbol have often occluded the wit and fun of Mr. Rushdie’s work. That zestful spirit makes a comeback here.
I read Rushdie’s arguments with much interest and little agreement, as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. used to say. He is fencing with a poorly stuffed straw man ... Much of the rest in Languages of Truth is limper and less interesting. The book contains several sleepwalking commencement speeches, semi-obligatory memorial lectures and the introductions to books and speeches delivered on behalf of PEN America, of which he was president from 2004 to 2006 ... He may be right. But the irritable Rushdie felt like the real one, or at least the wide-awake one. If his arguments about the state of fiction in Languages of Truth don’t convince, at least they’re genuine signs of life.