“We’re taking it day by day here,” Salman Rushdie says, when I ask what the mood in America is post-Charlottesville. “America right now is somewhere where every day is a different day, and you never know what today’s horror is going to be.” The Golden House, Rushdie’s latest novel, deals with some of these horrors, taking as its backdrop the years of Obama’s presidency and the beginning of Trump’s. Set in a real garden in the real city of New York where real people are leading real lives with real problems, he triumphantly tells me there isn’t a whiff of magic realism in this book. “The only non-realistic part happens at the political level,” he says, “when you get up there you find The Joker. The idea of richly human beings having to put up with being ruled by a grotesque is a contrast the novel obviously wants to make.”
The Golden House brings together Rushdie’s love of mythology and film, particularly French New Wave, and is bursting with literary spirits from Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The nucleus of the action takes place in Greenwich Village, where a cluster of houses back on to communal gardens, giving it an amphitheatre effect — “a rear-view window of everyone being able to spy on everybody else’s lives.” The grandest house in these gardens is the Golden House, where paterfamilias Nero Julius Golden lives with his sons Petronius (Petya), Lucius Apuleius (Apu) and Dionysus (D). The story of the Goldens is a tragedy told by a young filmmaker René Unterlinden, who was initially conceived of as a writer. “For a while I went along with it and suddenly I woke up and thought that’s a terrible idea. It would be better for him to be anything else — a dentist, an accountant, anything, so I thought, okay, he’s not a writer, so what is he? And the minute the idea that he was a filmmaker showed up it actually released something in the writing of the book.” Excerpts from a interview conducted over Skype:
Talk to me about names — there’s such playfulness, such zest…
I love naming. I think it’s something to do with coming from our part of the world, where we think about the meaning of names. We don’t just name children because it’s a name that’s in the family or because we like the sound of it. We give some form to what the name means and what its echoes are. So, I use that same technique for naming fictional characters. The two writers I admire for their naming are Charles Dickens and Saul Bellow. Uriah Heep! You already know who he is before he’s even opened his mouth. You know who he is!
The book deals a lot with transformations and metamorphoses. There seems to be a real resurgence in retelling Greek myths. Do these times lend themselves particularly?
I’ve always leaned on mythology. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is pretty much built on the foundation of the Orpheus/ Eurydice story, but I agree, in times which feel tragic, these old stories feel more relevant than ever. One of the things that The Golden House is clearly thinking about is the House of Atreus, the idea of a cursed house. You know, houses have a bad time in literature, whether it’s the House of Usher or the House of Atreus. So the moment you put a house at the centre of a book it’s clearly doomed. I remember years ago, when I was in Rome, I was taken down into the domus aurea of Nero, the actual golden house of Emperor Nero, which was just beginning to be excavated. It was a very powerful place to stand, and I remember how Renaissance artists would let themselves down on ropes in order to look at and be inspired by the murals on the walls. So you know, the idea of the Fall of Rome and the corruption of the Caesars and so on, was certainly something I was thinking about.
Of all the houses you’ve lived in, has there been one that’s been important to you, that you still dream of?
There is, and not surprisingly it’s my childhood home in Bombay sitting on its little hill above Warden Road. That’s the house I still sometimes find myself inhabiting in dreams. Even though I’ve been back to the house many times, because it was owned for a long time by people I knew, so I still had access to it — it was transformed inside and looked quite unlike when I’d been a child there — but in my dreams it’s never the house as it looks now. It’s always the house as it looked in the 50s and 60s. That’s more or less the house that Saleem Sinai lives in in Midnight’s Children. I basically put him in my house and sent him to my school. I’ve written about it already, and there’s no further interest in writing about it, but it still works on the old imagination, yes.
This novel evokes many writer spirits including Italo Calvino. Could you talk about his importance to you? Did you ever meet him?
I got to know him quite well in the last years of his life. He was very generous to my writing. When Midnight’s Children came out in Italian, he wrote a piece about it in La Repubblica, which is the way my writing was introduced to Italian readers. I met him originally when he came to do a reading in London at the Riverside Theatre and I was asked to introduce him. I was really scared, especially because when I arrived he said, ‘Did you write something?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I did,’ and he said, ‘Show it to me!’ So I thought, what the hell do I do if he doesn’t like it, you know? But fortunately, not irrelevant to this novel, one of the writers I’d compared him to was Apuleius of The Golden Ass, and when he came across the reference he relaxed and said, ‘Ah, Apuleio, very good!’
One of the most fascinating creations in the book is the Museum of Identity and the question of how identification has overtaken our lives. At one point you write, ‘perhaps it’s better if identity is unclear to us.’ Why?
First of all, I’m very pleased with the Museum of Identity and I’m surprised there isn’t one, given how obsessed everyone is these days. One of the things that interests me about the subject is that it means such different things in different places. So, in New York right now, if you talk about identity, most people will assume you’re talking about gender issues. In India it seems to me that the identity debate has to do with authenticity of Indianness and religious sectarianism, and identity becomes an aspect of the Hindu-Muslim issue. In England national identity became very big during the whole Brexit debate, but there the people were in a way harking back to some imaginary golden age of England — an idea of an identity that was pre-European and better than European. So it interests me that in these different parts of the world that I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about, everybody means different things by identity, so that just became a natural subject.
And it leads to another point that Apu makes, which is “Dirt is Freedom.” It reminded me of a talk you gave at the Hay Festival many years ago about the importance of impurity.
Wherefrom this love of dirt?
Well, as you’ve correctly noticed this is a very old bee in my bonnet. The moment people start talking about purity, other people start dying, you know? That’s what happens. The moment the Nazis in Germany started talking about racial purity there followed a great massacre.
The moment after the end of Yugoslavia, when people started talking about ethnic cleansing, it gave me the idea of an opposite rhetoric, which is the rhetoric of not cleansing, of allowing things to be what they really are in life, which is all mixed up together and muddied. So this has been an old preoccupation of mine, this concern of people who want to purify.
The novel asks some big questions about whether there’s a universal good and evil, for instance. We seem to be in a divided time where everyone has a side, and there’s a great sense of offence if someone chooses a side that’s not yours.
Exactly. We’re all being told to define ourselves very narrowly, but it seems to me that one of the things that the art of the novel has always known, is that our selves are not like that. Our selves are much more complicated and mixed up and sometimes contradictory.
As Whitman said: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.” That idea of the human self as being heterogeneous and not homogeneous is at the heart of literature. It’s at the heart of all great characters in the history of the novel. I don’t like the idea of didacticism in literature but it may be something that people can gain from reading literature, which is to renew their knowledge of human beings as being complicated and not simple, of being multidimensional and not two-dimensional.
There’s a moment after a party, when Petya is in the windowsill, saying, “I’m here all by myself.” He keeps repeating it, and this is one of the other themes of the book, of being shut off from the world and yet longing for connection. Could you talk about that loneliness?
To me it’s a very significant moment in the book — his near despair. No matter how surrounded we are by friends and people who love us and so on, there’s a thing in us which is always alone. I think all of us feel it to a greater or lesser degree. We all feel that we’re going through this journey by ourselves even if we’re surrounded by loving people. That becomes even more so in the case of people who can see themselves as damaged in some way. The point about Petya is that he’s super intelligent, and at the same time aware that there are bits of him that are dysfunctional. I’ve known people who’ve had family members with high-functioning autism, and this kind of despair is quite common.
When somebody is as intelligent as that, they’re aware of their brokenness, it leads to this sense of isolation from the world. But I do think even those of us who don’t have to face those issues, all of us in life do feel from time to time this sense of isolation. I don’t think I’m saying this because if you’re a writer you spend a lot of your life in isolation, but I think it’s part of being human. People often feel alone.
A lot of the book has to do with the accumulation of wealth — this gold, what it does to us. Can you talk about your own relationship to money as you’ve grown older?
Well, (laughs), I’ve got a little bit more of it than I used to have. When I was a child my family was quite rich. My father’s father had made a lot of money, and then my father initially enlarged that fortune and then gradually lost all of it. After quite an affluent childhood, by the time my father died he was completely broke. So, I had that early experience of being around a lot of money but then it completely disappeared. And it always made me think of money as something that’s provisional. All the money I’ve ever made in my life has been from my own labour. I didn’t inherit anything, and you obviously feel a certain pride in having made your own way in the world, but I still think of money as something that’s just sitting there but it could disappear any minute. So, I have a very guarded relationship to cash.
That comes out in the book, that you could spend your whole life plotting to get more money, and then you might not have a life.
Exactly. You know, money can’t buy me love, as they say.
The writer and dancer’s book of poetry, Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods, will be out soon.