Thursday, February 19, 2009

Close encounters of the literary kind

I don't like meeting writers whose work I admire. Novelists in flesh and blood are nearly never as exciting as their words on paper would lead one to believe. Which figures, I suppose. If you were enjoying a really exciting life, you would hardly have the time to write exciting novels, would you?

My experience of famous novelists - rather limited, granted - has also taught me that they are rarely as likeable as their books. Less amusing, less entertaining, less intelligent even. I know Milan Kundera (whom I haven't met) said a novel should always be more intelligent than the author who wrote it. But still, I can't help feeling a little pang of disappointment each time the person doesn't quite measure up to my high expectations.

So maybe it's a good thing that I live in an unsophisticated village in the French campagne, rather than in a cosmopolitan city like Paris, London or New York where famous authors pass through all the time to promote their books and meet their readers. Here I have far less opportunity for disappointment, I tell myself. And yet, every once in a while a really famous writer ventures to the countryside of Provence - not to enjoy a glamorous holiday among fields of lavender, but to actually work. Not to write, either, but to perform that most difficult of all writers' tasks, the promotion tour. (I'm not being ironic; as a small-time writer myself I know how emotionally and physically exhausting these tours can be. Most authors would prefer the solitary daily struggle with words to the frantic 'socialising' with journalists and sycophants.)

Recently it was Salman Rushdie's turn to visit my intellectual outpost. Well, no, he didn't visit my village. He's not that desperate to sell books. I still had to drive for nearly two hours to see him in Aix-en-Provence, where he was the guest of honour at an annual book festival - which happened to coincide with a promotion tour for the French translation of his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence. But he is one of the few living writers of whom I've read every single novel - some with enormous pleasure - except for his debut work, Grimus. I simply had to undertake that two-hour drive to meet the man behind the books.

Besides, meeting Rushdie will always have an almost mythical allure, due to the horrendous fatwa which forced him to live in hiding for so many years. He still seems to attract controversy, whatever he does, wherever he goes. When he received a knighthood from Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in 2007, a Pakistani government minister promptly declared that this knighthood justified the Islamic world's practise of suicide bombing.

My partner suggested that I take all my copies of Rushdie's novels along and request him to sign the whole lot. 'While you have the chance.' I was convinced he would refuse because it would take too much time - and even if he was kind enough to agree, his publisher or bookseller might be more bloody-minded. These people often insist that high-profile authors sign only their latest novel, or those bought at the event, to increase sales figures. Finally I stuffed about six novels in a bag - not enough to hold up a queue behind me for too long - and decided I would buy the latest novel at the book festival and, when asking him to sign it for me, casually mention that I've read all his others novels... and brought some of them along... right here in this bag under my arm... and would he mind...?

So there I was, travelling to Aix with mixed feelings, excited about the prospect of encountering such a controversial figure while mentally preparing myself for yet another disappointment.

It turned out to be a delightful day. It was fun watching a documentary film about Rushdie in the presence of Rushdie and his family, stimulating to hear him speak about his life and his work, fascinating to see his interaction with an enchanted French audience. He even spoke a little French to them. I also listened to the French translator of The Enchantress of Florence talking about the challenges of translating such a novel, and to a well-known French actor reading excerpts from the translation. I bumped - literally bumped - into Rushdie's young son and ex-wife in the cafeteria. Talk about close encounters.

But the highlight was when he signed my books. Yes, all of them. With a smile. Maybe he was just relieved to hear someone speaking English among all these French fans. But I was so ready for a refusal that I was rather flabbergasted when I met no resistance. Like shouldering open a supposedly stuck door and then landing on your face when it opens with the greatest of ease.

As a result I've had to adjust my harsh opinion of the aloofness of internationally famous writers. And since I'm living out here in the sticks, it will probably be quite a while before my next encounter with an author quite as famous as Salman Rushdie. So, for the time being, until the next disapointment, that is, I can say that I really don't mind meeting writers whose work I admire.