In his tenth novel, The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie has read himself deep into the historical record, and written himself out on the wings of a magical tale about a storyteller, a beautiful sorceress, an emperor, and a disillusioned Florentine republican turned political philosopher named Niccolò Macchiavelli (to say nothing of assorted viziers, painters, pirates, explorers, and imaginary queens, nor the looming presence of titanic albino forebears of the Three Musketeers). Traversing the 16th-century world from the Mughal court of Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri to the boisterous urban realm of Renaissance Florence, the novel unveils tales within tales which summon in their unfolding playful and profound considerations of power, love, and the meaning of the Self. The Enchantress of Florence is a novel of ideas disguised as a fantasy, costumed in the sometimes incredible actualities of historical detail.
Two weeks before the book’s American publication, I sat down with the author to explore the work’s genesis and to discuss his engagement with the figures who inhabit (or haunt) its pages: Akbar, his grandfather Babur (first of the Mughal emperors and author himself of one of the first autobiographies in Asia), and Machiavelli. Along the way, the affable novelist led the way down many conversational byways suggested by his learning and imagination. What follows is an edited transcript of our exchange. –James Mustich
James Mustich: I understand that The Enchantress of Florence was six or seven years in gestation.
Salman Rushdie: More even, really. I had the original idea for it I think as long ago as 1999, when I first wrote out to myself a kind of note, which I often do with ideas that I think might go somewhere. It can sometimes be a paragraph and sometimes ten pages. In this case, I think the note was about a dozen pages, sketching out why I thought it was an interesting idea — as a reminder, because I was writing another book at the time. The strange thing is that almost all the actual plot that I wrote down originally I subsequently ditched. [LAUGHS] But the thing at the heart of it — finding a fictional device that would allow me to bring together the Florence of the Medici and the India of the Mughals (two worlds which in real history have very little contact with each other in this period) — that I have held onto from back then.
You know, I am an historian by training: that was my university subject.
JM: At Cambridge.
SR: Yes, at Kings. As a result, I knew enough history to know that these were uniquely great moments in both India and Europe — they were pinnacle moments of both cultures. So I thought it would be interesting to push them together and see what happened. That’s the bit that I kept in my head.
But I also knew enough history to know that I didn’t know enough history to write it. And I also knew it would not be a quick task to get my level of knowledge up to where it needed to be. So I thought, “I’m just going to go on writing whatever I’m writing, and in my spare time I’ll slowly read myself into these two worlds.”
When I wrote this note to myself, it must have been around the time that I was finishing The Ground Beneath Her Feet, but after that, when I was writing Fury and Shalimar the Clown and various nonfiction things, I was quietly reading about the Renaissance and about the Mughal Empire, and, actually, about everywhere in between as well; because if you’re going to write this kind of 15th-16th century road novel, you’ve got to pass through everywhere. You can’t skip over places. So I had to find out about the Ottoman Empire, the Uzbek warlords, the Persian Empire, and so on. And while I was gradually doing that, I slowly realized that the storyline I had just didn’t work. When I began to see what the actual shape of the world was in that period, I saw that the story I had just wasn’t workable.
I always knew there would be a woman in the middle of the tale, but the kind of woman it was changed a lot. Through the reading, I found a different way of telling it, because I had discovered lost princesses at two ends of the story. When I was reading the Renaissance stuff, I went back to Orlando furioso, which I hadn’t looked at since I was maybe 20 years old. I was reminded at once that its main plot theme is about an Indian princess arriving in Europe and creating havoc; in fact, the reason Orlando is furioso is that the princess falls in love with the wrong guy — I mean, not with him! And even though Ariosto sets his story much earlier than I intended to set mine (he sets it in the time of Shalimar and the knights in armor and all that), Orlando furioso is being written in the period that The Enchantress of Florence takes place.
Then, reading about the beginning of the Mughal Empire, I discovered a true story about the first emperor, Babur, the grandfather of Akbar, the emperor in my book. When Babur was besieged in Samarkand, in order to guarantee his own safe conduct out of the city, he had to surrender his sister to the rival warlord who was besieging him. He was rather embarrassed about it, actually, and in his autobiography he glosses over it. He says something like, “As we left Samarkand, my sister was unfortunately lost.”
JM: He had a great sense of understatement, didn’t he? In another part of his autobiography, the Baburnama, he describes the gory end of a battle at Chanderi, then, in the next paragraph, points out the pleasant attributes of a nearby lake.
SR: “Good spot for a picnic!”
JM: Exactly — that’s just the tone he takes.
SR: Yes. Having discovered Babur’s lost sister, I felt I had two ends of a bridge. I had Babur’s princess moving West, and Ariosto’s princess arriving in the West. I thought, “Well, that’s interesting. I’ve got these two fragments. If I can join the bridge, then I’ve got the story.” So that’s how my narrative rewrote itself.
JM: You mentioned Babur’s autobiography. Probably about the time your were starting work on The Enchantress of Florence, you wrote a fine introduction to the Modern Library edition.
SR: Partly the novel came out of that experience, too, re-reading the Baburnama to write that piece. Again I was back in that world. When you read his book, it is obvious that Babur is someone who is passionate about the natural world — he writes very beautiful descriptions of places. In The Enchantress, some of the descriptions of the town of Andijan (which is where the Mughals originally came from), and of the fruits that grew there, and the pheasants, the this-and-that — it all comes more or less directly from the Baburnama. Babur reveals himself to be a really good observer of the natural world. He writes very lyrically about it.
JM: It’s a marvelous book. I believe it’s the first autobiography in Islamic literature.
SR: Well, even more than that. I think it is the first autobiography in the whole of Asia, and one of the very first in the world! I don’t think there are many in Europe at that time, the late 15th century. He’s almost inventing the form. Certainly as far as Asia is concerned, he is inventing the form.
JM: I became enchanted with it in an edition the Oxford University Press published — I think it was the first publication of the superb translation by Wheeler (before the Modern Library paperback come out). It was a big, lavishly illustrated volume. But the writing astonished me — it just seemed to come from nowhere, without any literary tradition or precedent behind it.
SR: No, there isn’t. It really does come out of the blue. There is poetry that he would have known, and so on — there was literature. But he was, in many ways, not a very sophisticated man. He was a warlord; he was a fighting man. It’s really remarkable that he reveals this quite serious literary gift. What is interesting about the Mughals in general is how cultured they continued to be. Akbar is an extraordinary figure, because he is actually illiterate. He was never able to write his name.
JM: He bemoans the fact in your novel.
SR: In the novel, yes. But it seems to be an historical fact, that he never did learn to read or write. Yet he was a person of great culture, and knew a great deal of poetry and philosophy and so on. I guess he had to have people read it to him.
JM: He engaged in a great deal of philosophical speculation, didn’t he? Didn’t the historical Akbar attempt to combine elements of the available religious traditions in a new way?
SR: That’s right. He was a synthesizer by instinct, and I think he was, in a kind of rather straightforward way, a pantheist who believed that all religions were essentially the same religion. He even invented a religion, called the Din-e-Ilahi, which means “the religion of all the gods.” And it was basically that — it tried to bring everybody under the same roof. He actually tried to impose it; he made it the court religion for a while, but it didn’t catch on.
JM: Despite his — what shall I call it? — his influence as emperor? [LAUGHS]
SR: Yes, despite that! One of the saddest moments for me in the novel is the incident in which two girls commit suicide rather than come to Akbar’s court. Again, obviously, a certain amount of that story is legendary, for the girls bring down a magic rain which heals the wounds of the court composer, Tansen — that’s all obviously a piece of early magic realism. It’s not mine, it’s in the tradition, as is the idea that the girls, when subsequently summoned by Akbar, didn’t want to go to the court of a Muslim ruler — that, as Hindus, they preferred to drown themselves. For a person like Akbar, I think, who was so anxiously trying to bring everybody together, and to be inclusive rather than exclusive, it must have been horrible to discover that there were people who would rather die than be part of that project.
JM: What is striking about what you’ve done in The Enchantress of Florence is that, while you’ve woven into it a great deal of Florentine and Indian history, the reader is borne through its high-spirited pages on one fabulous story after another. It’s a bit of a shock to arrive at the end of the tale and be greeted by a quite extensive bibliography, which suggests how much of your invention is rooted in the historical record.
SR: Indeed it is.
JM: Without that bibliography, a reader might easily assume that you’d made it all up.
SR: Exactly. I wanted it to read like a good yarn. I really thought it should read like an interesting shaggy dog story about 400 years ago. After all, the way it’s constructed is that this traveler comes to the court to tell a story that strains credulity, and in the same way as he has to convince the emperor of the truth of his tale, I have to convince you. So the storyteller in the book — Niccolò Vespucci, alias Mogor dell’Amore — has the same project I do, if you like: to deliver a well-told and convincing yarn. I knew that people would assume that some of the most amazing things in it were things that I made up. For me, writing this novel revealed once again the old truism about truth being stranger than fiction; I think actually almost all the stuff that people will think is outrageous magic realism is actually in the history books, and the stuff that people think, “Oh, that’s probably true,” is the stuff that I’ve made up. But I wanted people almost to feel that it was a story that I had discovered, you know, that I’d read some book, discovered the tale, and retold it. I wanted it to feel like a previously existing story that I was simply retelling for your benefit. That question of what’s real and what’s not real, in a way, doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me.
JM: There’s a second major historical figure caught in your yarn, balancing Akbar, if you will, and that’s Machiavelli.
JM: In your introduction to the Baburnama, you mention that the figure in your reading who most resembles Akbar’s grandfather, Babur, is, in fact, Machiavelli.
JM: I’m wondering how far along you were in the conception of the novel when you made that connection.
SR: It was certainly one of the big light-bulb moments. When you read the Baburnama, you realize that the kind of thinking about power that’s going on in it is very, very similar to the thinking in The Prince. You can actually almost transpose sentences and paragraphs between the two books. I found it wonderfully strange that these two worlds coincided in that way; that was one of the genesis moments of the book, the recognition that there were these two worlds which were not communicating with each other in any way, and yet here are Babur and Machiavelli coming to the same conclusions.
I’ve been fascinated by Machiavelli since I was very young. I’ve always felt that he had a bad rap from history, and that he was actually a person quite unlike what we now think of as Machiavellian. He was a republican. He disliked totalitarian government. He was an honorable and non-corrupt servant of the Florentine Republic in those years when the Florentines kicked out the Medicis, and he suffered terribly when they brought the Medicis back — they tortured him, but he didn’t confess to anything, so they couldn’t kill him. They had to exile him, and he spent the rest of his life very unhappily, not allowed to go to the city that he loved. He had to stay on this small farm outside Florence, impoverished — well, impoverished according to himself, he was by no means completely destitute. I thought how strange it was that his name has become such a byword for amorality and deviousness and cynicism and so forth, when, in fact, he wasn’t like that. It’s interesting that one of the ways in which his bad reputation grew is through the Elizabethan theater — the Elizabethan dramatists referred to Machiavelli all the time. There are something like 400 references to Machiavelli in the theater of the Elizabethan period.
SR: Yes. And they’re all negative. [LAUGHS] They all equated him with the devil, essentially. Which is especially strange when you realize that at that time, at the time of Shakespeare, none of Machiavelli’s work existed in English — none of it. Nonetheless, a second-hand, demonized image of Machiavelli was transported into Elizabethan literature and passed down to us. So by now we have this very ingrained image of Machiavelli based on a kind of slander of him 400 years ago. Which just goes to show that if you slander somebody well enough, it lasts a very long time.
JM: I would imagine that most people who know Machiavelli as the demoniacal figure that has come down from the tradition you just elucidated would find your portrayal of him . . .
JM: Precisely. But, in fact, his correspondence is . . .
SR: It’s very lively. He was clearly a very outgoing and gregarious person. There’s a real letter that exists from his friend Agostino Vespucci (who, as you know, also appears in the novel), which was sent when Machiavelli was away on business of state. “Would you please come back soon,” Vespucci says, “because when you’re not here, there’s no one to arrange the fun.” Machiavelli was the guy who arranged the fun for his friends; that was what he was like. Remember, he was the author of the most successful comedies written in the Renaissance — his play, The Mandrake Root (La Mandragola), was a tremendous success, as was Clizia. So he was a comic writer of some skill. And he liked to go gambling, and go to drinking dens, and whorehouses and so on. He was quite a lad!
What’s interesting is that at the same time as he was, on the one hand, a very flamboyant figure, on the other hand, as a public servant, he was a person of absolute probity in an age when many people were putting their fingers in the till. He was one of the few people who never did! Even though they tortured him to get him to confess, he simply hadn’t done anything wrong, so he didn’t admit to it. So he is in many ways an admirable figure, and I thought I would like to bring him to life as he really seems to have been, rather than as the darker figure that we’ve come to imagine him as.
JM: So you have the Mughal realm on one side, and Florence on the other, and these two compelling figures, Akbar and Machiavelli, a world apart yet thinking similar thoughts.
JM: Could you talk a little bit about the storytelling that brings them together? Your work often explores the borderland between invention and real historical circumstances.
SR: More so in this novel than ever, really, because I’ve never gone 400 years back before. Well, I suppose I have, I guess, in the chapters in The Satanic Verses that all the trouble was about.
JM: And a bit in The Moor’s Last Sigh, too.
SR: Yes. Put it like this — I did more real historical work for this book than I’ve ever done before. Because I really wanted the reader to feel the world of the past might have been like this. I wanted it to feel real. What was very liberating imaginatively is that one of the real things about the world at this time, both in the East and the West, was a passionate belief in magic. People believed in magic in the way that we believe in doctors or scientists. And they believed in it not as something separate from their daily life, but as very much a part of it. If you fell in love with a girl, you went and got a love potion. If you wanted to do somebody down in business, you went and got a hex. People were using magic in an everyday way — it was an enormous part of the way in which they understood the world. They saw the world as a place permeated by magic, and therefore they believed that magic could give them power they might not have otherwise.
Also, there was a belief, quite widespread, that magic resided in women — the idea of the Witch. And here’s another liberating discovery I made: it was more or less exactly at this moment that the image of the Witch stops being an ugly old hag, and turns into a beautiful young woman. If you look at the paintings and the drawings in the European tradition, you’ll see in this period — the late 15th- early 16th-century — the rather sudden transformation from imagery of the Witch as a crone, with boils and warts and all that, to the image of the Witch as the enchantress. She becomes a seductress, a temptress. In the Renaissance, artists return to the theme over and over again, and the enchantress is always painted as beautiful — naked, loose-haired, beautiful. So this idea of joining the erotic power of women with the occult power of women is something I found at the heart of the Renaissance imagination, and I thought I could use that.
What I really wanted to do was to allow this quite free-flowing, inventive story to arise out of truth. I didn’t want to just make it up. Things can become very whimsical if you don’t set yourself some boundaries. And because I was trained as a historian, as I mentioned, I have some respect for the historical record — and I am enough of a historian to know as well that the historical record is imperfect, that there are gaps, that there’s all kinds of possibilities of interpretation. So it’s not rigid, you know; non-historians think of history as being a collection of facts, whereas actually it’s not — it’s a collection of theories about the past. We revise our view of the past all the time, depending on our own present concerns.
So there is a degree of fluidity that is useful to the fiction writer. But still, as I say, I wanted people reading about Akbar’s court to think, “It might have been like this.” And when they are reading about this rather rambunctious Florence, I hope people might think, “It sounds like an interesting place;” not to think, “Oh, he just made that up.”
We think of the High Renaissance as a time of noble culture, of great sophistication and philosophy, of enlightened humanism and blah-blah-blah, when actually it was a street city, with all kinds of things happening in the street, people sodomizing each other in the shadows and so on. It was a wild kind of place. I had never seen it described like that, and yet there it was in the historical record. So I thought, again, maybe I can bring it to life in a way that’s unexpected, but honest, not just made up.
Of course, most of the stuff in the book is fictionalized. Most of the people in the book never existed. Even the ones who did exist, I have had to really imagine. A character like Agostino Vespucci — there was somebody by that name, who clearly was a drinking buddy of Machiavelli’s, and who worked with him in what was called the Office of the Second Chancery, which was basically the Foreign Ministry of Florence. And he was a distant relative of Amerigo Vespucci. But having said that, that’s about all we know about him (although just recently — in the past month or so, an identification of the woman who posed for the Mona Lisa has come to light, signed by this very Ago Vespucci!). But the historical record doesn’t really tell you what kind of person he was. I had to invent him — in the same way as I did with the really big historical figures like Akbar and Machiavelli. It’s one thing to read about them and find out what was known about them; to breathe life into them is another. You still have to perform the novelistic act — you have to get inside their heads and make them come to life.
Then, of course, the thing we haven’t talked about is the actual fiction in which they live, which in the end I think is the thing that allows them to have that kind of imaginative existence themselves — the actual story in the book.
JM: Let’s talk about that. If I may, let me raise two things in that context. One is the power storytelling itself has in your books. In a recent interview with Matthew D’Ancona in The Spectator, you said, “We tell ourselves into being, don’t we? . . . [T]here is no other creature on earth that tells itself stories in order to understand who it is.”
SR: We are the storytelling animal.
JM: There’s a wonderful passage in The Enchantress, it’s very eerily lovely, in which Machiavelli’s friend Argalia, having been sent off in a boat from Andrea Doria’s ship, finds himself on the sea in the midst of a raging battle. But it’s so foggy, no one can see anything. He’s just a boy at this point, and here’s how you describe his predicament:
Land and sky began to feel like ancient fables. This blind floating was the universe entire. . . . He tried to tell himself stories to keep his spirits up but could only think of frightening ones, a leviathan rising from the deep to crunch a boat in its gigantic jaws, the uncoiling of deep-sea worms, the breathing of underwater dragonfire. Then after a further time all the stories faded away as well and he was left without defenses or recourse, a lonely human soul drifting vaguely into the white. This was what was left of a human individual when you took away his home, his family, his friends, his city, his country, his world: a being without context, whose past had faded, whose future was bleak, an entity stripped of name, of meaning, of the whole of life except a temporarily beating heart.
That’s very beautiful.
SR: Thank you. I’m glad you picked up on that scene, because I think it’s a kind of hinge scene in the book. It’s the moment at which this human being, who will afterwards become very powerful, hits bottom. Suddenly he has absolutely nothing. He’s just this little boy in a rowboat, afloat in the middle of a fog in the middle of a battle, with his chances of survival being close to zero. The fact that he does survive is good fortune. But I wanted to give his story an existential moment, where he hits bottom and then bounces — a moment of real existential dread, when all you are is the animal; you have no context, nothing. I wanted to show that we live inside contexts and meanings, and that those contexts and meanings are what construct us and give us the ability to get through our lives.
In the book there is the constant question of how we come to mean something. So there are two kinds of characters in the book. First, there are characters who think that your life acquires meaning as the consequence of a journey — that you go somewhere, do something, conquer something or realize some achievement. That’s how you become somebody: by leaving home, traveling. The Mughals came from what is now Kurdistan to India and established an empire, and that’s what they meant.
On the other hand, there are characters in the book who think that’s kind of absurd. They think, “Why would you leave home?” — because for them, home is the place where you mean something. In the Indian part of the book, you have the imaginary queen Jodha, who lives inside the palace and seems not to exist outside it. When she looks out in the courtyard and sees these travelers from various places, she thinks they’re dumb. “Why would you do that?” she wonders. “Why would you leave the place where people know who you are and speak your language, the place where you have family and where you mean something, and come all the way across the world?” In the Italian part of the book, Ago Vespucci wonders the same thing. He believes everything he needs in the world is inside the walls of the city of Florence, so why would he ever leave? Everything he cares about is right there.
I wanted the book to contain, if you like, this kind of dialogue about how human beings believe themselves to mean something, the idea that there are these two different ways that we think that we can achieve significance as human beings — the journey and the anti-journey, staying put. That dialogue is in the novel, but it’s submerged, because if you brought it up too far, the book might become very didactic. But I do think that moment, when the little boy is abandoned in the fog, is where this question about self-hood, identity, meaning, is most dramatized.
JM: It’s also dramatized in the scenes featuring Akbar’s court painter, Dashwanth, one of the most beguiling characters in the novel. When he and his fellow artists are working on the Hamzanama, the enormous series of paintings, commissioned by Akbar, of the legends detailing the adventures of Amir Hamza and his friends, you write: “As he was painting these, Mughal Hindustan was literally being invented. The union of the artists prefigured the unity of the empire, and perhaps brought it into being.” You seem to be saying that what works for individuals in finding meaning for themselves might also work for cultures at large. The painter then ends up, marvelously, painting himself into his own picture.
SR: Yes, he loses himself in his own creation. I’ve actually written nonfiction on the Hamzanama, the paintings of the Mughal court. While I was writing the novel, in fact, I wrote an essay about these pictures. I did it as a lecture with illustrative slides and so on; I did it at Emory University when I was down there, and The New Yorker has asked me if I’ll do it in their festival here in the Fall. You find out so much when you’re reading for a book like this, and 95% of it you can’t use in the novel because it’s not appropriate. But I do think it’s quite remarkable what Akbar did in terms of art. He not only brought in two Persian grandmasters to run the studio, he also collected well over 100 artists from all over the country, and made them collaborate on paintings in a way that shouldn’t work –it should be a dreadful mess. [LAUGHS] But instead, you get these magnificent works of art. The miniatures of the Mughal period are really the pinnacle of Indian artistic achievement. And not a single one of those paintings is done by an individual artist. You’ll have one artist doing the architecture, somebody else doing the water, a third person doing the fingers, a fourth person painting the clouds in the sky, and so on, and you get this synthesis of painting styles from different parts of India, all pushed into the same image. And instead of being ridiculous, they are amazing. The creation of that composite artist is, in a way, a metaphor of what Akbar is trying to do with the country. He is trying to create a world that does work if you push disparate elements together, and the paintings become an analog.
These ideas about Mughal painting also became for me a metaphor of what I was doing in the book: taking elements of the Renaissance, elements of Mughal India, bits of the Ottoman Empire, etc., and pushing them all together into the same canvas.
As for Dashwanth, there was a real painter by that name who was one of the leading painters at the court. As far as we know about him (which isn’t far), he did seem to be of humble origin; his father was a palanquin-bearer. Dashwanth was discovered because he would do graffiti on the walls of the palace, and it turned out that he was really good at it, so they hired him! While we know very little about him, it does seem as though he was a depressive, often melancholy character. I elaborated from that.
JM: I’ve been reading the British reviews of The Enchantress of Florence — it came out a few weeks ago there, I guess — and what I found in them prompted me to read back through reviews of all your recent novels, because something struck me as really funny. Every one of your novels seems to be greeted upon publication with a chorus of voices saying that you’ve “returned to form.”
SR: Yes. [LAUGHS]
JM: But it happens with every book. So it’s like you’ve returned to a form that you’ve never left.
SR: It’s true. I notice it, too. What do they mean, “returned”?
JM: As far as I can tell, it’s not as if there are a couple of books that are treated as in some way out of form, but nevertheless, the newest one is always a “return to form.” I found it amusing how consistent this was. In any case, I do want to talk about form, but in a different sense. Your work has always seemed to revel in the liberating potential of the novel; you embrace the freedom of the novel in a way that’s independent from the storytelling itself. If I were to try to define the form you’re constantly returning to, it would be as an energetic orchestration of all the ingenuity the novel has always stuffed between its covers, an exploration of the form’s powers of apprehension that employs all of fiction’s resources as developed by Swift, and Sterne, and Dickens, and beyond. In The Enchantress of Florence, you can trace the genetic influence of this pedigree, if you will.
SR: And don’t forget the picaresque tradition, there’s some of that as well.
JM: Picaresque as well, and some Calvino, I’d say.
JM: There are few writers who so gleefully synthesize all these elements — these resources — of the novel form.
SR: Well, I try — because I think that that question of how things join up has become my subject, in part because I come from all over the place. I am not a writer like Faulkner, or like Eudora Welty, or Flannery O’Connor, writers who are deeply rooted in a particular small community and who use their lifetime to explore that, grow their literary universe out of that one place. I envy those writers for doing that. I wouldn’t mind being one of those writers. But I am not. As I say, I am from all over the place, a writer who has spent a lot of his life in a lot of different places. I want to use all the colors and voices and shapes available to me. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the history of the form, which in the East has to do with, on the one hand, oral narration, and, on the other hand, the tale of wonder. In the West, I am very attracted to the 18th century, the age of Swift and Sterne, and I am very attracted to the Dickensian combination of highly naturalistic background with highly surrealistic foreground. There was a point in my life when I was enormously influenced by the history of American literature: the grand epic tradition — Melville; then the urban tradition of the post-war American writers. I see myself as a city writer essentially. I have a very urban sensibility, I think. So writing of the city, whether it was Bellow’s Chicago or Roth’s New York, was very interesting to me, and helpful.
The field of the novel is very rich. If you’re a composer, you’re well aware of the history of composition, and you are trying to make your music part of that history. You’re not ahistorical. In the same way, I think, if you write now, you are writing in the historical context of what the novel has been and what possibilities it has revealed. Obviously, any individual writer is in tune with some aspects of the tradition more than others. There’s a kind of novel that I don’t relate to — as a writer, I mean. For instance, I can approach Jane Austen with pleasure as a reader, but I can’t write like her. That’s not the tradition that I respond to imaginatively. Which is not to belittle it. I’m just saying nobody can do everything.
But I am interested in joining things together. If you can create a kind of synthesis at the level of aesthetics — in The Enchantress, for instance, combining the picaresque and the Swiftian and the vaudevillian, the carnival-esque and the this and the that — it also helps to create, if you like, a kind of artistic echo of what the story is trying to do, which is to bring together different parts of the world. Showing that the world is no longer composed of little boxes is something that I try to do in my books. In the time of Jane Austen, say, there are her girls living in their little box, looking for husbands. Now, it seems to me, in the world in which we currently live, all the boxes open into other boxes, and here is connected to there, whether we like it or not. And to understand the story of over here, we also have to know something about the story of over there, otherwise our world makes no sense.
So I find myself trying to construct stories which do that, which say, “Here are different stories from different places, but only when you see that they fit together like this — click! — do you actually understand all of them.” And isn’t it interesting to see that the world actually goes together, that the world is not just made up separate and unconnected narratives?
JM: And that together these pieces are, or can be, more than the sum of the parts.
SR: Yes. And that what is revealed by joining things is often a similarity. You start off believing the world to be full of different things, and the discovery is how alike we all are. When you start looking at how people wearing different clothes, speaking different languages, believing different things, etc. — when you start looking at how they actually behave, you realize the similarities outweigh the differences. Even across time: we behave the same way now as we did then. We just have different tools. Human nature is the great constant. As someone says in the novel, “It may be the curse of the human race, not that we’re so unlike each other, but that we are so alike.” This may be what screws us up!
For me, story is the thing that ties all these strands together. In this book, until I discovered the character of the storyteller arriving at the Mughal court, I didn’t know how to join the two ends of the bridge. I was trying to tell it in all kinds of ways, including straight: “Here is this princess, and she goes across the world, and this is what happens” — but it just didn’t seem right. For a start, in that telling, the East was very much in the background, and I felt an imbalance in it. Then I suddenly thought, if somebody comes to tell the story within the novel, then, as I was saying before, his level of credibility is equated with mine. As he tells the story, so I tell the story, and as the emperor decides what he thinks of the story, so does the reader decide. After all, as you know, it’s quite a suspect story. And it’s a story with a riddle in it, a chronology that doesn’t seem to work.
Finding the storyteller gave me the key to writing The Enchantress of Florence: it provided a way to tell the tale I wanted to tell in a way that brought the two worlds into balance. The moment I had him — Niccolò Vespucci, Mogor dell’Amore — arriving at Akbar’s palace, that whole world rushed into the novel. Then I thought, “Okay, now I’ve got two courts; I’ve got the Medici court and the Mughal court, and now there’s an equilibrium.” So in a way, the solution to the problems this book posed was the invention of this storyteller, who is also a rogue and a charlatan, a liar, and a kind of conjurer, a sorcerer himself . . . maybe. He wears a coat of many colors, literally and figuratively.
JM: In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, you wrote something which I found quite wonderful: “In all the old stories, in different ways, the point is always reached after which the gods no longer share their lives with mortal men. . . . This, the myths hint, is what a mature civilization is, a place where the gods stop jostling and shoving us . . . leaving us free to do our best without their autocratic meddling.”
Is a mature civilization one that has graduated from myths to novels? I mean, does the life of Story — let’s give it a capital “s” — go through developmental stages that parallel the evolution of civilizations?
SR: Well, all stories were, in origin, sacred stories. So the origin of Story itself is religious. For a long time, stories existed in order to work out our relationship with the divine, and to explore it both in terms of revelation and in terms of discussion of revelation — stories not just of prophets, but of saints, or of sinners, whatever it might be. In the same way as painting began as a sacred form, so did literature. There’s the Old Testament, full of wonderful works of fiction, some of which are now even recognized as such (like the Book of Job, which I think people now recognize was written as a work of fiction, and earned a place in the Old Testament on its literary merit!).
In literature, there is a moment of rupture with these religious origins of art, as there is in the visual arts — and it’s not that long ago! If you look at early Renaissance painting, say, Giotto and Cimabue are still painting religious subjects. Even at the height of the Renaissance, the religious commissions are in many ways the most memorable. The Sistine Chapel, etc. But you do begin to find in the Renaissance, as humanism gains ground, that the choice of subjects ceases to be primarily religious. And you have, first of all, personal portraiture — nobles and wealthy people commissioning portraits; there’s a lot of that. Even if you look at Michelangelo, there’s a use of other mythology besides Christian mythology. He’s not just sculpting Moses and Adam and Eve. He’s also beginning to go into other myths, more ancient myths — Titans and things like that — to find his subjects.
Perhaps even earlier, literature begins to lose its moorings in sacred texts. You could see the Canterbury Tales as a kind of transitional work, for while it has a kind of religious context, it’s completely secularist in its telling. The Decameron, too. I think the journey from the sacred to the profane is the journey of all the arts — music, too. Music begins as sacred music, and only gradually detaches from the church, which was its location for a long time.
So you might say that all the arts began as an expression of people’s belief in the divine, then moved away to something more humanistic. And that is indeed analogous to what I’m saying about moving away from dependency on the gods and being left to your own devices to do the best you can in leading a human life.
JM: That evolution from the divine to the humanistic, from a religious or authoritarian order to a personal scale, is a recurring theme in the book, and it’s quite ingeniously presented. Early on, as the storyteller Niccolò is en route to Akabr’s court, having stowed away on Lord Hauksbank’s ship, Hauksbank tells him, “You are from Florence, so you know of that majesty of the highest of sovereigns, the individual human self, and of the cravings it seeks to assuage, for beauty, for valor — and for love.”
At the same time, Akbar is having a fascinating conversation with himself as he is returning from battle. You write that “he had begun to meditate, during this long, tedious journey home, on which he was accompanied by the heads of his defeated enemies bobbing in their sealed earthen pickle-jars, about the disturbing possibilities of the first-person singular — the ‘I’.” Despite the fact, as you point out, that as emperor, “He was the definition, the incarnation of the We. He had been born into a plurality.”
JM: He goes through this discussion with himself about the meaning of “I”, leading up to a wonderfully poignant scene in which he begins to address his queen, for the first time . . .
SR: In the singular.
JM: Yes. He descends from the throne of the royal “We” to the first person singular.
SR: And she doesn’t notice. [LAUGHS]
JM: She doesn’t notice it at all. It’s an artful way of bringing the Florentine idea of the “sovereign self” into the book’s other realm.
SR: I wanted to show that these ideas, such as the great idea of Renaissance humanism, are not culturally specific, but that human beings have come up with variations of these themes everywhere. For me, one of the pleasures of the book, given that Akbar and Machiavelli are thousands of miles apart and a half-century apart, was being able to find a way of letting them converse with each other, in a manner of speaking, and discuss things like the “sovereign individual self.” That idea is one of the great historical gifts of the Renaissance, and it’s so much at the heart of how we now see ourselves. It was interesting for me to find Akbar thinking about it as well, in his very different way. I’m not saying that he thought those thoughts; obviously, I made him think them! But there was something in his view of the world that was detaching itself from divine guarantees, that suggested he was beginning to think beyond religion towards something more human. He may not have called it “humanism,” but it seemed to me legitimate to push him a little bit in that direction, which allowed me to create this sort of echo between the two worlds.
JM: What I think is particularly telling is that these echoes of humanism, for both Akbar and Machiavelli, his Florentine counterpart, are resounding in what we might call caverns of power — and both see power as a political reality that overshadows sovereign selfhood.
SR: Yes, that’s exactly right. They both realize that while you may think as you like about your own individual self, you live in a world in which that particular self may or may not be able to fight the realities of power.
Akbar is such an interesting historical figure, because on the one hand, he’s incredibly forward-looking, but, on the other hand, he is an absolute despot. And he is not interested in not being an absolute despot; he is not interested in giving up any part of his power. While he is imagining a tolerant, inclusive, syncretistic, humanistic world, even in that world he still wants to be the absolute king! So there is a contradiction in him that makes him interesting. Similarly, the sadness of Machiavelli’s character is that his nature is anything but Machiavellian, as we discussed earlier. And yet, his life has taught him something incredibly dark about the nature of power, and he knows it to be true. There’s a moment I think where Ago Vespucci says to him that “Your trouble is that you see too clearly and you say everything you think.”
JM: And then he tells him to “go masturbate a goat.” [LAUGHS]
SR: [LAUGHING] Exactly! So Machiavelli writes The Prince, a book based on the terrible things he has seen to be the case, a book about how the world really works. Not how you would like it to work, or how, in a good universe, it would work, but how it actually does work. Cruelty gets you further than kindness, and other terrible truths. And his sadness is to see those truths and to write them down, and then, for the rest of history, to be tarred with them as if he was responsible for them, rather than just simply noticing them. It’s an extraordinary case of blaming the messenger for the message.
Both Akbar and Machiavelli are agonizing about two things — about the nature of goodness and about the nature of power, things which contradict each other often. I felt it would be interesting if I could let them have a kind of dialogue on those themes across that half-century, across the world. For me, it’s one of the more successful parts of the book that they are able to do that.
JM: And all the while the reader — this reader, at least — is turning pages as quickly as he can to find out where this yarn that’s being spun is headed.
SR: This love story, or, should I say, this alleged love story. The point about the enchantress and the way in which she, for me, makes the book work, is that the mystery of her orchestrates everything else, and the reason you keep turning the page is to find out: “Can this be true? And if it’s true, how could it be true?” There’s something wrong in the chronology of the Mogor dell’Amore’s tale, it doesn’t seem to work; but you want it to work, and so you read on to find out if the impossible can become possible. The enchantress is the key to his story, of course, but I very deliberately wrote the book in such a way that you don’t really meet her for the first half of the novel. Up until then, you are aware of her as a person that other people talk about, as a tale told, rather than a reality. You don’t meet her, except in other people’s versions. She is a quasi-legendary figure, mythical and imbued with occult powers, etc., but you only know this because other people say so.
When she actually arrives as a character in her own right, I was faced with a difficult problem: how could I make her a person, rather than have her continue as a myth. At a certain point, I had to get beyond the myth and think, “Who is she actually?” What helped me here was the idea of — I was going to say selfishness, but that’s not exactly it. All the choices she has to make after her first one — which is to stay in Persia rather than return home to the court of Babur when she is given the opportunity, to stay because she has fallen in love — all the rest are survival choices, essentially. These choices might strike us as being cynical, or self-serving, or selfish, but they are driven by her survival instinct. That instinct leads her from man to man, and her relationship with the idea of love becomes very complicated, because love becomes an aspect of staying alive. She defines herself through the men she’s with, because there is no other way for her to live.
What ultimately brought her to life for me is that the choices she makes take her farther and farther away from where she started; she becomes more and more possessed by the absence of what she’s lost, and she can’t go home again. That’s her tragedy. The only bit of home that she can bring with her is a slave girl, the Mirror, who in a way becomes her identity. The Mirror is the only person who knows her as she was first, before she was transformed by her journey and by her choices; that may be the person the enchantress really loves, because, as I say, her idea of love is rather difficult.
But then she surprises herself with Argalia, by actually falling in love with him. She is quite puzzled by the fact that she begins to say and do things that are not entirely in her self-interest. Again there is the idea of the Self, which we’ve talked about with regard to other parts of the book. In the enchantress, up to this point, we have the naked Self, if you like, trying to survive. Which echoes, in a way, Argalia in the little rowboat, the stripped-down Self thinking, “How do I get out of this? What do I have to do to get out of this?” The enchantress in a way is also that Self. She is a person who is leaving behind home and family and birth and breeding and this and that, and she has very few tools. She has beauty, and she may or may not have magical powers. But she is defenseless in the world.
So when she falls in love with Argalia and says to the Mirror, “No, we’re not running away; we are going to wait for him to come home,” she realizes that she’s acting in a way which is not self-interested. She discovers at that moment in the book that the nature of real love is that you care about the other person more than yourself. Then, of course, he sacrifices himself for her. So they both discover the sacrificial quality of love, and this novel — which is in many ways about the Self — is also about something that transcends the Self, which is love.
It’s also because of love that Ago, the one who never wants to leave home, makes the weirdest journey of all — across the ocean sea into this half-formed realm which may be an island or a continent or a dream: the New World.
I have to say, just parenthetically, that I think Amerigo Vespucci, Ago’s distant relation and the man who gave his name to America, does not entirely get his due these days. I mean, he gets pretty bad press for being a fantasist and a liar and so on. And there is an element of truth in all that: he did exaggerate his importance on some of the journeys he made, claiming to be the pilot of the ship when he probably was just on board in some lower capacity. But I think he doesn’t get proper credit for being one of the very, very first people to understand that the place to which the explorers had come was not India. It was not the Indies they had arrived at, it was a new world. Columbus lived and died thinking he’d found the Indies. Whereas Vespucci — if he didn’t invent the term mundus novus, he is certainly the person who popularized it. So in a way, he deserves the place being named after him. He’s the person who realized it was a new place.
Of course, the map I refer to in the novel, the famous Waldseemüller map (Editor’s note: A 1507 map of the world drawn by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller), is the place where the word “America” first appeared. And interestingly, it didn’t appear on North America. It appeared on what is now Brazil, in South America.
JM: Is that so?
SR: Yes. That’s where it was put, “America.” At the top of the map, there is Amerigo Vespucci and Ptolemy as kind of overseers of the world, looking down upon Creation. Interestingly, Waldseemüller himself, the cartographer, in later life was persuaded by people that Vespucci was a fake, and he took the name “America” off the later editions of the map, replacing it with “Mundus Novus.” But the genie was out of the bottle, and you couldn’t put “America” back.
Recent biographers of Vespucci are quite scathing about his right to the claim, but I think they all have to concede that he was the person who saw that the world was not the shape everyone thought it was. Imagine living at a time when it’s realized that the world is not this size — it’s THIS size. I mean, what does it do to you, to realize that the planet on which you live is twice as big as you thought it was. It’s a terrifying thing in the mind.
Another interesting about the Waldseemüller is that, unlike earlier maps, it doesn’t just show the east coast of the New World. It quite accurately depicts the west coasts of both South and North America. That’s the point at which everybody thought, “Man! This is huge!”
Yet, in the mind of that time, the idea of the New World was very fluid — it hadn’t formed in the imagination. So that’s what I put in the book, a realm that wasn’t formed, where the rules of the world weren’t certain. Or were the rules were different. Take the question of time. The Native Americans whom the Western travelers first discovered didn’t have a sense of time as moving forward. Rather than understanding time as Western chronology has always comprehended it — the history of the world is a forward movement through time — the Native Americans saw time as being eternal: the past, present and future are all there. If you like, the time of God, for God sees all things; their conception of time was static. Who needed change? Change wasn’t even a subject; there was just an eternal time that you lived in. I thought, how interesting that this linear chronology comes across the ocean sea and collides with static time. That’s one of the great meeting points — two different ideas of time. So I had some fun with that.
JM: Speaking of that, we have only a few more minutes, and there are a couple of things I’d still like to touch on. First, I have to say that I take tremendous pleasure in just reading your prose. There’s so much coming into it — your prose synthesizes imagery, ideas, and patterns of sound and sense on a micro-level in the same way the novels synthesize themes, ideas, cultures, and periods on a macro-level.
SR: Thank you.
JM: And your sentences are singularly high-spirited — a kind of joy comes off your pages that seems inspired by a faith in the improvisational ingenuity of storytelling. It’s something uncommon in contemporary novels, and it’s something that I think is absent from today’s dominant narrative factories, movies and television; what I mean is that when we watch a film, even a film that is pure fantasy, no matter how inventive its story may be, the inventing energy is limited by the fact that, in order for the scene to be shot, a set has to be built, lights have to be calibrated, actors and cameras need to be rehearsed and choreographed. It’s a production in every sense of the word.
SR: Yes, yes.
JM: Whereas in certain kinds of — let’s call it exuberant – writing, like yours and that of Dickens, say, and Swift, the reader is never absolutely sure where the sentence is going, much less the story. The reader can sense that the creator of the sentence is taking pleasure in the blank stretch of page in front of him, and that somehow gives the reader a share in the invention.
SR: Oh, good. That’s wonderfully well-described. You want it to be an adventure. I wanted this book to be an adventure story, and you want to take the adventure down to the level of the sentence — it should be fun to read the sentence and see where it goes, what it’s throwing out. The sentence is a journey, too. I did have a lot of fun with this book. There is a point at which I felt that I knew the world I was writing about well enough to be able to set the research over there, put it aside. I think you have to do that, otherwise it burdens you and it burdens the prose. They have to reach the point of lightness.
JM: Yes, and in The Enchantress of Florence, you do. For all the profound themes and historical contexts we’ve been talking about, it’s a very fleet book. And fun.
SR: Well, you mentioned Calvino, and I think that, in a way, the spirit of Calvino was very much behind this book for me. In his last book, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, he wrote essays about what he believed to be the great virtues of literature — swiftness, lightness, visibility, multiplicity, etc. Those are extremely good guidelines. Swiftness, which doesn’t have to mean glossing over things. And lightness, which doesn’t have to mean superficiality. I wanted the book to be swift and light. Obviously, it’s multiple; it’s bringing in many different things. And visible: I wanted it to make pictures in people’s heads.
I’ve discovered that the people who like your writing like it for exactly the same reasons that the people who don’t like your writing don’t like it! [LAUGHS] So for instance, people who like my writing have always been kind enough to praise its pictorial quality, the way it makes pictures in your head. People who don’t like my writing don’t like it for the same reason. They say it’s too pictorial. My view at this stage is to hell with all that — I do what I do. But in this book, I really wanted it to have those qualities Calvino talks about. I wanted the book to be fleet, so that it would rush you through — you wouldn’t have to plod in its wake. And I wanted it to have a quality of lightness, like a soufflé is light. That doesn’t mean that it’s not difficult to do or that it doesn’t have a kind of richness, but it should be light, airy — and visual, and pluralistic, and so on. So I kept thoughts of the Calvino virtues in my head as I worked on this.
JM: Well, that’s apt. By coincidence, in preparing for this interview, I came across something you wrote about Calvino in the early 1980s that seemed to sum up what I felt on reading The Enchantress of Florence, as well as the other books of yours I’ve lately revisited. You wrote: “The reason why Calvino is such an indispensable writer is precisely that he tells us joyfully, wickedly, that there are things in the world worth loving as well as hating, and that such things exist in people, too.” That’s what you do, too.
SR: I remember I wrote that when If on A Winter’s Night a Traveler was published. You know, it was strange: at that time I wrote that, almost nobody in England knew anything about Calvino. I remember talking to the London Review of Books when that book came out, and saying, “Were you considering reviewing the new Calvino, because if so, I’d like to do it.” I remember the editor saying, “Who?” I said, “Are you serious?” It wasn’t the editor editor, it was a junior editor — but still! I said, “Look, if that’s true, it’s kind of horrifying. In which case, I could propose that instead of just reviewing If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, I could use it as a pretext to write a longer piece about Calvino’s work in general. They said, “Okay,” and that’s how that essay came to be.
And that’s also how I got to meet Calvino, because somebody sent it to him, and he liked it. So I got to meet him, and he became a great friend. I met him whenever it was, 1982, and he only lived a few years after that, but for those few years we got very close.
JM: He’s a wonderful writer. I love his work.
SR: I have a treasure, a photograph of the two of us. The first time I met him, he had been persuaded to come to England to do a reading at the Hammersmith Theater in London. I knew the guy who ran it, and he asked if I would come and introduce Calvino, which I did. And I still have this picture of a very young me and a very smiley Calvino at that event. I really am happy to have that picture. I think it’s the only picture of him and me that exists. I should have dedicated The Enchantress of Florence to him, really. I think he stands behind it.
May 15, 2008