Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002by Salman Rushdie, Sam Tsoutsouvas
From one of the great novelists of our day, a vital, brilliant new book of essays, speeches and articles essential for our times.
Step Across This Line showcases the other side of one of fiction's most astonishing conjurors.See more details below
From one of the great novelists of our day, a vital, brilliant new book of essays, speeches and articles essential for our times.
Step Across This Line showcases the other side of one of fiction's most astonishing conjurors.
Read an Excerpt
From Part I: Essays
Out of Kansas
I wrote my first short story in Bombay at the age of ten. Its title was “Over the Rainbow.” It amounted to a dozen or so pages, was dutifully typed up by my father’s secretary on flimsy paper, and was eventually lost somewhere along my family’s mazy journeyings between India, England, and Pakistan. Shortly before my father’s death in 1987, he claimed to have found a copy moldering in an old file, but despite my pleadings he never produced it. I’ve often wondered about this incident. Maybe he never really found the story, in which case he had succumbed to the lure of fantasy, and this was the last of the many fairy tales he told me. Or else he did find it, and hugged it to himself as a talisman and a reminder of simpler times, thinking of it as his treasure, not mine—his pot of nostalgic, parental gold.
I don’t remember much about the story. It was about a ten-year-old Bombay boy who one day happens upon the beginning of a rainbow, a place as elusive as any pot-of-gold end zone, and as rich in promise. The rainbow is broad, as wide as the sidewalk, and constructed like a grand staircase. Naturally, the boy begins to climb. I have forgotten almost everything about his adventures, except for an encounter with a talking pianola whose personality is an improbable hybrid of Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, and the “playback singers” of the Hindi movies, many of which made The Wizard of Oz look like kitchen-sink realism.
My bad memory—what my mother would call a “forgettery”—is probably a blessing. Anyway, I remember what matters. Iremember that The Wizard of Oz (the film, not the book, which I didn’t read as a child) was my very first literary influence. More than that: I remember that when the possibility of my going to school in England was mentioned, it felt as exciting as any voyage over rainbows. England felt as wonderful a prospect as Oz.
The wizard, however, was right there in Bombay. My father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie, was a magical parent of young children, but he was also prone to explosions, thunderous rages, bolts of emotional lightning, puffs of dragon smoke, and other menaces of the type also practiced by Oz, the great and terrible, the first Wizard Deluxe. And when the curtain fell away and we, his growing offspring, discovered (like Dorothy) the truth about adult humbug, it was easy for us to think, as she did, that our wizard must be a very bad man indeed. It took me half a lifetime to discover that the Great Oz’s apologia pro vita sua fitted my father equally well; that he too was a good man but a very bad wizard.
I have begun with these personal reminiscences because The Wizard of Oz is a film whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even of good adults. At its beginning, the weaknesses of grown-ups force a child to take control of her own destiny (and her dog’s). Thus, ironically, she begins the process of becoming a grown-up herself. The journey from Kansas to Oz is a rite of passage from a world in which Dorothy’s parent-substitutes, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, are powerless to help her save her dog, Toto, from the marauding Miss Gulch, into a world where the people are her own size, and in which she is never treated as a child but always treated as a heroine. She gains this status by accident, it’s true, having played no part in her house’s decision to squash the Wicked Witch of the East; but by the end of her adventure she has certainly grown to fill those shoes—or, rather, those famous ruby slippers. “Who’d have thought a girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” laments the Wicked Witch of the West as she melts—an adult becoming smaller than, and giving way to, a child. As the Wicked Witch of the West “grows down,” so Dorothy is seen to have grown up. In my view, this is a much more satisfactory explanation for Dorothy’s newfound power over the ruby slippers than the sentimental reasons offered by the ineffably soppy Good Witch Glinda, and then by Dorothy herself, in a cloying ending that I find untrue to the film’s anarchic spirit. (More about this later.)
The helplessness of Auntie Em and Uncle Henry in the face of Miss Gulch’s desire to annihilate Toto the dog leads Dorothy to think, childishly, of running away from home—of escape. And that’s why, when the tornado hits, she isn’t with the others in the storm shelter, and as a result is whirled away to an escape beyond her wildest dreams. Later, however, when she is confronted by the weakness of the Wizard of Oz, she doesn’t run away but goes into battle—first against the Witch and then against the Wizard himself. The Wizard’s ineffectuality is one of the film’s many symmetries, rhyming with the feebleness of Dorothy’s folks; but the difference in the way Dorothy reacts is the point.
The ten-year-old boy who watched The Wizard of Oz in Bombay’s Metro cinema knew very little about foreign parts and even less about growing up. He did, however, know a great deal more about the cinema of the fantastic than any Western child of the same age. In the West, The Wizard of Oz was an oddball, an attempt to make a live-action version of a Disney cartoon feature despite the industry’s received wisdom (how times change!) that fantasy movies usually flopped. There’s little doubt that the excitement engendered by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs accounts for MGM’s decision to give the full, all-stops-out treatment to a thirty-nine-year-old book. This was not, however, the first screen version. I haven’t seen the silent film of 1925, but its reputation is poor. It did, however, star Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man.
The Wizard of Oz never really made money until it became a television standard years after its original theatrical release, though it should be said in mitigation that coming out two weeks before the start of World War II can’t have helped its chances. In India, however, it fitted into what was then, and remains today, one of the mainstreams of “Bollywood” film production.
It’s easy to satirize the Indian commercial cinema industry. In James Ivory’s film Bombay Talkie, a journalist (the touching Jennifer Kendal, who died in 1984) visits a studio soundstage and watches an amazing dance number featuring scantily clad nautch girls prancing on the keys of a giant typewriter. The director explains that this is no less than the Typewriter of Life, and we are all dancing out “the story of our Fate” upon that mighty machine. “It’s very symbolic,” the journalist suggests. The director, simpering, replies: “Thank you.”
Typewriters of Life, sex goddesses in wet saris (the Indian equivalent of wet T-shirts), gods descending from the heavens to meddle in human affairs, magic potions, superheroes, demonic villains, and so on have always been the staple diet of the Indian filmgoer. Blond Glinda arriving in Munchkinland in her magic bubble might cause Dorothy to comment on the high speed and oddity of local transport operating in Oz, but to an Indian audience Glinda was arriving exactly as a god should arrive: ex machina, out of her divine machine. The Wicked Witch of the West’s orange puffs of smoke were equally appropriate to her super-bad status. But in spite of all the similarities, there are important differences between the Bombay cinema and a film like The Wizard of Oz. Good fairies and bad witches might superficially resemble the deities and demons of the Hindu pantheon, but in reality one of the most striking aspects of the worldview of The Wizard of Oz is its joy- ful and almost complete secularism. Religion is mentioned only once in the film. Auntie Em, sputtering with anger at the gruesome Miss Gulch, reveals that she’s waited years to tell her what she thinks of her, “and now, because I’m a good Christian woman, I can’t do so.” Apart from this moment, in which Christian charity prevents some old-fashioned plain speaking, the film is breezily godless. There’s not a trace of religion in Oz itself. Bad witches are feared, good ones liked, but none are sanctified; and while the Wizard of Oz is thought to be something very close to all-powerful, nobody thinks to worship him. This absence of higher values greatly increases the film’s charm and is an important aspect of its success in creating a world in which nothing is deemed more important than the loves, cares, and needs of human beings (and, of course, tin beings, straw beings, lions, and dogs).
The other major difference is harder to define, because it is, finally, a matter of quality. Most Hindi movies were then and are now what can only be called trashy. The pleasure to be had from such films (and some of them are extremely enjoyable) is something like the fun of eating junk food. The classic Bombay talkie uses scripts of dreadful corniness, looks tawdry and garish, and relies on the mass appeal of its star performers and musical numbers to provide a little zing. The Wizard of Oz also has movie stars and musical numbers, but it is also very definitely a Good Film. It takes the fantasy of Bombay and adds high production values and something more. Call it imaginative truth. Call it (reach for your revolvers now) art.
But if The Wizard of Oz is a work of art, it’s extremely difficult to say who the artist was. The birth of Oz itself has already passed into legend: the author, L. Frank Baum, named his magic world after the letters O–Z on the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet. Baum had an odd, roller-coaster life. Born rich, he inherited a string of little theaters from his father and lost them all through mismanagement. He wrote one successful play and several flops. The Oz books made him one of the leading children’s writers of his day, but all his other fantasy novels bombed. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and a musical adaptation of it for the stage, restored Baum’s finances, but a financially disastrous attempt to tour America promoting his books with a “fairylogue” of slides and films led him to file for bankruptcy in 1911. He became a slightly shabby, if still frock-coated, figure, living on his wife’s money at “Ozcot” in Hollywood, where he raised chickens and won prizes at flower shows. The small success of another musical, The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, improved his finances, but he ruined them again by setting up his own movie company, the Oz Film Company, and trying unsuccessfully to film and distribute the Oz books. After two bedridden years, and still, we are told, optimistic, he died in May 1919. However, as we shall see, his frock coat lived on into a strange immortality.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, contains many of the ingredients of the magic potion—all the major characters and events are here, as well as the most important locations, the Yellow Brick Road, the Deadly Poppy Field, the Emerald City. But The Wizard of Oz is that great rarity, a film that improves on the good book from which it came. One of the changes is the expansion of the Kansas section, which in the novel takes up precisely two pages before the tornado arrives, and just nine lines at the end. The story line in the Oz section is also simplified, by jettisoning several sub-plots, such as the visits to the Fighting Trees, the Dainty China Country, and the Quadlings that come, in the novel, just after the dramatic high point of the Witch’s destruction and fritter away the story’s narrative drive. And there are two even more important alterations: to the colors of the Wizard’s city and of Dorothy’s shoes.
Frank Baum’s Emerald City was green only because everyone in it had to wear emerald-tinted glasses, whereas in the movie it really is a futuristic, chlorophyll green—except, that is, for the Horse of a Different Color You’ve Heard Tell Of. The Horse changes color in each successive shot, a change brought about by covering it in a variety of shades of powdered Jell-O.*
Frank Baum did not make up the ruby slippers. He called them
* See Aljean Harmetz’s definitive The Making of the Wizard of Oz (Pavilion Books, 1989). Silver Shoes. Baum believed that America’s stability required a switch from the gold to the silver standard, and the Shoes were a metaphor of the magical advantages of Silver. Noel Langley, the first of the film’s three credited screenwriters, originally went along with Baum’s idea. But in his fourth script, the script of May 14, 1938, known as the do not make changes script, the clunky, metallic, and non-mythic footwear is jettisoned and the immortal jewel shoes are introduced for the first time, probably in response to the demand for color. (In Shot 114, “the ruby shoes appear on Dorothy’s feet, glittering and sparkling in the sun.”)
Other writers contributed important details to the finished screenplay. Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf were probably responsible for “There’s no place like home,” which, to me, is the least convincing idea in the film (it’s one thing for Dorothy to want to get home, quite another that she can do so only by eulogizing the ideal state, which Kansas so obviously is not).* But there’s some dispute about this, too. A studio memo implies that it could have been the associate producer Arthur Freed who came up with the cutesy slogan. And, after much quarreling between Langley and Ryerson–Woolf, it was the film’s lyricist, Yip Harburg, who pulled the final script together and added the crucial scene in which the Wizard, unable to give the companions what they demand, hands out emblems instead, and to our satisfaction these symbols do the job. The name of the rose turns out to be the rose, after all.
Who, then, was the auteur of The Wizard of Oz? No single writer can claim that honor, not even the author of the original book. The producers, Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed, both have their champions. At least four directors worked on the picture, most notably Victor Fleming; but he left before shooting ended (King Vidor was his uncredited replacement) to make Gone With the Wind, ironically enough the movie that dominated the Oscars while The Wizard of Oz won just three: Best Song (“Over the Rainbow”), Best Musical Score, and a Special Award for Judy Garland. The truth is that this great movie, in which the quarrels, sackings, and bungles of all concerned produced what seems like pure, effortless, and somehow inevitable felicity, is as
* When I first published this essay in 1992, the idea of “home” had become problematic for me, for reasons I have little interest in rehearsing here. (But see Part II, “Messages from the Plague Years.”) I won’t deny that I did a great deal of thinking, in those days, about the advantages of a good pair of ruby shoes. near as dammit to that will-o’-the-wisp of modern critical theory: the authorless text.
Kansas as described by L. Frank Baum is a depressing place, in which everything is gray as far as the eye can see—the prairie is gray and so is the house in which Dorothy lives. As for Auntie Em, “The sun and wind . . . had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now.” Whereas: “Uncle Henry never laughed. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots.” And the sky? “It was even grayer than usual.” Toto, though, was spared grayness. He “saved Dorothy from growing as gray as her surroundings.” He was not exactly colorful, though his eyes twinkled and his hair was silky. Toto was black. It is out of this grayness—the gathering, cumulative grayness of that bleak world—that calamity comes. The tornado is the grayness gathered together and whirled about and unleashed, so to speak, against itself. And to all this the film is astonishingly faithful, shooting the Kansas scenes in what we call black-and-white but what is in reality a multiplicity of shades of gray, and darkening its images until the whirlwind sucks them up and rips them into pieces.
There is, however, another way of understanding the tornado. Dorothy has a surname: Gale. And in many ways Dorothy is the gale blowing through this little corner of nowhere. She demands justice for her little dog while the adults give in meekly to the powerful Miss Gulch. She is prepared to interrupt the gray inevitability of her life by running away but is so tenderhearted that she runs back again when Professor Marvel tells her that Auntie Em is distraught that she has fled. Dorothy is the life-force of this Kansas, just as Miss Gulch is the force of death; and perhaps it is Dorothy’s turmoil, the cyclone of feeling unleashed by the conflict between Dorothy and Miss Gulch, that is made actual in the great dark snake of cloud that wriggles across the prairie, eating the world.
The Kansas of the film is a little less unremittingly bleak than that of the book, if only because of the introduction of the three farmhands and of Professor Marvel, four characters who will find their rhymes, their counterparts, in the Three Companions of Oz and the Wizard himself. Then again, the movie Kansas is also more terrifying, because it adds a presence of real evil: the angular Miss Gulch, with a profile that could carve a turkey, riding stiffly on her bicycle with a hat on her head like a plum pudding or a bomb, and claiming the protection of the Law for her campaign against Toto. Thanks to Miss Gulch, this cinematic Kansas is informed not only by the sadness of dirt-poverty but also by the badness of would-be dog murderers.
And this is the home that there’s no place like? This is the lost Eden that we are asked to prefer (as Dorothy does) to Oz?
I remember (or I imagine I remember) that when I first saw this film, Dorothy’s place struck me as being pretty much a dump. I was lucky, and had a good, comfortable home, and so, I reasoned to myself, if I’d been whisked off to Oz, I’d naturally want to get home again. But Dorothy? Maybe we should invite her over to stay. Anywhere looks better than that.
I thought one further thought, which I had better confess now, as it gave me a sneaking regard for Miss Gulch and her fantasy counterpart, the Wicked Witch, and, some might say, a secret sympathy for all persons of her witchy disposition, which has remained with me ever since: I couldn’t stand Toto. I still can’t. As Gollum says of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins in another great fantasy: “Baggins: we hates it to pieces.”
Toto, that little yapping hairpiece of a creature, that meddlesome rug! L. Frank Baum, excellent fellow, gave the dog a distinctly minor role: it kept Dorothy happy, and when she was not, it had a tendency to “whine dismally”—not an endearing trait. Its only significant contribution to Baum’s story came when it accidentally knocked over the screen behind which the Wizard of Oz was concealed. The film-Toto rather more deliberately pulls aside a curtain to reveal the Great Humbug, and in spite of everything I found this an irritating piece of mischief-making. I was not surprised to learn that the pooch playing Toto was possessed of a star’s temperament, and even brought the shoot to a standstill at one point by staging a nervous breakdown. That Toto should be the film’s one true object of love has always rankled. But such protest is useless, if satisfying. Nobody, now, can rid me of this turbulent toupee.
When I first saw The Wizard of Oz it made a writer of me. Many years later, I began to devise the yarn that eventually became Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I felt strongly that—if I could only strike the right note—it must be possible to write the tale in such a way as to make it of interest to adults as well as children. The world of books has become a severely categorized and demarcated place, in which children’s fiction is not only a kind of ghetto but one subdivided into writing for a number of different age-groups. The movies, however, have regularly risen above such categorizing. From Spielberg to Schwarzenegger, from Disney to Gilliam, the cinema has often come up with offerings before which kids and adults sit happily side by side. I watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit in an afternoon movie theater full of excited, rowdy children and went back to see it the next evening, at an hour too late for the kids, so that I could hear all the gags properly, enjoy the movie in-jokes, and marvel at the brilliance of the Toontown concept. But of all movies, the one that helped me most as I tried to find the right voice for Haroun was The Wizard of Oz. The film’s influence is there in the text, plain to see. In Haroun’s companions there are clear echoes of the friends who danced with Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road.
And now I’m doing something strange, something that ought to destroy my love for the movie but doesn’t: I’m watching a videotape with a notebook on my lap, a pen in one hand and a remote-control zapper in the other, subjecting The Wizard of Oz to the indignities of slow-motion, fast-forward, and freeze-frame, trying to learn the secret of the magic trick; and, yes, seeing things I’d never noticed before . . .
The film begins. We are in the monochrome “real” world of Kansas. A girl and her dog run down a country lane. She isn’t coming yet, Toto. Did she hurt you? She tried to, didn’t she? A real girl, a real dog, and the beginning, with the very first line of dialogue, of real drama. Kansas, however, is not real, no more real than Oz. Kansas is a painting. Dorothy and Toto have been running down a short stretch of “road” in the MGM studios, and this shot has been matted into a picture of emptiness. “Real” emptiness would probably not look empty enough. It’s as close as makes no difference to the universal gray of Frank Baum’s story, the void broken only by a couple of fences and the vertical lines of telegraph poles. If Oz is nowhere, then the studio setting of the Kansas scenes suggests that so is Kansas. This is necessary. A realistic depiction of the extreme poverty of Dorothy Gale’s circumstances would have created a burden, a heaviness, that would have rendered impossible the imaginative leap into Storyland, the soaring flight into Oz. The Grimms’ fairy tales, it’s true, were often realistic. In “The Fisherman and His Wife,” the eponymous couple live, until they meet the magic flounder, in what is tersely described as “a pisspot.” But in many children’s versions of the Grimms, the pisspot is bowdlerized into a “hovel” or some even gentler word. Hollywood’s vision has always been of this soft-focus variety. Dorothy looks extremely well fed, and she is not really, but unreally, poor.
She arrives at the farmyard, and here (freezing the frame) we see the beginning of what will be a recurring visual motif. In the scene we have frozen, Dorothy and Toto are in the background, heading for a gate. To the left of the screen is a tree trunk, a vertical line echoing the telegraph poles of the scene before. Hanging from an approximately horizontal branch are a triangle (for calling farmhands to dinner) and a circle (actually a rubber tire). In mid-shot are further geometric elements: the parallel lines of the wooden fence, the bisecting diagonal wooden bar at the gate. Later, when we see the house, the theme of simple geometry is present once again; it is all right angles and triangles. The world of Kansas, that great void, is shaped into “home” by the use of simple, uncomplicated shapes; none of your citified complexity here. Throughout The Wizard of Oz, home and safety are represented by such geometrical simplicity, whereas danger and evil are invariably twisty, irregular, and misshapen.
The tornado is just such an untrustworthy, sinuous, shifting shape. Random, unfixed, it wrecks the plain shapes of that no-frills life.
The Kansas sequence invokes not only geometry but mathematics too. When Dorothy, like the chaotic force she is, bursts upon Auntie Em and Uncle Henry with her fears about Toto, what are they doing? Why do they shoo her away? “We’re trying to count,” they admonish her, as they take a census of the eggs, counting their metaphorical chickens, their small hopes of income, which the tornado will shortly blow away. So, with simple shapes and numbers, Dorothy’s family erects its defenses against the immense, maddening emptiness; and these defenses are useless, of course.
Leap ahead to Oz and it becomes obvious that this opposition between the geometric and the twisty is no accident. Look at the beginning of the Yellow Brick Road: it’s a perfect spiral. Look again at Glinda’s carriage, that perfect, luminous sphere. Look at the regimented routines of the Munchkins as they greet Dorothy and thank her for squashing the Wicked Witch of the East. Move on to the Emerald City: see it in the distance, its straight lines soaring into the sky! And now, by contrast, observe the Wicked Witch of the West: her bent figure, her misshapen hat. How does she depart? In a puff of shapeless smoke . . . “Only bad witches are ugly,” Glinda tells Dorothy, a remark of high political incorrectness that emphasizes the film’s animosity toward whatever is tangled, claw-crooked, and weird. Woods are invariably frightening—the gnarled branches of trees are capable of coming to life—and the one moment when the Yellow Brick Road itself bewilders Dorothy is the moment when it ceases to be geometric (first spiral, then rectilinear) and splits and forks every which way.
From the Hardcover edition.
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