LONG ago, said Salman Rushdie, he decided that there were two kind of books that worked: Everything books and Almost Nothing books. "Almost Nothing books take one tiny strand of hair from the head of the gods, look at it and grow the world out of it. That's not my talent. I take enormous quantities, try to swallow it and regurgitate it."
Indeed: Jane Austen he is not. Shalimar the Clown, his new and very much Everything novel, which is published this week, leaps with awesome assurance across the world, from Kashmir to California and across the last century, from the makers of the post-war world to the fundamentalist planners of its destruction.
One thing it is not is a roman clef. Shalimar, the Islamic terrorist and murderer who started his adulthood as a love-struck clown, is emphatically not "his worst nightmare", as chair Ramona Koval suggested.
Instead, Rushdie insisted, it's his least personal novel, in which no character was the author in disguise, as there was in Midnight's Children.
Referring to the fatwah imposed on him in 1989, he continued: "Really, I'm not writing books in order to work out something that happened to me 16 years ago."
When Koval said that, perhaps subconsciously, he still was, he replied that this was a "rotten reading of the book", but that he couldn't prevent her thinking of that.
It was the only slight frisson of testiness in a conversation that was otherwise relaxed, informative and insightful. Those nine years in hiding - for the very principle of freedom of thought - surfaced again, but there was a sense that he had long ago come to terms with their cruel absurdity.
Because of it, he said, doors had opened to him that otherwise would never have done, not least the ones to the inner sanctum of MI5.
At one meeting there, he had joked to the then deputy head of the intelligence services that no left-wing writer probably knew about the workings of the British secret services. No right-wing writer probably did either, she replied.
But although similar meetings with powerful men - presidents, prime ministers and diplomats among them - had helped with his portrait of Max Ophuls, a former US ambassador to India murdered by Shalimar, the book's beating heart is in Kashmir, that debatable land whose five million population lives under the guns of 1.6 million soldiers.
It's a part of the world Rushdie knows and loves, and writing about the horrors of the oppression visited upon it more than once reduced him to tears - which his writing had never done before. "I thought, why am I crying about these characters: I made them up!"
The reason, he said, was that he knew Kashmir before it was riven by strife, before fundamentalism replaced moderate, mystical Islam and before jihadists bullied its women into wearing the veil.
But though he might - and does - call for a reform of Islam to prevent it backsliding into history, and for the silent majority of Muslims to speak up against fundamentalists, that's not the purpose of his novel. Novels shouldn't preach, he said. Making readers think is different: that's why his plot has Max in the French Resistance committing acts that might be seen as heroic in that context even though they might not seem so when someone like Shalimar commits them for exactly the same reasons.
Ambiguities, in other words, are there to be explored and for the reader, not him, to decide on. When asked by poet Alastair Reid why he had called his novel Shalimar the Clown rather than just Shalimar, he explained that it was to imprint that sweeter, more loving time more firmly in the reader's mind, to make people realise that he "couldn't simply be put into a box labelled 'bad guy'".
And if you want one of the reasons that Rushdie is such a great writer, you've got it right there: that he, who more than anyone could feel entitled to put such a character in such a box, refuses to.
FAME, says Zadie Smith, is "pretty depressing". She's embarrassed by it. Apart from anything else, it gets in the way of her writing: only the other day she was walking round Edinburgh with her husband and they passed another couple who were chatting to each other but stopped as soon as they recognised her.
For the kind of novelist she is, with a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a keen eye for the comedy of manners, this is intolerable. Few women look forward to being replaced by younger, bright things in the media's affections, but there's no doubt that she means it.
She read, brilliantly, from her new novel, On Beauty, and talked about it with massive self-deprecation and candour.
The pivotal scene in the reading, of the discovery of a will before a funeral was, she said, the last instalment of her debt to EM Forster's Howards End; the novel itself, with a poem by her husband, a rap lyric from her brother and so many suggestions from friends, more of a collaborative effort than a single; and even good things in the novel (like its sense of landscape) only highlighted the failings of her earlier books.
Anything, in other words, rather than admit what the evidence of her novel reveals: that she really is in a class of her own.
WHEN Sebastian Faulks took Birdsong to his American editor, her reaction was equivocal at best. "It's far too long, we're going to have to gut most of the war passages," she said, "and ...have you considered relocating it in a more recent context?"
Even his agent in Britain, when he explained that he was writing a novel about people being eviscerated in the mud of the trenches, with a dual time frame and an extended description of the battle of the Somme, didn't seem particularly enthusiastic. Yet Birdsong's subsequent reception was as ecstatic as its themes were grim: indeed Vintage has only just announced that it is to be republished as a "future classic".
The weighty philosophical themes and intellectual rigour behind his new novel, Human Traces, might not therefore be an automatic barrier to bestsellerdom. Certainly its plot - two very different 19th century psychiatrists trying to understand the root causes of madness - involved him doing research that was both moving and distressing.
As the brother of one of the psychiatrists himself suffers from what we now call schizophrenia, Faulks needed to find out more about the disorder. He had known several other people with severe bipolar disorder, as it started to be known in the 1960s: two boys in his school football team, a neighbour, a friend. But he didn't properly understand it until a schizophrenic woman told him that the three or four voices in her head were each louder and more immediate than his own when talking to her.
Playing a personal stereo at the same time as trying to hold a conversation was, she said, the nearest equivalent: when he tried doing just that, he soon found himself stumbling over even basic facts.
Although the research into the origins of human consciousness took him into dark and deep thickets of scientific history, to the heart of the Masai lands in East Africa and consultations with a score of eminent professors in Britain ("If I do get any flak, I'll be suing them"), it was always only incidental to the novel that has taken him four years to write.
"After a while, you've got to put all that back on the shelf, climb into the story and start to live it."
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