An interviewer once asked Vladimir Nabokov: "What are the literary sins for which you could be answerable someday?"
And Nabokov replied: "Of having spared in my books too many political fools and intellectual frauds."
I am, each morning, astonished by the Salman Rushdie story.
Rushdie has written a virtually unreadable novel called The Satanic Verses. Its commercial merits were thought so little of that Houle Books, one of the best bookstores in Phoenix, bought only three copies. The book was placed in alphabetical order on the rack holding fiction near the door.
When a regular customer entered the store and asked about current novels, Molly or Peter would reply:
"Well, have you read the Tom Wolfe book yet?"
The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has changed all that. Salman Rushdie and his book, The Satanic Verses, have become a commercial bonanza. Houle Books now has sixty copies of Rushdie's book on order. Almost half of them are pre-sold.
You may notice that I place the Ayatollah's name first. In doing so, I bow to cause and effect. For without the Ayatollah's reaction there would be no demand for Rushdie's book.
It is because of the Ayatollah's descent into the world of literary criticism that The Satanic Verses will be a landmark best seller.
If a man has been condemned to death for writing such a book, then certainly it is worth having the book on the living-room bookshelf.
And that's the way it will end. If the Ayatollah has his way, Rushdie will, sooner or later, be executed by the followers of Islam.
The reward for a Muslim will be $3 million and a place in the Muslim heaven. The reward for anyone else will be $1 million.
But the Ayatollah is careful not to tell anyone where he must go to collect.
So now, customers walk into Houle, the Doubleday Book Shop in the Biltmore, or Dushoff Books and ask: "Do you have that book?"
I have mixed feelings. I find it hard to take the Ayatollah seriously. But I find it equally difficult to take Rushdie seriously or to hold him in high regard.
And yet, we are all suddenly facing judgment because of how we react to the threat on Rushdie's life.
There is an incredible amount of posturing on both sides. It's a story that could be written by Terry Southern or reported by Hunter Thompson.
Any cause that brings the likes of Norman Mailer and Abbie Hoffman back out into the streets has to possess elements of the absurd.
It is not only Mailer and The Great Abbie, but platoons of writers we've never heard of before. Now, they are all ready to battle in the aisles of their local bookstores.
They vow willingness to take Rushdie's place on the gallows. They assert Rushdie's sacred right to publish nonsense and shout that it's worth either dying for or going to war over. They are talking of creating martyrs for the Book of the Month Club. I assume they are not really talking about their own martyrdom.
Cat Stevens, yes, that Cat Stevens, calls for Rushdie's ritual murder.
I don't yet know where Gladys Knight and the Pips stand on this matter. How about Paul Harvey or Pat McMahon or B.J. Hunter?
I find all of this to be absurd.
The posturing by celebrated and uncelebrated authors is clearly self-serving and a blatant effort to get their own names and faces into the public prints.
Obviously, they understand that Rushdie, in attacking the Muslims, is onto a lucrative thing. And, yes, I think I am impugning the motives of most of the writers who showed up in various large cities to read aloud portions of Rushdie's book. It may have been an act of genuine defiance and courage for a few. For most, it was a grandstand play made with no risk and great hopes for personal gain.
The pusillanimous performance of the major book chains like B Dalton and Waldenbooks was to be expected. They are, after all, not real bookstores. They are run by people with the same business ethic as the heads of savings and loans.
The Rushdie affair has become an event of transcendent proportion like Pearl Harbor or the death of the astronauts:
Where were you when it happened?
Only this time, we will be judged by our immediate reaction.
Frankly, I don't find Salman Rushdie to be a very attractive human being. I read more about him every day and admire him less. And certainly, I can't side with the old Ayatollah and his followers as they scream in the streets, almost demanding they be nuked and sent to Muslim heaven.
I find myself highly suspicious of Rushdie's motives in writing the book. He has actually done this twice before. This time, he was clearly seeking to write a book sensational enough to bring about the denunciation of the Muslims.
Rushdie just didn't realize the stakes would be so high.
The Ayatollah is playing his own game. I doubt that his cold, watery eyes have even once scanned the pages of The Satanic Verses. Ever the political opportunist, Khomeini is using religious fervor to make his people forget they have just lost a horrible five-year war with Iraq.
The veterans have come home to find there are no jobs and nothing to eat. It makes them forget their misery to march in the streets.
It's a case in which everyone is doing his own thing. I refuse to take up with either side.
Rushdie is young and too clever by half. He bought into all this knowing there might be a price. He bought his own ticket to this dance.
Khomeini is old. We all thought he was at death's door a decade ago. And Khomeini is better at manipulation than we ever expected. He no longer cares about possible disaster, only about winning.
Both Rushdie and Khomeini will die, eventually. So will we all. But none of us see this event in our own lives as coming for a long time.
No writer can really think he will be killed for something he wrote. Clearly, Don Bolles of the Arizona Republic actually thought he was being invited to a luncheon meeting.
There's a passage in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov that describes this phenomenon of delayed death in simple prose:
"I imagine that he felt something like what criminals felt when they are being taken to the scaffold. They have another long, long street to pass down and at a walking pace, past thousands of people. Then there will be a turning into another street and only at the end of that street the dread place of execution!
"But now the turning comes to the next street. Oh, that's nothing, nothing, there's still a whole street before him, and however many homes have been passed, he will still think there are many left. And so to the very end, to the very scaffold."
I find myself highly suspicious of Rushdie's motives in writing this book. He has actually done this twice before.