Salman Rushdie—Novelist, Children’s Author, and Activist


Born: 19 June 1947

 Little known facts:

During the most violent period of the fatwa declared by the Supreme Leader of Iran calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, the author used the alias Joseph Anton—a pseudonym derived from his wish to honor Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.

He won the 1992 Writers’ Guild Award for Best Children’s Book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz believed The Satanic Verses was insulting to Islam, but, nonetheless, signed a petition with 80 other intellectuals, stating “no blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer”. Five years later, Islamic extremists stabbed the 82-year old Mahfouz in the neck. (Anthony)


Much better known facts:

On Valentine’s Day 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against Rushdie, declaring him an apostate for writing The Satanic Verses and sentencing him to death under Islamic law—along with those directly involved in the publishing and distribution of the novel.

As the violence and the fear grew, Penguin India shared in the umbra of the fatwa and began living behind barricades while bookshops in London and America were firebombed. In the following months, Islamists in Belgium shot two moderate imams; Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator, was stabbed to death in the face at work; a Norwegian publisher was; and an Italian publisher knifed.

Despite some journalistic misinterpretations that Iranian President Mohammed Khatami rescinded this fatwa in 1998, criticism by Iranian Parliament hardliners forced the Foreign Affairs Minister to state categorically that Tehran has not backed down on the Rushdie question. (BBC) Senior cleric Ahmad Khatami reminded worshippers at the Tehran Friday prayers in February of 2014 that the ‘historical fatwa’ is ‘as fresh as ever’. The $3.3M bounty remains on his head.


Snap Shot

Salman Rushdie was born in 1947 just prior to India’s independence. He was educated in India and in England, where he invested two decades becoming a critically acclaimed and commercially successful writer. Rushdie now lives in New York and insists that the danger presented to him by the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 has passed. He was the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University for five years; he was elected to the American Academy of Letters, and he became the president of American PEN. In addition to his novels, he is the author of five volumes of nonfiction, and a short-story collection. He continues to argue forcefully for freedom of expression around the world.


Early Life and Non-Writing Career

Rushdie was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) and was the only son in a Muslim family. He went to Cathedral School in Bombay and boarded at Rugby School in England. After Rugby, he went to Cambridge where his father expected him to study economics; however, he studied history instead and plumbed the origins of Islam.

After Cambridge, Rushdie secured a position in a small advertising agency called Sharp McManus, writing copy and writing fiction in his spare time until he published his first successful novel in this middle thirties.

Now living in the United States, he still thinks of himself as a British citizen of Indian origin and he refers to himself regularly as both a New Yorker and as a Londoner. “I probably think of those as being more exact definitions than the passport or the place of birth,” he says. (Livings)


Major Relationships

Salman Rushdie has been married to four women. He was married to Clarissa Luard from 1976 to 1987 and they produced a son, Zafar, in 1979. He left Clarissa in the mid-’80s for the Australian writer Robyn Davidson. His second wife was the American novelist Marianne Wiggins; they were married in 1988 and divorced in 1993. His third wife was Elizabeth West from 1997 to 2004 and they have a son, Milan, who was born in 1999. In 2004, he married the Indian American Padma Lakshmi, actress, model, and host of the American reality-television show Top Chef. They ended the marriage in 2007.


Writing Career

Salman Rushdie broke out as a writer with his publication of his novel Midnight’s Children that won a Booker Prize in 1981, followed by Shame two years later that was shortlisted for another Booker Prize. With those accomplishments, he caught the attention of the English speaking and reading world. Five years later, he finished The Satanic Verses and that earned him additional praise in the literary world as well as immediate and intense attention from the Muslim world—subsequently acknowledged as the major inflection point of his life.

In February of 1989, the dying Ayatollah Khomeini launched the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It was not long before a private prosecutor tried to take him to trial for blasphemous libel in the U. K. The magistrate refused which led the prosecutor to appeal to the High Court. Thirteen Muslim barristers attempted to get the book banned and, in that process, they were forced to draft an indictment against Rushdie and his publishers, specifying with some legal precision the exact way in which the novel’s author had blasphemed.

Their efforts convinced Geoffrey Robertson, the Queen’s Counsel who defended Salman Rushdie in the trial, that The Satanic Verses is not blasphemous in that each of six specific claims was either a clear misreading of the novel’s satirical content or it was a theological mistake. “The book is the fictional story of two men, infused with Islam but confused by the temptations of the West. The first survives by returning to his roots. The other, Gibreel, poleaxed by his spiritual need to believe in God and his intellectual inability to return to the faith, finally kills himself. The plot, in short, is not an advertisement for apostasy.” Soon afterward the British blasphemy laws were eliminated as antiquated concepts—though not necessarily in other countries of the Commonwealth or in former members of the Commonwealth. (Robertson, “Looking”)

The Rushdie controversy is cited by some as the first demonstration of Islam’s globalization; there were clearly local politics involved in Muslim protest, but it was the reshaping of the global arena after the end of the Cold War that really framed the Rushdie affair. “The author and his book were incidental to this mobilization, which is why so few of its Muslim critics had read the novel.” The debate was “dominated by old-fashioned ideas about free expression. Confined as they legally are to individual countries, such ideas have no standing in the global arena where these controversies occur.” Devji, “Looking”)

It is also not clear that the Rushdie affair had much to do with religion: the closest British demonstrators came to a theological argument was to demand that their religion be included under Britain’s blasphemy law as an indication they were to be integrated into British society. (Devji, “Looking”)

“Right from the start, The Satanic Verses affair was less a theological dispute than an opportunity to exert political leverage. The background to the controversy was the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran to be the standard bearer of global Islam.” (Anthony)

After the infamous fatwa, Rushdie disappeared from public view and during the next 14 years, he met in secret with friends and associates, always accompanied by agents of Special Branch. “Living as a fugitive with no home, Salman occasionally had meetings in our flat in north London. On one occasion I asked my young colleague Elizabeth West to let him into the flat for a meeting. She was a great fan of his work and took on the task with alacrity. Some time later, she became Mrs. Rushdie the third.” (Calder, “Looking”)

“The fatwa ensured that the name Salman Rushdie is better known around the world than that of any other living novelist. But his reputation as a writer has hardly been eclipsed by the political assaults.” This is supported by the fact that in 1993, he was awarded the “Booker of Bookers” for Midnight’s Children—the best book to ever win the Man Booker Prize since it was established. (Livings)

Since 2000, Rushdie has lived in the United States, where he has worked at Emory University and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2012, he published Joseph Anton: A Memoir, an account of his life in the wake of the storm over The Satanic Verses.

Salman Rushdie recently came to PEN’s defense against the debate over awarding Charlie Hebdo the American PEN recognition for courage in issues of freedom of expression scheduled for May 9th. “This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority,” he wrote. “It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.” (Mayer)


Taking Another Look

The 1988 Whitbread prize panel dissenter (2-1) admired Rushdie’s writing, but “The Satanic Verses was not,” in his opinion, “as successful a novel as Midnight’s Children or Shame. It was close to the last moment when the book could be judged solely on its literary merit.” (Shakespeare, Looking)

Zöe Heller, reviewing his memoir points out retrenchments and narrowing of viewpoint in Joseph Anton, and declares that the saddest is his altered attitude toward Islam. She notes that throughout the fatwa, Rushdie carefully resisted making Islam itself the enemy. “The thing called Islamism is not the same thing as Islam,” he said in 1995. “This political thing which we call fundamentalism, everybody is scared stiff of it. It is not a religious movement, it’s a political fascist movement which happens to be using a certain kind of religious language.”

Rushdie’s taste for this sort of distinction has since atrophied, she says. Now he regards any efforts to separate reactionary forms of Islam from Islam itself as dishonest and wrong, and Heller asks how are we to reconcile these sentiments with his belief in the artist’s role as a promoter of human tolerance? “The job of literature, he instructs us in the final pages of this memoir, is to encourage ‘understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself…to make the world feel larger, wider than before.’” (Heller)

“Some readers may find, by the end of Joseph Anton, that the world feels rather smaller and grimmer than before. But they should not be unduly alarmed. The world is as large and as wide as it ever was; it’s just Rushdie who got small.” (Heller)

It is worth noting that Heller wrote her review and formed her viewpoint before the Boston Marathon Bombing, the ISIS beheading of Egyptian Christians kneeling on the shores of the Libyan Mediterranean, and the Charlie Hebdo slaughter. If one has been hunted and continues to by hunted, the world very likely does seem smaller. Why would anyone think the fatwa is over due to disinterest in apostates in today’s violent, politically-charged climate, the author’s shrugging off the danger to him notwithstanding?


Magical Realism

Magic realism is associated with Rushdie’s name because it was used as a narrative technique in his first three successful novels, Midnight’s Children (1981), the Shame (1983), and The Satanic Verses.

In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie used a “hyperbolic narrative – by turns lyric and vulgar, street smart and allusive – and a cast of improbable characters (a telepathic narrator, a child who can travel through time, another who can change sex at will) to create a parable of modern Indian history.” In Shame, he used as a setting that was ”not quite Pakistan” and a character named Raza Hyder who was reflective of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the former President of Pakistan. Rushdie said the story he wanted to tell was ”a tragedy on a very large scale,” but its ”protagonists are not tragic actors.” (Kakutani)

He has used magic realism to try to capture “chaos of contemporary reality, its resemblance to a dream or nightmare”—to give the reader a “sense of just how fantastic recent history has become.” (Kakutani) The irony is unambiguously that the author’s life since the fatwa has only underscored this point at his personal expense.

Rushdie maintains that the writer has a responsibility to tackle the larger issues of the day: ”It seems to me imperative that literature enter such arguments,” he wrote in an essay, ”because what is being disputed is nothing less than what is the case, what is truth and what untruth, and the battleground is our imagination. If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history’s great and most abject abdications.” (Kakutani)

“So what do we mean by ‘truth in literature?’” asks Rushdie. He says, “Clearly what we mean is human truth, not photographic, journalistic, recorded truth, but the truth we recognize as human beings. About how we are with each other, how we deal with each other, what are our strengths and our weaknesses, how we interact and what is the meaning of our lives?”  A flying carpet and Madam Bovary are untrue in the same way, and as a result both of them are ways of arriving at the truth by the road of untruth, and so then they can both do it the same way. Human truth is what you’re looking for and you can get to that by many different roads. (Miller)

Rushdie doesn’t see much of a similarity between himself and García Márquez. He points out that he wrote his first novel before he read Garcia Márquez. He alludes to the older tradition of magic realism, which is the one he says he learned from—with writers like Gogol and Dickens who understood that the surreal works only when it is rooted in the observed world. “If those roots weren’t there, then the fantasy wouldn’t work,” he says. (Meer)



“I knew my work did not appeal to the likes of radical mullahs…. There were one or two early readers, including Edward Said, who noticed that I’d taken these guys on and asked whether I was concerned about it. And in those innocent days, I said no…. The idea that it would even float across their field of vision seemed improbable, and I truthfully didn’t care. Why shouldn’t literature provoke? It always has.” (The Paris Review)

“The larger world gets into the story not because I want to write about politics, but because I want to write about people.” (The Paris Review)

“This idea that somehow the person under attack is responsible for the attack is a shifting of the blame—which seemed easy to do in 1989. Recently, in England, in the aftermath of the Al-Qaeda bombings, there’s been a lot of journalistic comment saying it all began with The Satanic Verses, and there’s total sympathy now for what was happening to me then. Nobody these days is saying it was my fault and I did it on purpose, because people understand the nature of radical Islam better.” (Paris Review)



“We received our first reality check in the form of some advice from the great Indian novelist and historian Khushwant Singh, who served as literary adviser to Penguin India. He said to me that we’d get into trouble if we published the novel, because there were passages in it that could be seized on by politicians and mullahs, taken out of context, and used to create mischief. This was news to me, as I was, at the time, largely ignorant of the history of Islam and its sacred texts.” (Davidar, “Looking”)

“Although Rushdie remains alive and well after nearly 24 years, spare a thought for the families of those who did not get away from this theocratic regime: the 162 democrats and dissidents assassinated in Europe; the thousands of atheist and Marxist prisoners murdered in prison; the green movement protesters and their lawyers (15 so far) who have been sentenced to long prison terms for being their lawyers. Had the world devised a way to bring this regime to justice for devising the Rushdie fatwa, we would not now have to worry about what it will do with nuclear weapons.” (“Looking”)

“In a hopeful attempt to accommodate his opponents, Rushdie spoke of his faith, or lack of it, as a God-shaped hole. His apology was firmly rebuffed by a committee of imams. He had always fought his own corner with eloquence, but now, increasingly after this rejection, he was fighting the corners of imprisoned or otherwise silenced writers around the world. Years later this advocacy culminated in his highly effective presidency of American PEN. He has brilliantly proved the uses of adversity.” (McEwan, “Looking”)

“Rushdie showed the rest of the world that literature, language and free speech are always at a premium. One of the most important things about The Satanic Verses is that Rushdie was speaking of uncertainty and asking the questions that anyone who believes also has to ask themselves. This came at a huge price, and all of us should be grateful to him for his bravery in being willing to pay it.” (Kureishi, “Looking”)


AWARDS and PRIZES (selected)

2008 James Joyce Award

2008 Best of the Booker, Midnight’s Children

2007 KBE for contributions to Literature

1995 Whitbread Novel Award, The Moor’s Last Sigh

1995 British Book Awards Author of the Year, The Moor’s Last Sigh

1993 Booker of Bookers, Midnight’s Children, special award celebrating 25 years

1992 Writers’ Guild Award (Best Children’s Book), Heroin and the Sea of Stories

1989 German Author of the Year, The Satanic Verses

1988 Whitbread Novel Award, The Satanic Verses

1984 Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (France), Shame

1981 James Taint Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), Midnight’s Children, joint winner

1981 English-Speaking Union Award, Midnight’s Children

1981 Booker Prize for Fiction, Midnight’s Children



Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh, Shalimar The Clown, The Enchantress of Florence, and Joseph Anton



Anthony, Andrew. “How one book ignited a culture war,” The Guardian 10 January 2009. Web. 1 May 2015.

“Iran MPs back Rushdie fatwa,” BBC Online Network 4 October 1998 Published at 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK. Web. 1 May 2015.

British Council Literature. 2011. Web. 25 April 2015.

Heller, Zoë. “The Salman Rushdie Case,” The New York Review of Books. 20 December 2012. Web. 24 April 2015.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Critic’s Notebook; Telling Truth Through Fantasy: Rushdie’s Magic Realism,” The New York Times 24 February 1989. Web. 27 April 2015.

Livings, Jack. “Salman Rushdie: The Art of Fiction No. 186,” Paris Review 2005.

“Looking back at Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses,” The Guardian Friday 14 September 2012. Web. 24 April 2015.

Mayer, Petra. “Dozens Of Writers Join Protest Of Free Speech Award For ‘Charlie Hebdo, ‘The Two-way: Break News from NPR 30 April 2015. Web. 1 May 2015.

Meer, Ameena. “Salman Rushdie,” BOMB 27 Spring 1989. Web. 27 April 2015.

Miller, Max. “How to magic and fantasy help you arrive at realism?” Big Think video 12 November 2010. Web. 27 April 2015.


Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.


Magical Realist Biographies: Vladimir Nabokov

Magical Realist Biographies: Vladimir Nabokov

V Nabokov_Statue_Montreux_284pxVladimir Nabokov

Born: April 23, 1899

Died: July 2, 1977

Little known facts:

Nabokov composed the first crossword puzzles offered in Russian.

He was a chess problem composer.

The genus Nabokovia was named after him in honor of his work in the field of entomology as were a number of butterfly and moth species that have labels alluding to Nabokov or characters from his novels.


Much better known facts:

Nabokov could read and write in English before he could in Russian. (Nabokov, 28)

Nabokov provided a new English word for vulgarity—the Russian word Poshlost, which he translated as “corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature” like “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany’s guilt.” (Paris Review)

There were serious discussions about Carl R. Proffer’s “Keys to Lolita” actually coming from Nabokov because the pedantry could be read as a parody on pedantry and because the name Proffer seemed like one Nabokov might adopt as a pseudonym. But Mr. Proffer was in fact a very serious Indiana University scholar. (Whitman)


Snap Shot

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov grew up in a wealthy, trilingual household known for high culture and commitment to public service in St. Petersburg, Russia. After two previous forced immigrations, he settled in the United States in 1939, living here until 1959. Nabokov’s American period included the writing of his greatest works, Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, and Pale Fire, as well as the translation of his earlier Russian novels into English. He also translated works by Lermontov and Pushkin and wrote several books of criticism. (Whitman)

He won popular recognition and the means to move to Switzerland with the publication of Lolita in 1958. His subsequent works, together with the publication of translations of his earlier novels from the original Russian, earned him a position amongst the best authors of the century. (Whitman) He is considered a major and unique contributor to 20th Century English and world literature—to the point that we have the adjectives “Nabokovian” and “Nabokovesque” in English.


Early Life and Non-Writing Career

Nabokov was the first and favorite of five children of loving, sensitive parents living in a townhouse in the heart of St Petersburg, on idyllic country estates, and at beach resorts. (Boyd) His father was the liberal lawyer, statesman, and journalist Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov and his mother Elena Ivanovna née Rukavishnikova. Vladimir learned to speak and read English before he could read Russian and he developed into an attractive, talented, disciplined and competitive youth. He learned to box and to play tennis, to solve chess problems and to collect butterflies. He wrote his first poem at fifteen. (Whitman)

After the February Revolution in 1917, Nabokov’s father became a secretary of the Russian Provisional Government (a constitutional monarchy) and, after the Bolshevik October Revolution, the family fled the city for Crimea for what they thought would be a short stay. They stayed at a family friend’s estate and in September 1918 moved to Livadiya, part of the first Ukrainian Republic. There Nabokov’s father became a minister of justice in the Crimean Regional Government.

After the German Army withdrew in November 1918 and the defeat of the White Army early in 1919, the Nabokov family finally they accepted they were going into exile. Though Vladimir had just inherited $2 million and an estate from an uncle, the whole family left for Western Europe with only a few jewels and clothing.

Vladimir enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge, first to study zoology, then switching to Slavic and Romance languages. In 1920, the Nabokov family moved to Berlin, where his father started the émigré newspaper Rul’ (“Rudder”).

Nabokov followed his family to Berlin after completing his studies at Cambridge. In 1936, his wife Véra, a Russian Jew, lost her translating job because of the increasingly anti-Semitic environment and his father lost his life, taking an assassin’s bullet meant for another target, while he was second-in-command of the Russian émigré group. It was in that year Nabokov began seeking a position somewhere in the English-speaking world and in 1937, he left Germany for France, considering it a safer place from which to conduct his search. Besides writing and translating, Nabokov spent time during his exile composing chess problems that he published in the Russian émigré press.

After several years in France watching the security of their situation being eroded, he accepted an invitation to lecture on Slavic languages at Stanford in 1939. After Stanford, Mr. Nabokov taught at Wellesley from 1941 to 1948, first as a lecturer, then as a professor of literature, working concurrently as an entomologist specializing in lepidopterology at Harvard where he discovered several species and subspecies of butterflies, including Nabokov’s wood nymph. Because he never learned to drive, he depended on his wife Véra to take him to collecting sites. During the 1940s, he organized the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. His writings in this area were highly technical and were regarded as significant contributions.

He wrote novels, poems, and short stories while teaching throughout the 40’s and 50’s. From 1949 until 1959, he was a professor at Cornell and an occasional lecturer at Harvard. He became a citizen in 1945 and lived in the United States for 20 years.

In terms of political orientation, Nabokov described himself as a classical liberal like his father. He described Lenin’s Bolsheviks as “grey rag-tag people” in a poem in 1917. While in the United States and later while living in Switzerland, he displayed contempt for student activism, collective movements, and the New Left movements of the 1960s. He found the protestors acting like “conformists” and “hoodlums.” Nabokov supported the Vietnam War effort, most anti-Soviet policies, and most of President Nixon’s policies.



In 1922 Nabokov became engaged to Svetlana Siewert, but she broke off the engagement in 1923 because of her parents’ concern about his ability to provide for her. Later in 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim in Berlin and married her in April 1925. Their son Dmitri was born in 1934.

At the Montreux-Palace where the Nabokovs lived for the last quarter of his life, his wife, Vera, was his confidante, typist, chess partner, Scrabble adversary, and butterfly-hunting companion.



In 1976 he was hospitalized with an undiagnosed fever. He was re-hospitalized in Lausanne in 1977 suffering from severe bronchial congestion. He died on 2 July in Montreux surrounded by his family. Mrs. Nabokov said that her husband “had been very sick for the past year and a half. He had some good moments but was very ill,” she said, adding that the exact virus that killed him had not been identified. (Whitman)


Writing Career

For the eighteen years after his 1922 graduation from Cambridge, he lived in Berlin and Paris, writing in Russian, using the pseudonym Sirin, and supporting himself through translations, teaching English and tennis, and by composing the first crossword puzzles in Russian. (Boyd)

While he was lecturing at American universities, he was writing—poems, essays, stories for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Partisan Review—using his own name.

The critic Edmund Wilson introduced Nabokov to the American literary scene. The two became intimate friends until the late 1950’s, when, as Nabokov liked to say, “a black cat came between us—Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago.” Nabokov was critical of it and Wilson praised it. The schism widened in 1963 when Mr. Nabokov published his annotated English version of Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin’s romantic novel in verse form. Mr. Wilson attacked his translation, criticizing Mr. Nabokov’s Russian and their dispute continued in The New York Review of Books until their friendship was finally destroyed.

Nabokov’s first novel in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), the life story of a gifted novelist, reconstructed after his death by his half-brother. It was followed by Bend Sinister in 1947, a Kafkaesque novel about an intellectual’s striving to maintain his integrity in a totalitarian environment. Conclusive Evidence (subsequently republished as Speak, Memory) followed in 1951, offering a vivid account of Nabokov’s life in Russia. Pnin came in 1957, portraying a Russian émigré’s life in an American university.

Lolita was ultimately published in 1955 in Paris, in 1958 in New York, and in 1959 in London after much controversy in all three cities. Four American publishers rejected it for lewdness before G. P. Putnam’s Sons published it. The Chicago Tribune refused to review it and critical reception was mixed. Orville Prescott of The New York Times called it “highbrow pornography;” Graham Greene called it “a distinguished novel.”

With his royalties and screen rights, Nabokov became financially interdependent, resigned his teaching position, and returned to Europe, establishing himself in the Montreux-Palace Hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. He wanted to be near his son, Dmitri, who was an opera singer in Italy, and a sister who lived in Geneva. Lolita became his most famous novel, and is often considered his finest work in English.

Nabokov and his wife self-identified as synesthetes and associated colors with particular letters, though not the same letters. Their son Dmitri shared the trait as well. Nabokov created some of his protagonists as synesthetes and many of his characters have sensory appetites that seem like synesthesia.


Taking Another Look

Journalist Andrea Pitzer has recently published a very different biography of Vladimir Nabokov from those before her, in which she argues that, contrary to his claim that art and history should not mix, the author’s attention to history’s moral components kept him including backstories that alluded to the camps of German and the Soviet Union. She compares and contrasts Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn approaches to the condemnation of Lenin and Stalin and the horrors of their totalitarian regimes and gives new insight into the “mythical kingdom” of Nova Zembla as an allusion to the camp assignment (likely the islands of Solovki) from which no one escaped or returned. She notes the location of Soviet nuclear testing over decades on the real world Novaya Zemlya and that the crown jewels that were allegedly buried there (and were searched for in vain through torture and murder) were in fact a metaphor for the intelligentsia that was squandered in those remote reaches well above the Arctic Circle by two sociopathic tyrants. (Pitzer, 286)

She also examines the discord between Nabokov and Wilson in terms of the battle between them because Wilson would not accept the “history” of the early camps of the Lenin period. The recurring theme was brought again and again by Nabokov without success during his lifetime, though Wilson did acknowledge later in life he was slow to accept the true nature of Lenin’s shadow. (Pitzer 294)

According to Pitzer, Nabokov was bearing witness to the horrors he knew that forced him and his family to flee police states three times as well as those horrors he learned about from other emigres—mixing pure history with pure fiction at will. (Pitzer, 121)


Magical Realism

Like Faulkner and Lawrence, Nabokov continued to work his short fiction while he wrote his novels. His “A Visit to the Museum” (1939) develops the idea of museums as a human attempt to slow down the passage of time through labels, displays and models of human activity and combines that with the notion of the exile as a model of the human condition—dubious about the past, not feeling settled in the present, and anxious about the future. The confluence of comedy and suffering is a vivid example of the English adjective “Nabokov” applied to a short tragic comedy. (Young, 180) The more ambiguous the narrator’s dance between edges of perceptions of a French provincial village museum and a contemporary Russian scene which is in turn contrasted with the Russia of his youth, the more the neuroscientists and art critics would expect we would linger over this piece of literature. (Kandel, 192) And the more Ms. Pitzer lingered over Nabokov’s works, the easier it was for her to help us see Nabokov’s mixing of his own history and the larger histories in his fiction and the possibility his conscious (or perhaps his unconscious intent) was to have us all remember and try to understand the horrors of the camps in Germany and the Soviet Union in a more oblique way than Solzhenitsyn who we must remember “exported” his regime condemning works on the Gulag later. Both were concerned, she argues, with the continued health of their information sources and the reading audience’s recognition of the crushing power of successive police states.


The Nabokovesque/Nabokovian Epilogue

At the time of his passing, he was writing a novel titled The Original of Laura. His wife Véra and son Dmitri were his literary executors and though (like Kafka) he asked them to destroy his unfinished work, they (like Kafka’s secretary) chose not to carry out his wishes. The manuscript existed as 125 handwritten index cards that remained in a Swiss bank vault. Vera and Dmitri shared portions of the manuscript with Nabokov scholars. Dmitri published The Original of Laura on 17 November 2009.



“I was too much absorbed by the usual delights of youth . . . either to derive any special pleasure from the legacy or to experience any annoyance when the Bolshevik revolution abolished it overnight.” (Speak Memory, 74)

“The whole business (of the publication of his first collection of poems inspired by his affair with Tamara and the torturous reviews that were by his measure justified) cured me permanently of all interest in literary fame and was probably the cause of that almost pathological and not always justified indifference to reviews which in later years deprived me of the emotions most authors are said to experience.” (Nabokov, 239)

“My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.” (Random House)



“In addition to its humor (much of it donnish to a degree, or Joycean), a Nabokov novel was a game, with the reader invited to figure out the illusive reality that the writer offered.” (Whitman)

“Only the long view reveals Nabokov’s strategy. As a casualty of history who found a way to escape, magically, again and again, he let his most famous characters find a parallel refuge in insanity. And he, too, hid his own treasures and grief inside his stories, with their created worlds cobbled out of the brittle past: the dead of the camps, the prisoners’ wild tales, the tenderness for those he had mocked, the reflections of a world steeped in cruelty, his sorrow at everything that had been lost. Whatever tales Nabokov wished to tell, whatever history he hoped we would remember, must be earned. It is inside his stories that he sits and waits.” (Pitzer, 348)



Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962), Speak, Memory (1966)



Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) was ranked fourth in the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels; Pale Fire (1962) was ranked at 53rd, and his memoir, Speak, Memory, was listed eighth on the Modern Library nonfiction list. He was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction seven times, but never won it.



Eric R. Kandel. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to the Present. New York: Random House, 2012.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. New York: Vintage, August 1989.

Pitzer, Andrea. The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Pegasus Books, 2013.

Young, David and Keith Hollaman (eds.). Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology. New York: Longman Inc., 1984.

Boyd, Brian. “Vladimir Nabokov 100 Years: On Speak and Memory” Random House | Web. 11 November 2014.

Gold, Herbert. “Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction No. 40” Paris Review | Web. 1 December 2014.

“Vladimir Nabokov 100 Years: Biography” Random House | Web. 11 November 2014.

Whitman, Alden. “Vladimir Nabokov, Author of ‘Lolita’ and ‘Ada,’ Is Dead” New York Times on the Web July 5, 1977 | Web. 11 November 2014.


Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.


Magical Realist Biographies : Franz Kafka

284px-Bust_Franz_KafkaFranz Kafka

Born: July 3, 1883

Died: June 3, 1924

Little known facts:

Kafka studies have proliferated at a rate of one new book every 10 days for the last 14 years.

In 1924 in a sanitarium in the Austrian town of Kierling, Kafka was unable to eat, drink or speak, but he edited proofs of his story “The Hunger Artist” anyway.

In his “day job,” Kafka was a legal innovator who developed and implemented safety measures and oversight techniques that saved lives and livelihoods of countless workers.

Much better known facts:

Kafka told Max Brod in 1921 that his last testament would consist of “a request to you to burn everything” and fortunately, Brod did not comply with his friend’s wishes.

He practiced vegetarianism, “Fletcherizing” (chewing for several minutes), “Müllerizing” (an exercise regimen), and various other natural healing programs.

Kafka died in Austria, never having settled down in Berlin to concentrate on his writing—having published no more than 450 pages of his work.


Snap Shot

Franz Kafka grew up in a middle-class Jewish family, having been born in 1883 in Prague, the capital of Bohemia, a kingdom that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied law at the University of Prague; he worked in the insurance sector; and he wrote in the evenings in the modernist tradition. Born a Czech with Jewish roots, Kafka’s identity was firmly embedded in German culture. In 1923, he moved to Berlin to focus on writing, but died of tuberculosis in Austria in 1924. His friend Max Brod published most of his work posthumously. He is considered a major and unique contributor to 20th Century German and European literature—to the point that we have the adjective Kafkaesque in English.


Early Life and Non-Writing Career

Kafka’s father, Hermann, grew up as the son of a butcher and worked as a traveling sales representative, ultimately becoming an independent retailer of men’s and women’s clothes and accessories. Kafka’s mother, Julie, was better educated than her husband, having grown up as the daughter of a successful brewer. 
Kafka was the eldest of six children and both parents worked at least twelve hours a day in the family retail business, leaving governesses and servants to raise the children. (Nervi)

Kafka had problematic relationships with both of his parents and, while his parents ran a successful business, his father’s dominant personality needed for that endeavor tended to overwhelm their home life as well. In spite of this, Kafka appears to have derived many of his values from his family—particularly his father—and for much of his life; he lived with or close to his parents. (Bio)

Kafka’s first language was German and he was nearly fluent in Czech. His Jewish education was limited to his Bar Mitzvah celebration at 13 and going to the synagogue four times a year with his father. He entered the rigorous classics-oriented state gymnasium where German was the language of instruction. He entered the Charles University of Prague to study chemistry though he quickly changed course to study law—a longer course of study that allowed him to take classes in German studies and art history. He became a member of a student club that organized literary events and readings. By the end of his first year he had met Max Brod, who became his close friend for the rest of his life. Kafka earned his degree of Doctor of Law and completed an obligatory year of unpaid service as law clerk for the civil and criminal courts. (Nervi)

In 1907, Kafka joined an aggressive Italian insurance company, where he worked for nearly a year, but the hours required allowed almost no time for his writing. So, he resigned and found a position with the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where he was known as a hard worker and where he received several promotions. He pursued his writing and with his close friends Max Brod and Felix Weltsch formed “the close Prague circle.”
In 1911, Kafka joined Karl Hermann, spouse of his sister Elli, in the operation of an asbestos factory and during that period, he became interested in Yiddish theatre, which was the beginning of his interest in learning more about Judaism. (Nervi) Kafka remained with the company until 1917, when his struggle with tuberculosis forced him to retire from the factory. He retired from his government job in 1922. (Bio)



In 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer at the home of Max Brod and, over the next five years, they corresponded a great deal because she lived in Berlin. They were engaged twice, but their relationship finally ended in 1917 several months after his first symptoms of his tuberculosis. When Kafka required frequent convalescence, his sister Ottla supported him. Kafka perceived himself as both physically and mentally repulsive, though he was regarded quite as having “neat and austere good looks, a quiet and cool demeanor, obvious intelligence and dry sense of humor.”

In the early 1920s he developed an intense relationship with a married Czech journalist and writer, Milena Jesenská, who wanted to translate his work into Czech. In 1923, he moved to Berlin to distance himself from his family’s influence and to concentrate on his writing. There he became involved with Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher from an orthodox Jewish family. She became his lover, and influenced his growing interest in the Talmud. (Nervi)



Kafka suffered from clinical depression and anxiety his entire life. He also suffered from migraines, insomnia, constipation, boils, and other ailments often prompted by excessive stress. He struggled to counteract all of this by a regimen of naturopathic treatments. However, Kafka’s tuberculosis continued to worsen until he died on June 3, 1924. His body was sent to Prague where he was interred in the New Jewish Cemetery next to his parents. (Nervi)


Writing Career

In 1904 Franz Kafka wrote the novella “Description of a Struggle” and Brod convinced him to submit his work to Franz Blei’s literary journal Hyperion, which published a fragment of the story in its inaugural 1908 issue. He published his first book Mediation, a collection of short stories, in 1913; he published “Before the Law” the following year; and he published his most popular and best-selling novella, “The Metamorphosis,” in 1915.

Though his health began to decline, Kafka continued to write and in 1916, he completed “The Judgment,” which dealt directly with the relationship he shared with his father. He finished “In the Penal Colony” and “A Country Doctor” in 1919. In 1924, A Hunger Artist featured four stories in the concise and lucid style he had developed by the end of his short writing life.

Kafka still harbored much self-doubt at the end and he asked his literary executor, his friend Max Brod, to destroy his unpublished manuscripts—according to Brod. However, Brod published The Trial in 1925 a dark, paranoid tale that became Kafka’s most successful novel. In 1926, Brod launched The Castle, which again railed against a faceless and dominating bureaucracy. The following year, he published the novel Amerika about a boy who arrives in America, where his innocence is exploited everywhere he goes. Amerika dealt with the same father issues that were in Kafka’s other work, but it also revealed Kafka’s love of travel books and memoirs and his yearning to see the world. Later, in 1931, Brod published the short story “The Great Wall of China,” written a decade and a half before.

Kafka explored the human struggles for understanding, for ameliorating alienation, and in seeking security in his novels such as The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika. He also created some remarkable shorter narratives such as the novellaThe Metamorphosisand the short story “The Country Doctor.” Kafka believed that many of his personal struggles, in romance and other relationships, were ingrained in his complex relationship with his father. In his writing, his characters often dealt with an overbearing power that seemed likely to break the will of men and to reduce or eliminate their sense of self-worth. Sadly, Kafka’s celebrity—based on readers’ resonance with these themes—only came after his death. (Bio)

There are many scholars who have dwelt on the struggles with relationships, Kafka’s health, and his inner life and how those issues were transformed in such creative ways into the terror and the comedy that are such strong currents in his fiction. But, it is also relevant to consider how his social alienation was also a source for him as well. He was after all a German-speaking Jew growing up in Prague (Young and Hollaman, 133). Furthermore, he was living through the industrialization of the Empire and the rise of the social welfare state and the imposing bureaucracies that came along with both evolutions.

Kafka’s technique blended the fantastic and the dreamlike and used a matter of fact manner that was his hallmark. He cultivated “understatement, provoking us to supply emotions that the narrators withhold, and pursuing a comic effect that is, of course, deadly earnest.” Kafka poses psychological, social, and metaphysical dilemmas that offer more questions than answers (Young and Hollaman, 134). The ambiguity left behind invites revisiting and turning over by the reader and drawing on his experiential base, his learning, and his subconscious—leveraging Ernst Gombrich’s concept of the “beholder’s share”that came out of the contemporary interdisciplinary analysis of the fin de siècle cultural movements emanating from Vienna and the region.

Kafka’s works gathered increasing attention during World War II and had a significant impact on both German literature and Western literature. As the Cold War evolved and it became increasingly clear Eastern Europe would be under the domination of bureaucratic Communist governments for some time, Kafka’s characters and situations resonated with Western readers. This continued into the turbulent 1960’s when many felt they could easily empathize with Kafka’s people confronting faceless organizations which had brought about the use of his name as an adjective: “Kafkaesque, meaning too impersonal and too complex to comprehend.”

The principal theme of Kafka’s novels is not so much the depiction of massive bureaucracies as such but rather the isolation and disaffection associated with office jobs, assembly lines and the machinery of advanced nation-states. Kafka’s The Office Writings, a collection of legal and policy papers written during his fourteen years at the Austrian Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague where he was recognized as an legal innovator, has been analyzed, resulting in the conclusion that he had been immersed in the early development of the European welfare state (evident in legislation as early as 1880’s) and he was—through his fiction—trying to reconcile the alienation of his bureaucratic daily life with that “dreamlike inner life” he pursued after work. (Provan)


The Kafkaesque Epilogue

The purchase of Kafka’s handwritten manuscript of The Trial for $1.98 million in 1988 demonstrated the continuation of enthusiasm for Kafka. At that point, that was the highest price ever paid for a modern manuscript. The West German book dealer who was the buyer said, “This is perhaps the most important work in 20th-century German literature and Germany had to have it.” (Bio)

This sale by auction was the beginning of a bizarre story that could only be about Franz Kafka. There has been a struggle going on in the courts in Israel currently about how to settle gaining possession of other original manuscripts that, at the moment, are held by the daughters of the secretary, Ester Hoffe, whom Max Brod bequeathed them to years ago—with the proviso that she turn them over to a public archive of her choosing. In the background there is another struggle between organizations in both Israel and Germany about where the “Kafka Collection” should reside, whether it should be split between locations, and whether archives in Germany or Israel are best equipped to preserve such old manuscripts.

The less bizarre, but still unique, part of the after story is that approximately two-thirds of the Kafka literary and personal papers estate now reside in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. At present, the Library and the children of Kafka’s sister Ottla’s daughters jointly own the majority of that collection. The Bodleian Library and the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach together bought the letters to Ottla from the Kafka family in 2011 as part of a collaborative institutional partnership that may be the first of its kind. (Lachno)

The other third of the estate—the truly bizarre part of the story—is believed to consist of some of Kafka’s drawings, diaries, letters, and manuscript drafts that were in Brod’s possession together with Brod’s own manuscripts and papers. They are often referred to cumulatively as “Brod’s suitcases,” and were literally carried out of Prague in the face of invading German soldiers in 1939. Brod held them until his passing in Israel in 1968 when “the suitcases” were passed to his secretary, Esther Hoffe, who didn’t pass on herself until 2007, at age 101. The National Library of Israel challenged the legality of her will, which bequeathed the materials to her two septuagenarian daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler. The library claimed the right to the papers under the terms of Brod’s will that had included instructions for her to make the papers available to a public archive. (Batuman)

When she died in 2007, her daughters Hoffe and Wiesler believed they had inherited the remaining collection of Kafka and Brod materials along with Ester Hoffe’s material property. They apparently intended to sell the Kafka and the Brod documents in Germany—in spite of the fact that the siblings of both writers had been killed in the Holocaust Brod had escaped. Wiesler died during a long trial process over the disposition of the papers, leaving Eva, her apartment, and her scores and scores of cats the focus of the dispute. (Batuman)

In 2012 the matter was, on the face of it, resolved: The collection of manuscripts written by Franz Kafka and Max Brod will be transferred from Eva Hoffe to the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem—according to the Tel Aviv District Family Court. The court ordered that Hoffe and Wiesler’s heirs use their resources to cover the costs of the trial. On the other hand, the ruling held that Hoffe and her heirs will be entitled for royalties from any future publication of the documents. (Aderet)

The verdict in which the National Library won the case is not the end of this complicated affair. The verdict will likely be appealed—as reflected by her attorney’s statements. Until a final decision is made, the manuscripts are being kept in bank vaults in Israel and in Switzerland. (Harel)

Until we hear of the court’s decision to hear the appeal, we won’t even know if “Kafka’s Last Trial” was really his last trial—or just another ambiguous, illusory proceeding by another bureaucracy—faceless or not.



“A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.” (Bio)

“I would stand at the window for long periods,” he wrote in his diary in 1912, “and was frequently tempted to amaze the toll collector on the bridge below by my plunge.” (Bio)

In 1918, Kafka drew up his vision of an early kibbutz. The only nourishment would be bread, dates and water; notably, in light of recent developments, there would be no legal courts: “Palestine needs earth,” Kafka wrote, “but it does not need lawyers.” (Batuman)



Reiner Stach, Kafka’s most recent and thorough biographer—objects to the view of Kafka as “a Zionist or a religious author.” “The fact that specifically Jewish experiences are reflected in his works does not—as Brod believed—make him the protagonist of a ‘Jewish’ literature.” Rather, “Kafka’s oeuvre stands in the context of European literary modernity, and his texts are among the foundational documents of this modernity.” (Batuman)

If Brod could see what was happening now, Etgar Keret, a best-selling Israeli short-story writer, says, he would be “horrified.” Kafka, on the other hand, might be O.K. with it: “The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughters who keep it in an apartment full of cats, right?” (Batuman)



“The Metamorphosis” (1915), “The Country Doctor” (1919), The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), Amerika (1927).



At the time of his death, only a small group of readers even knew Kafka’s name.



Eric R. Kandel. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to the Present. New York: Random House, 2012.

Young, David and Keith Hollaman (eds.). Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology. New York: Longman Inc., 1984.


Aderet, Ofer. “Israel court orders Kafka manuscripts be transferred to National LibraryHaaretz Oct. 14, 2012 | 9:44 Web. 24 October 2014.

Batuman, Elif. “Kafka’s Last Trial” The New York Times Magazine. September 22, 2010. Web. 13 October 2014.

“Franz Kafka.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

Harel, Zvi. “An Israeli ending to Kafka’s trial,” Israel Hayom 2 November 2012. Web. 24 October 2014.

Lachno, James. “Kafka letters to be purchased by Bodleian Libraries and Deutsches Literaturarchiv,” The Telegraph 4 April 2011. Web. 24 October 2014.

Nervi, Mauro. “Kafka’s Life (1883-1924)” The Kafka Project Revision: 2011/01/08 – 00:18. Web. 24 October 2014.

Provan, Alexander. “An Alienation Artist: Kafka and His Critics,” The Nation March 2, 2009. Web. 26 October 2014.


Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.