Salman Rushdie is reciting the opening stanzas to Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” one August evening over a vodka tonic at the King Cole Bar in Manhattan. It feels a bit voyeuristic to watch the author unravel these words from the prodigious spool of his memory, so, for a moment, I clutch my Martini, close my eyes and think about how Alice must have felt listening to the rotund boy-men Tweedledum and Tweedledee deliver this fantastical narrative poem in the reverse world of the looking-glass.
“I have a whole crowd of hymns in my head,” says Rushdie, recalling the routine of attending chapel every day while at an English boarding school. “I can sing ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ in Latin.” He can also recite from memory William Blake’s “Jerusalem,” enumerate the themes of each act of Macbeth and deliver lines from the 1969 film Easy Rider. Each of these works, lodged in the attic of memory, has somehow informed his fiction; his latest, Quichotte, was published this week in the U.S. The new novel (pronounced “key-SHOT”) uses Cervantes’ Don Quixote as inspiration, with the delusional, television-pickled Quichotte and his imaginary son, Sancho, setting off on a quest for the hand of Miss Salma R, a famous, opioid-addicted Indian actress. From there, the source material widens, drawing upon the Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Bravo’s Real Housewives and the Sacklers’ Oxycontin.
“Cervantes was satirizing the junk culture of his time. If he were around [now], what would his project be? Somebody whose brain is made soft by 2 million [episodes of The Bachelorette] was what I wanted,” says Rushdie. Aside from Law and Order: SVU and late night talk shows, he doesn’t really watch much television, so a reality TV crash course was in order—for the sake of the art, of course. What emerged, for him, was a portrait of isolation. “It’s a very exposed thing to do, to put yourself on one of these dating shows. It’s very naked. [It] shows how lonely people are and what great lengths they’ll go to not be lonely,” he says, helping himself to the cashews in our table’s silver snack tray. This sort of loneliness, he points out, is distinct from the seclusion of the writer. “What looks to be, from the outside, like isolation and solitude doesn’t actually feel that way,” he says. “I feel my head populated with all these people whose story I’m trying to understand and tell, and I get irritated if an actual human being shows up.”
Quite early in Quichotte, it becomes clear that each of its main characters—even the narrator of the book itself—is deeply lonely, questing for something more than his or her own swirling psyche can provide. The bombastic structure, which spans half a dozen characters’ points of view, and hops from Los Angeles to Kansas to West London, can feel, at times, like a psychedelic road trip symphony. Rushdie says that as his career has progressed, he’s become more comfortable improvising, letting the story diverge from and meander back again. He mentions an interview he did with Toni Morrison, with whom he was close, soon after her novel Jazz was published in 1992. “She talked about jazz as the way she wrote. When I was younger, I needed a lot of architecture. … Now I’m willing to use this ‘jazz idea to see what happens on the page.”
It is curious to hear the 12-time novelist discuss this new work; not because he is Salman Rushdie, the man who provoked the ire of Iran’s Ayatollah, or because he is Salman Rushdie, a knight of Queen Elizabeth II, or Salman Rushdie, the “best” of all the Booker Prize winners. It’s because he’s a man, discussing how dubious he was of this project until the very last moments of its writing. “I thought, ‘Is this self-indulgent?’ I was quite scared writing it. Sometimes you feel you’re wrestling this kind of beast, and you don’t know if you have the strength to wrestle it to the ground,” he says jovially. It seems he’s won the match; the beast has emerged from his imagination tamed into a shape that’s debuted to ecstatic reviews. It has already made the shortlist for this year’s Booker Prize—his fifth work to have landed there since 1981.
But before diving down the rabbit hole of influences and source material and the existential uncertainty of one’s creative output, Rushdie, from the first, explains that he has become a rather boring drinker at age 72. He loves red wine, but has developed an allergy to it, though he’s lately dipped a toe back in with organic and biodynamic bottles. Once, he won a literary festival prize in Piedmont, which included a year’s worth of the Italian region’s wines—365 bottles. Over the course of four decades, Rushdie has broken bread and shared drinks with some of the world’s most influential minds and talents. He regularly spends evenings with the author Paul Auster, each of them posting up with a bottle (Rushdie, red; Auster, white), and was introduced to one of the best views of Manhattan (at the bar Gaonnuri) by the composer Nico Muhly. He recalls a dinner of porterhouse steak and table red with Lou Reed (whom he met through the artist Laurie Anderson, Reed’s wife) at Peter Luger in Brooklyn.
Then, of course, there was his legendary meeting with Günter Grass at the playwright and artist’s home in Germany around the time Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was published in the early ’80s. “He always adopted this kind of grouchy manner. It became clear to me I would have to make my genuflections, which was fine because I admired his work,” says Rushdie. Following the younger writer’s successful overture, Grass invited him to choose a vessel from his menagerie of antique glass. The two shared schnapps, and remained friends until Grass’s death in 2015. Rushdie spent Grass’s 70th birthday in Hamburg at the Thalia Theater with Nadine Gordimer and John Irving, watching the artist dance. That was over 20 years ago, and Rushdie, about the same age now as Grass was then, is still awed by it. “He and his wife were such a magical couple dancing, everyone just went to the edge to watch them, and I thought, ‘This man has too many talents.’”
Rushdie nears the dregs of his vodka tonic, and considers the literary world’s next generation of talent. He wonders at the proliferation of immigrant writers and writers of color—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ocean Vuong, Ta-Nahisi Coates, among others. “It’s really quite extraordinary to watch [these] writers taking over the center ground. I think: That’s me too. I’m just older than them.”
He pauses for a moment, perhaps wondering at how quickly time moves on this side of the looking-glass, then moves on to reciting a line from a film he saw in Paris in his 20s.