There are no happy marriages in literary memoirs, and I pity whomever was foolish enough to marry a writer in the first place. Famous writers and their ex-spouses possess a variety of dubious stock traits. Husbands are deeply insecure narcissists rendered impotent when passed over for major awards. Wives possess an often lesser-respected talent, and are driven into paroxysms of resentment after years of living in the long shadow of a Great Man. Every detail in a written account of their time together is an accusation. I believe the finest example of this brand of scorched-earth memoir is actress Claire Bloom’s Leaving a Doll’s House, in which she recounts the eighteen years she spent with Philip Roth. She recalls that, early in their relationship, Roth was so perturbed by the socializing of his future wife’s teenage daughter that he demanded—via hand-delivered letter—that Bloom ask the girl to move out of their London house so that Roth could better concentrate on his writing. Roth later loosely based Eve Frame, a character in his novel I Married a Communist, on Bloom. Frame is married to the book’s radio-broadcaster protagonist, Ira Ringold, and has a daughter, with whom Ringold competes for Frame’s attention. In the novel, Frame ruins Ringold’s career by selling him out as a Russian spy. Her method for doing so, of course, is to publish a memoir about their marriage.
Few dead or dying relationships between writers in recent years have played out quite as publicly, and with as much pettiness, as that of novelist Salman Rushdie and the TV host and cookbook author Padma Lakshmi. Her new memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate, opens just after the couple has separated, with Lakshmi living in the Surrey Hotel on the Upper East Side—“the Sorry Hotel,” in her parlance—reminiscing about how she and Rushdie met. It was at the 1999 launch party for Tina Brown’s Talk magazine on Liberty Island, “the best party I have ever been to,” Lakshmi writes. (“Laughing and dancing with the likes of Henry Kissinger [and] Todd Solondz” are some of the reasons she gives for why the event was so great, which I suppose strains her reliability as a judge of parties.) Her description of Rushdie during their first meeting is hilariously unappealing: “This twinkly-eyed man with his arched eyebrows, salt-and-pepper beard, bald pate, and sharp nose.” But Lakshmi—who was, like Rushdie, born in India (she is from the city of Chennai, he is from Bombay)—also refers to the author as “our Hemingway.” Rushdie, in his own memoir Joseph Anton, published in 2012, does not grant Lakshmi this same appreciation, instead referring to her as something not human, “a Lady Liberty made of flesh and blood” who “had to be a mirage.” If he was the Indian Hemingway, she was, to Rushdie, “that beautiful Indian girl who had a show on Italian TV and then came back to America to be an actress.” Later, Lakshmi characterizes their ubiquitous appearances together at lavish parties like the one for Talk as part of her begrudging wifely duty, so that she could be paraded in front of photographers in a “sparkly dress … standing beside a great writer.”
Predictably, their relationship is a disaster. It starts out fine enough, with Lakshmi hosting dinner parties for Rushdie and his writer friends. Writers, she discovers, hang out together, “like basketball players.” Her favorite is “Don”—DeLillo, that is. There is also Susan Sontag—“a pussycat,” in Lakshmi’s descriptions. (As far as I know, Love, Loss… is the only book to discuss both Sontag and the reality-TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.) Things go south on Rushdie and Lakshmi’s second wedding anniversary. She describes not being able to have intercourse that night due to intense physical discomfort, which turns out to be endometriosis, a painful condition in which internal tissue grows outside the uterus. She ends up in the hospital, where a doctor performs excruciating surgery “like a landscaper, snipping off a small, unsightly root.” “How convenient for you,” Rushdie tells Lakshmi when the pain causes her to reject his sexual advances. Rushdie frequently complains that he can’t get what he wants. Every year that he is not named a Nobel laureate, he becomes “moody and irritable,” and Lakshmi has to comfort him. He eventually concedes, “without irony,” that many great writers have never received a Nobel, and lists the esteemed company he keeps: “Proust, Joyce,” Lakshmi writes. “He lacked self-awareness and, tellingly, a sense of humor about himself.”
That line is as good a critique of Joseph Anton as I could imagine. The book begins in 1989, and predominantly deals with the years after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the world’s Muslims to kill Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, which Khomeini considered to be blasphemous. But Rushdie’s undying hatred for Lakshmi and his notable power to defer responsibility for their doomed relationship, is the most thrilling section of a book about the author’s clandestine attempts to avoid death at the hands of an angry mob of Islamic literalists. Lakshmi factors only into the final sixty pages, but Rushdie’s ire for her is so extreme—worse than anything he has to say about Khomeini—that I can only read Joseph Anton as a provocation directed at his (fourth) ex-wife.
Rushdie doesn’t do himself any favors in this book. He dismisses his eight-year relationship with Lakshmi as only a “sort of life together.” His brief, flickering moments of self-consciousness typically turn into opportunities to shift blame away from himself and onto one of his exes. (Or onto the news media, or other writers—John le Carré shoulders a curious amount of blame for the fatwa, because he did not publicly offer his full support to Rushdie.) After Rushdie’s first ex-wife dies of cancer, at a time when he is engaged in an affair with Lakshmi while still married to his third wife (the mother of his youngest child), the author questions his decisions in a Bellovian letter to himself: “Your younger son is just two years old, and there you are in New York, apartment hunting, and then in Los Angeles chasing your pipe-dream who always dressed as Pocahontas on Halloween?” That would be Lakshmi, whose cosplay is, obviously, the true source of Rushdie’s problems.
In all fairness, there is a legitimate basis for their mutual contempt. The two are comically mismatched. While Rushdie is finishing a draft of his ninth novel, Fury, Lakshmi is filming an appearance as a villainous pop singer named Sylk in the Mariah Carey film Glitter. But in his attempt to portray Lakshmi as nothing more than a vapid collection of appealing body parts (he refers to her throughout, incredibly, as “The Illusion”), Rushdie says more about his own emptiness. He attacks her “model behavior” as “brattish,” as if his model-girlfriend doing model things is any worse than Rushdie’s endless name-dropping in Joseph Anton, with its pointless cameos by Bono, Madonna, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Clinton, and too many others to name, which weigh down the story with a thick layer of snobbishness. The new woman in Rushdie’s life provokes, without fail, new fights, in which Rushdie casts himself as a blameless victim. His idea of romantic sensitivity is to quote the lyrics of a Macy Gray song: “He tried to say goodbye and he choked,” he writes of himself. “He tried to walk away and he stumbled.” I tried to suppress a boisterous guffaw as I read that passage on the subway. Life is hard, Salman.
Note, however, the point of view in those lines. Rushdie writes in the third person throughout his nearly seven-hundred-page book, which reads as both a sustained self-absolution and a detached court document. This is memoir-as-amicus curiae, composed as if by an interested outside party with little at stake regarding the events therein. Naturally, all memoirs of a marriage gone wrong possess a tone suggesting they should be read only in the presence of an attorney. Did Rushdie treat his wife, as Lakshmi claims, as nothing more than “an ornament or medal”? Or was Rushdie simply the victim of what he calls her “majestic narcissism”? Lakshmi at least has the decency to thank Rushdie, in her acknowledgements, for “handing me Rousseau.” Rousseau also makes a brief appearance in Joseph Anton, when Doris Lessing, in another fairly unnecessary celebrity appearance, tells Rushdie how to write a memoir. “Rousseau’s way, she said, was the only way; you just had to tell the truth, to tell as much truth as possible.”
Rushdie’s abhorrence of Lakshmi might not be the whole truth—it was Lakshmi who ended the relationship, after all. (“She was just too goddamn gorgeous to leave,” Rushdie writes in his kindest passage about her.) But, taken alongside her own memoir, Rushdie’s broader indictment of his ex at least provides Lakshmi with a thesis, which she presents on the very first page of her book: “At the end of a marriage, no one wins.”
M. H. Miller is the deputy editor of ARTnews.