Pens Mightier Than Swords in Authors’ War of Words


The literary air here is momentarily free of barbed adjective and poisoned verb, but there is no peace, only a pause, in the reader-engrossing feud between Salman Rushdie and John le Carre, two of Britain’s most famous novelists.

Rushdie to Le Carre: “illiterate, pompous ass.”

He replies to Rushdie: “self-canonizing, arrogant colonialist.”

The authors’ outspoken mutual dislike--Britain’s answer to Gore Vidal vs. Norman Mailer--ignited last week in salvos of invective on the letters page of the Guardian newspaper.


Literati are still rallying to their favorite’s banner in a more-heat-than-light joust about freedom of speech, respect for religion--and personal grudges.

Without taking sides, it is possible to begin with Le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell, and who came in from the cold to become, together with his character George Smiley, the dean of the Cold War spy thriller.

His latest novel is called “The Tailor of Panama,” and he says he was angered and wounded by a New York Times review last year that suggested “that consciously or not, I had been listening to the internal voices of my English anti-Semitism when I wrote my novel.” In a talk two weeks ago to the Anglo-Israeli Assn., Le Carre portrayed himself as the undeserving victim of a political correctness witch hunt.

His account, published by the Guardian in a long excerpt from his talk, infuriated Rushdie. A novelist of prodigious imagination and great repute, Rushdie has lived in hiding since Iran’s late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put a price on his life in 1989 for supposed blasphemy against Islam in the novel “The Satanic Verses.”


Rushdie wrote to the Guardian, saying he would be more sympathetic with Le Carre “had he not been so ready to join an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer.” When he was under Iranian attack in 1989, Rushdie said, Le Carre “eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants. It would be gracious if he were to admit that he understands the nature of the Thought Police a little better now.”

Le Carre came roaring back the next day, in a letter asserting: “Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. I never joined his assailants. Nor did I take the easy path of proclaiming Rushdie to be a shining innocent. My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions may be insulted with impunity,” Le Carre wrote.

At the time of the Iranian death warrant against Rushdie, which remains in effect, Le Carre had argued against a paperback edition of “The Satanic Verses,” saying it might endanger people engaged in its production and sale. Rushdie’s Japanese translator was killed and his Norwegian and Italian translators wounded in attacks inspired by the Iranian fatwa, or religious ruling.


In his riposte, Rushdie applauds the courage of publishers and bookshop staffs in 30 countries for defying the fatwa. “John le Carre is right to say that free speech isn’t an absolute. We have the freedoms we fight for, and we lose those we don’t defend. I’d always thought George Smiley knew that. His creator appears to have forgotten,” Rushdie wrote.

Back came Le Carre to deplore “cultural intolerance masquerading as free speech.” As far as he can tell, Le Carre wrote, Rushdie “does not deny he insulted a great religion.”

Rather, the Le Carre attack continued, “he took on a known enemy and screamed ‘foul’ when it acted in character. The pain he has had to endure is appalling but it does not make a martyr of him, nor . . . does it sweep away all ambiguities of his participation in his own downfall.”

Stand back, here comes Rushdie: “I simply happen not to feel that priests and mullahs, let alone bombers and assassins, are the best people to set the limits of what it is possible to think. John le Carre appears to believe I would prefer him not to go on abusing me. Let me assure him that I am of precisely the contrary opinion. Every time he opens his mouth, he digs himself into a deeper hole.”


Before the letters fell silent, the Guardian was running color front-page pictures of the quarreling writers and headlining their exchanges “The Satanic Correspondence.”


The combatants are resting in their trenches, and both decline to speak beyond what they have said in their fulminating letters.

But the Guardian thinks it has uncovered the roots of the dispute. They are to be found in 1989, it says, when, four months after the fatwa was announced, Rushdie reviewed Le Carre’s novel “The Russia House.” He was unimpressed, writing: “Le Carre wants to be taken seriously . . . close but--this time anyway--no cigar.”


Guardian commentator Mark Lawson said, “Desperate to cross from reader popularity to critical credibility, Le Carre had been turned back at Checkpoint Rushdie.”

A few months later, Le Carre wrote to the late W. J. Weatherby, then Guardian correspondent in New York, to say that he had initially felt strongly for Rushdie under threat but that as time went on “I realized that I had less and less sympathy with [his] position.”

The Rushdie-Le Carre correspondence, observed the Guardian’s Lawson, “is in the great tradition of literary poison-pen letters, both in their inventive viciousness and in the low personal revenges which may be behind the high rhetoric.”