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Poison pens are sheathed

Rushdie, le Carre

Nov. 12: The waspish exchange of barbs between Salman Rushdie and John le Carre established itself as one of the most public feuds in modern literature, but le Carre has said their mutual loathing has finally come to an end.

The pair began arguing 15 years ago about the merits of freedom of speech versus the limits of religious tolerance, but it degenerated into Rushdie calling le Carre a “dunce” and a “pompous ass” and le Carre describing Rushdie as “arrogant” and having undergone “self-canonisation”.

Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses prompted a death threat from Iran’s spiritual leader, found an ally in Christopher Hitchens. The author and atheist compared le Carre to “a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head”.

The first hint of a thaw in relations came last month at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, when Rushdie voiced regret about the row, which was conducted in the letters pages of The Guardian newspaper in 1997.

“I wish we hadn’t done it,” Rushdie told the festival audience. “He’s a writer I really admire. I think of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as one of the great novels of post-war Britain.”

Le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell, took up the invitation to respond, confirming that the hatchet had been buried.

“I too regret the dispute,” Carre said. “I admire Salman for his work and his courage, and I respect his stand. Does that answer the larger debate which continues to this day? Should we be free to mock the passionately held religions of others? Maybe we should — but should we also be surprised when the believers we have offended respond in fury? I couldn’t answer that question at the time and, with all good will, I still can’t.”

Le Carre added: “But I am a little proud, in retrospect, that I spoke against the easy trend, reckoning with the wrath of outraged western intellectuals, and suffering it in all its righteous glory. And if I met Salman tomorrow? I would warmly shake the hand of a brilliant fellow writer.”

The rapprochement comes a year after V.S. Naipaul exchanged a handshake with Paul Theroux at the Hay Festival, ending another 15-year feud. Another recently resolved dispute took place between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, whose mutual loathing culminated in a fist-fight at a Mexican cinema in 1976. They forgave one another in 2007.

Fans of vicious literary squabbles can still hang on to two glorious examples, however. Evelyn Waugh so hated his tutor, C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, that he used Cruttwell’s name for a series of ghastly characters, including a psychopathic burglar in Decline and Fall, a snobbish Tory MP in Vile Bodies and a quack doctor in A Handful of Dust.

The late Norman Mailer’s exchange of barbs with Tom Wolfe also lingers. Mailer said of Wolfe: “There is something silly about a man who wears a white suit all the time, especially in New York.”

Wolfe retorted: “The lead dog is the one they always try to bite in the ass.”

Mailer: “It doesn’t mean you’re the top dog just because your ass is bleeding.”


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