Sir Salman Rushdie’s acceptance speech
Your royal highness, distinguished guests, friends: thank you. It’s an honor to be here to receive this award, following in the footsteps of some very eminent names. I’m also happy to be here to celebrate the work of Hans Christian Andersen, one of the European masters of the art of storytelling.
The story and the novel did not begin in the same place. According to the great German critic Walter Benjamin, the story is a collective act, a tale told by many mouths, written down by many hands, passed down, hand to hand, mouth to mouth, down the generations. In this definition of the story it is the nearest thing we have to that holy grail of literary criticism, the authorless text. Sometimes, as these stories come to be collected and codified, as this or that version comes to be thought of as canonical, we give them authors. To the Iliad and the Odyssey we give the authorial name of Homer, to the Mahabharata and Ramayana we add the names of the bards Vyasa and Valmiki. But these writers may or may not have existed and, if they did, were telling stories whose origins preceded their tellings. The story is a tale told by everyone, everywhere, and nobody owns it.
By contrast, Walter Benjamin proposed, “What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature – the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella – is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others… The novelist has isolated himself… The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual.” To which it may also be added, that the story grows out of a sense of community, of locality; the novel out of a sense of nationhood. German stories, such as those collected by the Grimm brothers, come from the Black Forest; German literature comes from Germany.
In spite of these very different origins, a strong interest in storytelling was for a long time incorporated in the novel – at, or near, the centre of most of the best fiction. It’s impossible to read the work of Dickens, or Austen, or Thackeray, without understanding that for the novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the story was the engine of the novel. Many of these novels were extremely long, and needed a powerful storyline to drive them. I myself learned from these writers never to forget what a good strong story brings to a book. If you’re building a big car, I’ve always thought, put a big engine in it.
To make a broad generalization, we may say that in the twentieth century, somewhere around the period of high Modernism, the novel separated itself from the storytelling tradition. I yield to no-one in my admiration for Ulysses andÀ la recherché du temps perdu, but nobody could honestly say that either of them were plot-driven. Story takes second place, in Joyce and Proust, to form, character, language, psychology, and social portraiture.
The separation of what has come to be called literary fiction from the storytelling tradition has always seemed to be both unnecessary and harmful. Popular fiction, pulp fiction, never forgets to tell a story all right. These books depend crucially on page-turning narrative, full of hooks, mysteries, and drama. It has always seemed to me that there is no reason for serious literature to dispose of these things. And I have been interested to see, in the literature of the last half century or so, a renewed and growing interest in the ancient art, even in its oldest forms – the myth, the legend, the fable, and the fairy tale.
For this kind of contemporary literature, Hans Christian Andersen’s work stands as an important signpost. The folktale, fairytale or fable, in its original European incarnation, very often pointed towards a moral. Don’t be greedy, was the moral of the Grimm tale of the fisherman and his wife and the talking flounder, who granted all their wishes until the wife overreached herself and wanted to be Pope, whereupon all the palaces and wealth the flounder had given them vanished and they were back living in their original “pisspot.” In India, interestingly, many ancient folktales are less concerned moralizing. In the grand narratives of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, heroes are flawed, and their adversaries not necessarily villainous, but possessed of heroic virtues as well. Homer knew this too. Hector, the Trojan hero who falls in single combat to the Greek Achilles, is the lesser warrior but in many ways the better man.
The good can lose, and fables can have anti-heroes instead of heroes. In the Indian animal fables of the Panchatantra, the two jackals at the heart of the stories are anything but good. One of them is devious, even Machiavellian, and the other, much more devious. Right does not always triumph. In fact, in these stories, it rarely does.
Modern writers who have drawn on the fable and folktale for inspiration have on the whole eschewed the simple morality of, for example, Aesop. Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mikhail Bulgakov are all fabulists, but none of them is a moralist. Separate the fable from its moral and you get what has come to be known, a little irritatingly, as magic realism, a thing of which I have been guilty myself.
What interests me about Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, about where they stand in this literary journey from the past to the present, is that they look in both directions, backwards to the religious, strict, good-and-evil morality of the past – the collective wisdom of the tribe, if you like – and forwards to the flawed ambiguities of the modern, individualist sensibility: what Benjamin called the sensibility of the novelist. Some stories are openly – we may say, conservatively – religious, contrasting godly virtue with devilry, as, for example, in The Red Shoes. In The Little Mermaid, the heroine’s romantic love for the prince does not win the day. But her spirit of self-sacrifice, or caring more for others than for herself, attracts divine benediction, and gives the mermaid a chance of immortality.
In other stories, however, Andersen’s morality becomes stranger. The princess in The Princess and the Pea, able to discern and be discomforted by the presence of a single pea under many, many mattresses, is praised for her “sensitivity,” which proves her to be a true princess. Reading this story today, we may less charitably conclude that the princess is a spoilt brat and probably a pain in the neck.
In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the story is more interested in giving the emperor and his courtiers their comeuppance than in punishing the swindlers who “made” the non-existent garment while making off with substantial quantities of money. If they are indeed punished for their crime, the story omits to mention it.
Even darker, and therefore more modern, is the moral universe of The Tinder Box. Near the beginning of the story the protagonist kills the witch and thinks nothing of it; at the end of the story the princess marries the hero even though the great dogs unleashed by the tinder box have just killed her parents. This is decidedly odd, and therefore of great interest to our contemporary, disenchanted sensibility. The story’s amorality makes it more attractive to us than a clear moral message would.
Two of Andersen’s greatest stories may serve to illustrate his contrasting modes. The Snow Queen, a genuinely frightening story, allows the reader the release of a happy ending. Gerda’s love thaws Kay’s frozen heart and the icy shard lodged there, and the tears she releases in him wash the other shard out of his eye. For all the terror in the story, it remains essentially a part of the conventional tradition of the fairy tale.
However, in what I think of as Andersen’s greatest story, The Shadow, the ending is more Kafka than happy-ever-after. The shadow detached from its owner not only supplants the human being in the affections of the princess, but the princess and the shadow arrange to have the real man executed on their wedding day. No trace here of Walter Benjamin’s idea of the traditional storyteller. This is the solitary, individual, dark vision of the modern writer.
Hans Christian Andersen stands in an imaginative, fabulist tradition that stretches from the most ancient stories all the way to Kafka and Garcia Marquez. That is the best measure of his worth. That is why this prize means a great deal to a writer like myself, who labors in the same vineyard, or perhaps the one next door.
Once again, thank you very much.