Music to his ears

First the fatwa, now a rock star: Salman Rushdie, U2's latest lyricist, explains himself in this week's `Arena'
You've read the book, now hear the pop song. An Arena special on Thursday features the premiere of Bono and The Edge performing "The Ground Beneath Her Feet", the song U2 has written to lyrics taken from Salman Rushdie's new novel of the same name. Talk about maximising publicity for a book launch.

Completing the synergy in BBC2's Salman Rushdie and the Ground Beneath His Feet, the writer discusses his enduring love affair with rock'n'roll, the subject of the new novel. He recalls that the first time a friend played him Bob Dylan at school, "more or less literally, my jaw dropped".

According to Anthony Wall, the editor of Arena, the rock business is an appropriate backdrop for Rushdie's sweeping vision of modern society.

"Rock'n'roll is the first global cultural phenomenon. You can't find any areas of the world where people are unaware of Madonna or the Spice Girls. Through that, Salman can tell this epic story. It wouldn't be fair to condemn all British writers of the last 60 years, but they have tended to use local stories - look at Graham Greene. What distinguishes Salman is that he has reach, he is prepared to tackle things on a very grand scale."

Even in the swinging 60s, however, Rushdie felt divorced from the mainstream, a characteristic that has marked his work - to say nothing of his life - ever since. During the height of the "tune in and drop out" era, he remembers: "I didn't feel fully a participant because I was going back to Cambridge to study for a degree, and that wasn't what dropping out was about."

The fatwa which was issued against Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and which has shaped the author's life for a decade must have served to heighten this sense of being an outsider. That feeling very much informs his writing.

"The only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step out of the frame," he remarks in the new novel.

In Arena, he elaborates on this theme. "The difficult thing about art is that in order to make it, you have to simultaneously belong and not belong, and the only way of reconciling that paradox is actually the work of art itself," he says. "You have to be able to reject all the normal things that come with belonging, which include loyalty, trust, confidence... If you don't do that, you can't do it. There certainly were periods where I felt that there was a bulletproof glass between me and the rest of the world and that I was moving through the world without being fully in it or of it."

In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which is already being tipped in some quarters as a shoo-in for this year's Booker Prize, Rushdie also broaches the highly topical subject of fame. For Bono, it is the perfect marriage of writer and topic.

"At the end of the century, it's the classic subject matter," says the U2 singer, "because it's gotten to such proportions. Lady Diana was the apotheosis - there's a pretentious word. It's a subject you have to tackle... As regards Salman taking on the subject, some people were shocked that he'd go there. I just thought it was obvious."

In the book, Rushdie probes the gap between celebrity and reality. "When they're writing about a famous person, journalists look up the cuttings and repeat them," says Wall. "That becomes the received wisdom and feeds on itself. In the end, the celebrity might as well stop bothering to tell the truth about himself. Salman is interested in the extent to which that happens to all of us. We all have different versions of ourselves, depending on who we're with."

Rushdie takes up the theme. "There is a fictitious version of me. I'm conscious that when I meet people, I can see them erasing the tape. They're erasing a whole bunch of things they've read in the papers... I'm aware of a fairly abrasive personality having been created for me, and actually," he adds with a self-mocking grin, "I'm incredibly cuddly." So now you know.

`Arena: Salman Rushdie and the Ground Beneath His Feet' is on Thur at 11.20pm on BBC2

James Rampton