LONDON -- British literary brawls don't get much better than this: John le Carre vs. Salman Rushdie.
The heavyweight novelists have been going pen to pen for days in the pages of the Guardian newspaper over freedom of speech.
Le Carre fired off a verbal jab: "Rushdie's way with the truth is as self-serving as ever."
Rushdie unloaded a hook: "If he ever wants to win an argument, John le Carre could begin by learning to read."
After five rounds of increasingly bitter letters to the editor last week, the Guardian finally dubbed the dustup, "The Satanic correspondence."
It read more like a schoolboy spat.
At first glance, the fight appeared to center on Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses," for which he was sentenced to death in 1989 by Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for alleged blasphemy to Islam.
But Saturday, Guardian columnist Mark Lawson revealed what could be the true spark to the dispute: a bad review.
In June 1989, Rushdie dismissed le Carre's "Russia House," writing: "Le Carre wants to be taken seriously ... close -- but this time anyway -- no cigar."
Lawson said that in an October 1989 unpublished letter to the Guardian's New York correspondent, le Carre wrote: "When the death sentence against Rushdie was first pronounced, I saluted his courage. As time went by and I had a chance to think, I realized that I had less and less sympathy with Rushdie's position."
Le Carre has also argued that Rushdie's controversial book should not have been published in paperback.
The fracas went public after the Guardian reprinted a le Carre speech in which the author spoke of being misunderstood by some American critics who accused him of anti-Semitism in his latest novel, "The Tailor of Panama."
On Tuesday, Rushdie, who has lived under armed guard since the death edict was proclaimed against him, wrote le Carre was "eagerly and rather pompously joining forces with my assailants."
The gloves were off.
Wednesday, le Carre responded, "there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions may be insulted with impunity."
Le Carre was "more concerned about the girl in Penguin Books who might get her hands blown off in the mailroom than I was about Rushdie's royalties."
And he finished with a flourish: "My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound a less arrogant, less colonialist and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers' camp."
Thursday, came the Rushdie retaliation.
"I'm grateful to John le Carre for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be," Rushdie wrote.
"John le Carre is right to say that free speech isn't an absolute," he added. "We have the freedoms we fight for, and we lose those we don't defend. I'd always thought George Smiley [le Carre's most famous character] knew that. His creator appears to have forgotten."
By Friday's fourth round, le Carre sounded as weary as one of his characters from his Cold War espionage novels.
He wrote: "What I do know is, Rushdie took on a known enemy and screamed 'foul' when it acted in character. The pain he has had to endure is appalling, but it doesn't make a martyr of him, nor -- much as he would like it to -- does it sweep away all argument about the ambiguities of his participation in his own downfall."
Saturday's fifth round ended with a low blow.
Rushdie thundered: "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. Keep digging John, keep digging. Me, I'm going back to work."
If they keep up this pace, these writers might end up with a joint best seller.
Pub Date: 11/24/97