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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Two Essays on J. D. Salinger

Two essays on J. D. Salinger, by Henry Allen and David Lodge.

J.D. Salinger pictured in 1961, Photo: POLARIS

Henry Allen in Washington Post:

At the end, with J.D. Salinger dead at 91, we have no memories of him.

That is to say, we have no cranky anecdotes about thrown drinks, no second cousins who once stood next to him at a roulette table, no paparazzi pictures of him with his long face and solemn eyes staring with predatory kindness at some starlet in Malibu (careful not to look at her breasts, of course).

He was a sort of saint to his upscale readers, a foe of the cruel and the vulgar, a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, it was said, a man who in his writing found his masculinity in sensitivity and self-deprecation.

Not like Hemingway on safari or Fitzgerald in the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel or Kerouac hurling himself back and forth across America.

They were famous public figures. Salinger was merely famous, idolized, envied; an acutely private figure who was a recluse for more than 50 years in Cornish, N.H. He was still famous when he died.

But we have no memories of him, to speak of, aside from gritty memoirs by his daughter, Margaret, and the writer Joyce Maynard, who, as a freshman at Yale, found herself in a claustrophobic grind of a relationship with him. And lawsuits protecting his privacy and copyrights, and the endless rumors of insanity or Buddhist monkhood.

Back when he was publishing -- his last short story appeared in the New Yorker in 1965 -- he was a demigod in a cult that seemed like a conspiracy between his books and his readers. He had mystique and a second-hand charisma that came from his prose, not his persona. His glamour dwindled with the decades. Once, believe it or not, boys wanted to be J.D. Salinger, cool and knowing. They thought they were, in fact, Holden Caulfield, the hero of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger's first book and only novel, now appearing on better high school reading lists.

Making reading required takes its toll on culture heroes. And writers were once culture heroes in America, people you wanted to touch, like weeping statues or movie stars.

Salinger was once considered subversive, in his wry, quiet, tweedy way, the sort of guy who stands in a corner for the whole party and then goes home with the most beautiful girl there. But how can you be subversive when your books are assigned by the sort of educational pooh-bahs whom Holden might have spotted as phonies -- a concept he taught us in an age when authenticity was the great virtue to sensitive outsiders?

In their better moments, Holden and members of Salinger's vast, epically self-conscious Glass family would have seen the phonies for what they were, but -- saints that they were -- they would have forgiven them with the ironic condescension that rang clear and cool as a tuning fork in their creator's prose.

Gone, all gone: the authenticity, the spirituality, the writer as hero, the belief that literature could save us, as a critic and prophet named Lionel Trilling said somewhere back then.

Still, for those of us growing older until we find ourselves growing old, hope lives on, and Salinger's death is a happy occasion.

The manuscripts: There are said to be novels, stories, maybe even haiku -- Salinger brought haiku to our attention, never dreaming that they would become banal, refrigerator poetry brought home from school. These manuscripts are in bank vaults or salt mines or someplace safe from the clamoring crowd, it is said.

Does he become America's Proust, with endless chronicles of the Glass family, some of whose children, notably Waker and Walt, had yet to come on stage when Salinger stopped publishing?

One hears of a war novel and thinks of his finest short story, For Esme -- With Love and Squalor, about a sensitive, ironic, condescending but forgiving soldier whose nervous system is shattered by combat, as Salinger's seems to have been, in World War II Europe.

Could a whole novel be that good? If so, if so . . .

On the other hand, his last published story, called Hapworth 16, 1924, was a pretentious, self-reflexive slog of the sort you might expect when a writer creates a 7-year-old genius-saint character, Seymour Glass, who writes a 25,000-word letter from camp.

The story is not about the letter; it is the letter.

Even in 1961, when Time magazine was putting Salinger on its cover, the Glass family saga was getting a little tiresome, and it would get more so, to the point where we, his faithful readers, found ourselves forgiving Salinger, rather than Salinger forgiving us.

Salinger had gone out of his way to meet Hemingway during the war, and Hemingway was said to have called him a helluva talent.

Hemingway was a writer who made unhappiness beautiful. Salinger took it a step further -- with the same uncanny ability to evoke the world his characters move through, he made it a virtue.

Oh, how I needed this reassurance when I was 12 or 13. (I'm 68 now.) One day, I was looking at my parents' bookshelves and asked about that odd title.

It's too old for you, my mother said with a tone bearing not a little ulterior motive.

That night, after my parents had gone to bed, I turned on my light and started reading.

Catcher got me with the first line, and I became a devotee, newly coined from the dross of adolescence into the gold of irony and self-consciousness. I wasn't just agonized with my despairs. I was a member of some order of righteous adolescence, a kid standing in the corner and watching the phonies at the party.

I could go on, but I'll take caution from that first line: If you really want to hear about it . . . You don't, of course, because you may well have your own Salinger story to tell.

We can hope, in the name of redemption, both his and ours, that Salinger has his own stories waiting for us, at long last.


David Lodge in NY Times:

The life of J. D. Salinger, which has just ended, is one of the strangest and saddest stories in recent literary history. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to let the disappointment of the second half of Mr. Salinger’s career — consisting of a long short story called Hapworth 16, 1924 that reads as though he allowed the pain of hostile criticism to blunt the edge of self-criticism that every good writer must possess, followed by 45 years of living like a hermit in the New Hampshire woods — to overshadow the achievements of the first half.

The corpus of his good work is very small, but it is classic. His was arguably the first truly original voice in American prose fiction after the generation of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Of course nothing is absolutely original in literature, and Mr. Salinger had his precursors, of whom Hemingway was one, and Mark Twain — from whose Huck Finn Hemingway said that all modern American literature came — another. From them he learned what you could do with simple, colloquial language and a naïve youthful narrator. But in The Catcher in the Rye Mr. Salinger applied their lessons in a new way to create a new kind of hero, Holden Caulfield, whose narrative voice struck a chord with millions of readers.

The narrative is in a style the Russians call skaz, a nice word with echoes of jazz and scat in it, which uses the repetitions and redundancies of ordinary speech to produce an effect of sincerity and authenticity — and humor: The thing is, most of the time when you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl ... she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they’re just scared as hell, or whether they’re just telling you to stop so that if you do go through with it, the blame’ll be on you, not them. Anyway, I keep stopping. The trouble is, I get to feeling sorry for them. I mean most girls are so dumb and all. After you neck them for a while you can really watch them losing their brains. You take a girl when she really gets passionate, she just hasn’t any brains. I don’t know. They tell me to stop, so I stop.

It looks easy, but it isn’t.

Nearly everybody loves The Catcher in the Rye, and most readers enjoy Mr. Salinger’s first collection of short stories, Nine Stories. But the work that followed, the four long short stories paired together in two successive books as Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, were less reader-friendly and provoked more critical comment, leading eventually to the retreat of the wounded author into solitude.

This was as much the consequence of critical failure as of authorial arrogance. These books challenged conventional notions of fiction and conventional ways of reading as radically as the kind of novels that would later be called post-modernist, and a lot of critics didn’t get it. The saga of the Glass family is stylistically the antithesis of Catcher — highly literary, full of rhetorical tropes, narrative devices and asides to the reader — but there is also continuity between them. The literariness of the Glass stories is always domesticated by a colloquial informality. Most are narrated by Buddy, the writer in the family, who says at the outset of Zooey that what I’m about to offer isn’t really a short story at all but a sort of prose home movie.

The nearest equivalent to this saga in earlier literature is perhaps the 18th-century antinovel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne. There is the same minutely close observation of the social dynamics of family life, the same apparent disregard for conventional narrative structure, the same teasing hints that the fictional narrator is a persona for the real author, the same delicate balance of sentiment and irony, and the same humorous running commentary on the activities of writing and reading.

How Shandean, for instance, is Buddy’s presentation to the reader in Seymour of this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((( )))). I suppose, most unflorally, I truly mean them to be taken, first off, as bow-legged — buckle-legged — omens of my state of mind and body at this writing.

Seymour Glass first appeared in one of the Nine Stories, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, as a disturbed veteran of World War II (as Mr. Salinger himself was), who on vacation with his rather shallow wife, after a charmingly droll conversation with a little girl on the beach, shockingly shoots himself in the last paragraph. The late stories are all in some way about the attempts of Seymour’s surviving siblings to come to terms with this action. This often takes a religious direction, and presents the Glass family as a kind of spiritual elite, struggling against a tide of materialism and philistinism with the aid of Christian existentialism, Eastern mysticism and a select pantheon of great writers.

This cultural and spiritual elitism got up the noses of many critics, but I think they overlooked the fact that Mr. Salinger was playing a kind of Shandean game with his readers. The more truth-telling and pseudo-historical the stories became in form (tending toward an apparently random, anecdotal structure, making elaborate play with letters and other documents as evidence), the less credible became the content (miraculous feats of learning, stigmata, prophetic glimpses, memories of previous incarnations, and so forth). But what were we asked to believe in: the reality of these things, or the possibility of them? Since it is fiction, surely the latter; to suppose it is the former is to lose half the pleasure of reading the books.

(A Life in Books)



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