Monday, 1 February 2010

J.D. Salinger RIP

J.D. Salinger’s reputation as one of the literary giants of the twentieth century rests primarily on the only full length novel he wrote: The Catcher in the Rye. First published in 1951, the novel (which incited Norman Mailer to label Salinger as the greatest mind ever to enter a prep school) was an instant success—it was on the New York’s best seller list for more than six months—although some critics attacked it for being subversive and immoral. Since then it has sold more than 65 million copies all over the world, has been translated into more than 30 languages, and is routinely included in the lists such as ‘1000 Books to Read Before You Die’ or ‘The Top 100 Books of the Twentieth Century’ or ‘The Greatest Books in the History’ etcetera. In America, it still sells in excess of 200,000 copies each year. None of Salinger’s subsequent literary offerings, over the next fourteen years before he stopped publishing completely, matched the popularity and the critical acclaim of The Catcher in the Rye.

Although written as an adult novel, The Catcher in the Rye has found favour amongst generations of angst-ridden teenagers, and its protagonist is considered to be emblematic of a disillusioned and rebellious teenager. I first read The Catcher in the Rye in my late teens. It was given to me by my elder brother. He said that it was a cult book which I must read. Until then I had heard neither of the book nor its author. I cannot say that the first person narrative of the novel’s 17 year old protagonist, Holden Caulfield—there has been much speculation about the origin of his name; according to an article posted on Wikipedia, the first name came from Salinger’s childhood friend, Holden Bowler, while the last name is linked to the rye-catcher metaphor—apparently caul is a membrane that covers the newborn babies, and the protagonist has this God like fantasy of being a saviour of children playing in a field of rye, hence the name ‘Caulfield’—; however, the name may have more prosaic provenance than the one dreamed by some; Salinger, in one of the rare interviews he gave, said that the name, which he had thought of years before the novel was published, was derived from the names of two Hollywood actors: William Holden and Joan Caulfield—describing, from the room of a mental asylum to which he is admitted, the three days following his expulsion from a private school to which his wealthy parents have sent him, during which period he drifts along aimlessly, feeling increasingly lonesome and isolated, was something with which I instantly identified, probably because coming as I did from a very different background from that of Caulfield, I simply could not imagine myself doing any of what he does. I could not empathize. That said I absolutely loved the narrative style. Starting with its celebrated opening ('If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.'), there is a kind of put on air of irreverence throughout the novel, which fails to camouflage, indeed throws into sharp relief, the fact that underneath the patina of machismo, this is a seriously screwed up, insecure and lonely kid. I could partly identify with that feeling. In those days I had issues such as self-confidence (lack of) and self-esteem (not high), although I was not, at least did not consider myself (and nor did, insofar as I was aware, anyone else) to be screwed up. I tried to conceal these feelings of inadequacy by an outward nonchalance and sarcasm towards things which I had convinced myself I did not care for, when the truth was I knew I was not going to get those things, and it was convenient affect indifference, a strategy that went some way towards protecting my self-esteem. I have not read The Catcher in the Rye for well over two decades. From time to time I think about re-reading it, but has not got round to actually do it, probably because, with advancing years, different kinds of cynicism and insecurities have set in, and I think I would find the novel less captivating if I read it again. (Also, I must admit to having a bit of a read-it-and-move-on-to-the-next-book mentality. There are so many books to read, and so little time, so why spend time re-reading a book, even a classic, which could otherwise be spent profitably in reading a book I have not read?)

Apart from The Catcher in the Rye, the only other book of Salinger I have read is Franny and Zooey, one of the chronicles of the fictional Glass family, which consists of two novellas; at just over forty pages apiece they can also be called short-stories. The two stories, originally published in the 1950s in the New Yorker magazine, were published in one volume in the early 1960s. I liked it more than The Catcher in the Rye, probably because, while it has some themes, such as mental breakdown, in common with the Catcher in the Rye, it dwells more on theosophical issues, which appealed to me at the time I read the book (about fifteen years ago). These themes perhaps also reflect Salinger’s increasing preoccupation—as revealed later, most famously in a memoir by Margaret, Salinger’s daughter from his second marriage—with various religious practices, which culminated in Eastern mysticism. The various members of the Glass family appear in other works of Salinger’s slender oeuvre. These stories, originally published as short stories in the New Yorker, have later appeared in compilation volumes, which have been out of print for a considerable time—indeed, in the High Street bookshops the only Salinger novels that are regularly available are The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey. A while ago, while browsing in a local second hand book shop, I came across two of the compilations: one included Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymor: an Introduction—all featuring the fictional Glass family; the other compilation comprised nine short stories (I think it was issued in Britain originally as For Esme with Love and Squalor, the title of one of the short stories), most of which were published in the New Yorker in the 1940s, and some of which feature the Glass family. I have not got round to read them, and now seems as good a time as any. I guess much of Salinger’s out-of-print work will be rapidly reissued.

David Jerome Salinger was born in 1919. His father, Sol Salinger, was Jewish, while his mother Marie was of Scottish, Irish descent. She is reported to have changed her name to Miriam—it is not known whether she converted to Judaism—at the insistence of her husband’s Jewish family. This was apparently a closely guarded family secret, and it was not until Salinger had his Bar Mitzvah, at the age of 14, did he learn of his mother’s non-Jewish origin. Salinger’s father imported luxury food items, and the family was well off. Young Salinger was sent to a private school. He was an indifferent student, and was expelled from the school for poor grades. Later he enrolled in and completed a creative writing course at Columbia University. In the late 1930s, his father sponsored a trip to Europe, so that Salinger would learn the trade of the import-export business. Salinger spent twelve months as what he would later describe as a ‘happy tourist’ in Europe, five of which were spent in Vienna. This was at a time when the dark shadow of the war was looming large over Europe; Salinger may even have left Vienna only weeks before Hitler annexed Austria. If Salinger was sentient of the increasingly hostile anti-Semitism that was gripping Austria and Germany, his letters from those times do not reflect it. (There is a parallel here. A few years ago I read Letters Between A Father and Son—the correspondence between V.S. Naipaul, not yet twenty and studying at Oxford, and his father, worn down by the burden of taking care of a large family and the unhappiness of frustrated literary ambitions, back ‘home’ in Trinidad. I found the correspondence—which stretches over three years and comes to an end when the father suddenly dies—incredibly moving. But I was also struck by the fact that V.S. Naipaul’s letters do not so much as mention what is going on in the university, the prevailing social ambience and attitudes in his adoptive country, which, I cannot believe Naipaul, on the cusp of what was going to turn out to be a distinguished literary career, did not notice. Perhaps, he did not think it worth mentioning to his father, still living in the Caribbean backwaters. But that is strange, as Naipaul’s father, a reporter for a local rag, had literary ambitions himself—he spent the last few years of his life writing a novel which Naipaul eventually published decades after his death. Similarly Salinger, half-Jewish himself, must have noticed the increasingly unpleasant situation of the European Jews, as the continent stood on the threshold of the war; but perhaps he did not want to depress his folk back home.) He spoke cynically about the Second World War, but surprised his relatives by eagerly joining the army. He served in the counterintelligence unit, and is supposed to have met Ernst Hemingway, whom he admired as a writer. He also found time to write short stories during this period, which began to appear in various magazines such as New Yorker and Cosmopolitan. It was with the publication, in 1948, of his story titled A Perfect Day for A Bananafish (in which a member of the Glass family, the chronicles of which were to appear many years later, Seymour, makes an appearance) that he was first noticed. Three years later The Catcher in the Rye was published, and it ensured that Salinger’s name would be engraved as one of the great writers of the twentieth century.

Salinger produced, in his life a very slender volume of work—a proof, no doubt, that quantity is not everything. After the popularity of The Catcher in the Rye he became increasingly reclusive and interview-phobic. His last published work was a short story, Hapworth 16, 1924, which came out in 1965. For the next forty odd years he retreated almost entirely from public life, and, ironically, managed to enter the limelight from time to time precisely because of his extreme reclusiveness, rumours of increasingly odd dietary habits, and experiments with Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism—he allegedly became a serious reader of Zen and Mahayana Buddhism, and the Adwaita Vedanta of Hinduism, and practised meditation for hours. He fended off any attempts at what he described as intrusion on his privacy. He rarely granted interviews, and spoke to the world largely through his lawyers. The result? He became a subject of numerous studies and biographies. Here was the paradox: the more Salinger became cloistered in his home in New Hampshire, the more media became prurient. Salinger’s refusal to engage with the world was not, however, a cynical attempt to gain publicity. Around the time of the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, when he was not famous, Salinger had chosen to spend time in England because he did not want to do interviews. It would be fair to say that Salinger made no efforts to promote the book, something which is commonplace these days. He continued to protect his privacy, and came down heavily on possible derivatives of his novel with the zeal of a paranoiac, over the subsequent decades. As late as 2008, when he was ninety, he successfully brought injunction against the publication of what would have been a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye by a Swedish publisher. In the 1980s he successfully made Ian Hamilton, through his lawyers, change large sections from his unauthorised biography of Salinger. These sections related to a year long relationship Salinger had with a woman called Joyce Meynard, and were probably authentic, as they were based on the letters Salinger had written to her, and to which Hamilton had access. While it was obvious what Salinger was trying to achieve here—protect his privacy— such legal victories turned out to be Pyrrhic, as they only served to focus the media spotlight on him, something which he presumably hated. Salinger was however powerless to do anything when Meynard published a memoir of her affair with Salinger, 25 years after it ended, and also decided to auction the letters Salinger had written her. Unsurprisingly, the picture of Salinger that emerges from the memoirs is not endearing. Meynard, who was several years younger than Salinger, claimed that she was emotionally abused and later, when Salinger lost interest, treated with cold indifference, before being discarded altogether. If Meynard’s memoirs can be dismissed as an outpouring of a woman more bitter than the lemon you twisted into your gin and tonic last night (and who, in addition, was possibly publicity hungry), the memoirs of his own daughter, Margaret, which were published a year later, also showed Salinger in an unflattering light, although the daughter was, understandably, more sympathetic. Margaret described growing up in an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, with her father indulging in increasingly weird practices such as drinking his own urine (there was an Indian prime-minister, who used to wholeheartedly advocate the health benefits of a) vegetarianism and b) drinking one’s own urine; and he lived to be a nonagenarian, so perhaps there is something to recommend in this unusual practice), and in thrall of Eastern mysticism. (Her brother, Salinger’s other child, however, rejected this account and described growing up in an environment very different from that described by his sister).

Almost all of Salinger’s relationships, except perhaps the first one, were with women considerably younger than him. His first marriage was to a German woman, whom he met in 1945, in Paris. The woman, named Sylvia, who was either a psychologist or a doctor, was a member of the Nazi party and hated the Jews with a passion that matched Salinger’s disgust for the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, the marriage ended after only eight months, probably after the fizz went out of sex. His second wife, Carole Douglas, a daughter of a distinguished academician, whom he married in 1955, had just graduated out of high school at the time of their marriage. This marriage lasted for twelve years and produced two children—a daughter and a son. In 1967, Carole Douglas, no doubt unable to cope with Salinger’s increasingly eccentric behaviour and esoteric interests, filed for a divorce, and obtained the custody of the children as well as the marital home. Salinger then bought a house only a mile away, so that he could keep in touch with his children. His subsequent relationships were all with women much younger than him. Joyce Meynard, for example, was only nineteen when she had a relationship with Salinger, more than 30 years her senior. His third wife, Coleen O’Neill, whom he married in 1988, and to whom he remained married till he died, was forty years his junior. In 1955, Salinger wrote: ‘Some of my best friends were children. In fact all of my best friends are children.’

So why did Salinger stop writing? Or, to be precise, stop publishing? In his final 1974-interview (which he gave when he was bringing a lawsuit to ban the publication of pirated copies of his out of print early stories) Salinger said, ‘I like to write. I love to write. But I just write for myself and my own privacy.’ Could it be that Salinger became disillusioned with the publishing world? Or, was it the case that Salinger, a man acutely sensitive to the criticism of his work, was less than thrilled when his post-Catcher in the Rye-work was not embraced by the critics—which included John Updike and Mary McCarthy—with the same gushing enthusiasm and admiration as his seminal novel, and turned his back to the world of publication? Could there be a medical explanation? His increasing reclusiveness, preoccupation with mysticism, succession of strange diets, and the paranoid zeal with which he guarded the legacy of his work—were they indicative of a mind becoming increasingly unhinged? His daughter diagnosed PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in him, and declared that Salinger never really recovered completely from the trauma of the Second World War, which, she further hypothesized, turned him into a control-freak. It seems unlikely, though: reclusive he might have become, but Salinger could still charm young women into forming relationships with him. He might have shunned the world, but he was certainly not, not on the available evidence, tired of human contact, especially when it involved nubile women. Or, is there a simple explanation, which we have all overlooked—the elephant in the room? Is it possible that Salinger realised that his creative powers were on the wane and, while he continued to love to write, he was only too aware that what he was producing was not meeting the high standards he had set for himself? That brings to mind the question what exactly happens when the river of creation dries out? Does one just stop writing because one no longer gets the inspiration, or does one continue to write, out of sheer habit, but the quality is lacking? Salinger, according to his daughter, continued to write copiously, and colour-coded all his writings; but never allowed them to be published. The rumour has it that there are almost fifteen volumes of hitherto unpublished work in a safe in his house. It seems unlikely that Salinger has not made a will and laid down his wishes as to what he would like to happen to these manuscripts after his death. Would he have wished them to be published? It seems unlikely; if he wanted them published, he could have easily done so in his life-time. But neither did he destroy them (assuming, of course, these manuscripts actually exist). What would the family do? Time will tell.