Sunday, September 1, 2013

Still In Search Of Salinger

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Even if you aren’t a Salinger fan, you’ve probably heard the news that more of his books are likely to be published soon, some of them dealing with the further exploits of Holden Caulfield and the Glass family, as well as musings on Vedanta. One has mixed feelings about this: elation that there’s going to be more of his work to read as well as misgivings that his last novels, influenced so heavily by his religious views, may not be on a par with the rest.

The information about the forthcoming volumes is contained in a new biography, simply titled Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, a companion piece to the latter’s documentary. Both are to be released next week. Early reports indicate that the book is a montage of interviews, newspaper articles, letters and photographs, with the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani calling it a “loosey-goosey Internet-age narrative”.

Past biographies were hamstrung by the unwillingness of the reclusive novelist – and most of his friends and associates -- to take part in such an enterprise, a stance he stuck to until his death in 2010. This, of course, didn’t stop people from trying.  There was the poorly received attempt by erstwhile Time magazine reporter Paul Alexander, for example, as well as the more exhaustive one by Kenneth Slawenski in 2011 that, among other things, threw light on the writer’s World War II years. (Current speculation is that the horrors Salinger encountered during that time led to a form of PTSD, because of which he turned to Eastern religion and a hermit-like life.) Then, there was the self-centred – some would say self-serving – account by Joyce Maynard, who had a relationship with Salinger when she was 18; in contrast, Margaret Salinger’s Dream Catcher, about life with her father, is more honest and revealing of his eccentricities.

The one book that appeared before all of these, and which created more of a ruckus, was British journalist Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J.D. Salinger, published in 1988. This, however, wasn’t the book that he wanted to write. After Hamilton finished his biography of the writer who was “famous for not wanting to be famous”, Salinger won a copyright infringement suit against the publisher as the book quoted liberally from unpublished letters and short stories. In Search of J.D. Salinger, then, is the book that Hamilton was finally able to publish, more an account of how he went about teasing out information on Salinger than a biography proper. It often reads like a detective story, with visits to Salinger’s old haunts and associates to look for clues.

Fascinating as much of this is to read – it must have been far more so when it first appeared – there’s always an uneasy sense of voyeurism, of invading the space of someone who wants to be left alone. This is exacerbated by Hamilton’s treatment: he sets up a split personality, one of whom “grapples feebly with the moral issues” and the other a “biographizing alter ego” eager to get on with the job. A lot of time is taken up with back-and-forth between the two, a device that soon becomes annoying, if not disingenuous. (“Phony,” one can almost hear Holden say.)

Hamilton uncovers traces of Salinger’s public life: “school records, some telling items of juvenilia, frank testimony from contemporaries, some eyewitness location stuff”, and pieces together an account of Salinger's early years and how it reflected in his work. As he himself acknowledges, however, the heart of his book is without Salinger’s own voice and personality. Later in the book, he writes: “in the case of J. D. Salinger, [when] the inner life becomes virtually indistinguishable from any life that we might sensibly call ‘outer,’ then even the most intrepid chronicler knows himself to be facing an impasse”.

This seems to be the fate of any such chronicle of “the Greta Garbo of American letters”, which is why I’m going to stay away from Shields and Salerno’s biography. As for Salinger’s own posthumous work, that’s a temptation to which I suspect I’ll succumb.

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