Sunday, March 11, 2012

If You Really Want To Hear About It

This appeared in today's DNA.


In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger has Holden Caulfield say, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it”. This feeling of intimacy between author and reader is one of the defining characteristics of Salinger’s work. As such, a biography of the author may seem like an intrusion, a stepping into a sacred space – more so, given Salinger’s own obsession with privacy.

In the latest such attempt, it helps to find that the biographer, Kenneth Slawenski, counts himself as one of Salinger’s chief fans, being the administrator of a website devoted to the man and his work. The tone throughout, therefore, is one of respect, not to mention outright admiration. (This is something that can be taken too far, such as when Slawenski affirms that Salinger’s short story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ was the inspiration for Nabokov’s Lolita.)

Nevertheless, J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High is readable for the persistence with which it takes us through the main facets of Salinger’s life – beginning with the early ambition to become a writer, his repeated efforts to be accepted for publication in magazines such as Saturday Evening Post on one hand and The New Yorker on the other, and first mentors such as editor Whit Burnett and publisher Jamie Hamilton, both of whom he was to have a falling-out with decades later because of the manner in which they represented his work. What comes through time and again is Salinger’s obsession with his craft over the years, writing to the exclusion of all else, and revising and re-revising until he was happy with the results.

From the start, Slawenski tries to establish correspondences between Salinger’s fiction and his life, an early example being his pointing out that the author’s half-Jewish-half-Catholic heritage is something shared by the fictional Glass family. Given the restrictions on quoting from Salinger’s stories or letters, the in-depth analyses of his output comes across as dry, bereft of the voice that Salinger strove so hard to perfect.

However, what is riveting is the biographer’s piecing together of Salinger’s time in the army during WWII. Starting with a relatively quiet stint at army bases in New Jersey and Georgia, Slawenski goes on to recreate Salinger’s participation in the bloody Normandy landing, the liberation of Paris, the depredations during the Battle of the Bulge and – if Slawenski’s speculation is right – the discovery of the horrors of Dachau. All of this, he emphasizes, was to have a marked effect on Salinger, causing him to deal with trauma by treating writing as a form of healing. He was to be profoundly influenced by the teachings of those such as Ramakrishna Paramhansa (calling The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna “the religious book of the century”) and by Zen teachings via, among other things, his friendship with D.T. Suzuki.

With an archivist’s glee, Slawenski traces the many short stories in which Holden Caulfield and his siblings make an appearance, all of which – starting with ‘Slight Rebellion off Madison’ in 1941 – were to culminate in the seminal The Catcher in the Rye, published ten years later.  From this time on, Salinger’s taste for solitude was to become even more pronounced: he was to ensconce himself in a secluded, picturesque property in Cornish, New Hampshire, where stayed until his death in 2010, at 91.

In Cornish, he was to immerse himself in writing the “prose home movies” about his beloved Glass family – the seven children of Bessie and Les, including Seymour Glass, whom many believed was a stand-in for Salinger himself. The last of these stories, ‘Hapworth 16, 1921’, was published in the New Yorker in 1965; from that time on, though Salinger was believed to be writing obsessively, there’s been no new story published.

Slawenski outlines Salinger’s well-known attempts to protect his privacy, including the court case against Ian Hamilton to block the publication of his biography, which the British journalist then had to recast as In Search of J.D. Salinger. (Another often-told tale repeated here is that of Salinger refusing Elia Kazan the rights to turn Catcher into a Broadway show, saying “I fear that Holden wouldn’t like it”.)

The biographer’s respectful attitude extends to Salinger’s relationships with women, from the early liaison with Oona O’Neill -- daughter of the playwright and later wife of Charlie Chaplin – to the ups-and-downs in his life with Claire Douglas, his second wife, whom many believe was the template for the fictional Franny. Of other relationships with those much younger, there’s not much said here, barring a passing reference to Joyce Maynard, whose side of the relationship can be found in her controversial, not-so-flattering recollection, At Home in the World.

The influence that Salinger still exerts on authors and reader is remarkable, considering that it’s been over two years since he died, and over 40 since any new work was published. In a rare 1974 interview to The New York Times, he confessed: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. ... It's peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure”. That pleasure was something he protected till the very end.

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