Monday, 22 March 2010

J. D. Salinger: A Life Raised High - Review

From The Times March 20, 2010

J. D. Salinger: A Life Raised High by Kenneth Slawenski
(Pomona, £20)
The first J. D. Salinger biography since his death reveals the stench of mortality that haunted his writing

Peter Ackroyd

Certain writers are thrilled at the prospect of biography; it ministers to their vanity and confirms their selfimportance. Others panic. They write precisely in order to exorcise the burden of personality, not to have it reinforced. T. S. Eliot forbad his estate to countenance any idea of an authorised life. He was on a bus when a fellow passenger asked him if he was indeed Mr Eliot; he left his seat and fled.

Jerome David Salinger, known to friends as Jerry, had the same aversion to being known. In a writing career of almost 70 years he rarely gave interviews and was photographed on only a handful of occasions. Upon his death this year, a great many columns of newsprint were devoted not to his work — for all that was discussed — but to his silence and reticence.

His publishing history confirms that reticence. His first novel was published in 1951, and was succeeded by three volumes of long and short stories. His last work to find its way into print appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. And the rest is silence. He carried on writing, as far as is known, for the next 45 years, but he refused to allow any publication.

The silence and the secrecy were confirmed in 1985 when Ian Hamilton, the English poet and critic, submitted a typescript titled J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life (1935-65). At once Salinger pounced, accusing Hamilton of illegally quoting from unpublished correspondence. He took Hamilton from court to court and eventually obtained the victory. Hamilton was obliged to rewrite his book. Fifteen years later Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, published Dream Catcher, a memoir in which she described “a world that dangled between dream and nightmare on a gossamer thread my parents wove, without the reality of solid ground to catch a body should he or she fall”.

There now appears a biography of Salinger, completed and published only three months after his death. It is not “authorised” and cannot have been written with Salinger’s permission or compliance. The author quotes no letters directly and is very sparing of indirect quotation. He also restricts his use of Salinger’s published work to what is generally considered to be “fair usage” in a critical context. Yet the book suffers nothing from the enforced self-censorship. It is well written, energetic and magnificently researched; a true picture of Salinger emerges from its pages.

He was born in 1919 to a private and self-contained New York family. His father had grown rich manufacturing tinned pork, and Salinger was brought up in affluent circumstances. He went to a variety of schools but was not a good student. He had a passion for acting, however, and it may be that this stayed with him for the rest of his life.

As a young man he was known for his “biting wit”, according to Slawenski; his contemporaries at college recalled that he was “caustic” and could be “nasty”. He talked in what was considered to be a pretentious manner, “as if he were reciting something out of Shakespeare”; but he was only acting, and he used that “pretentious manner” in several of his longer stories. He seems always to have wanted to write and told his friends that he would soon create “the Great American Novel”, the holy grail to which all young novelists of that country aspire.

Salinger’s first stories appeared in popular magazines known as slicks. From the beginning he was ambitious and tenacious. He was self-possessed and had what one contemporary described as “an ego of cast iron”. In spring 1942 he volunteered for the army, but he took his small typewriter with him. He spent his days on army duties and his nights on his stories. He was caught up in the events of D-Day and the landing in Normandy introduced him to a landscape of hell that never left him. Almost two thirds of his regiment died during the campaign and he once remarked that “you could live a lifetime, and never get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose”. Here lies the key to much of his work. He could smell the burning flesh even as he walked the streets of New York. It is the source of Holden Caulfield’s anger at the “phoney” adult world, and of Salinger’s mordant dissections of modern American life.

On his return to civilian life in America he took up the threads of his writing career. He had been writing sections of a novel concerning a young man — Holden Caulfield — and composed several short stories simultaneously. When one of them was published in The New Yorker, it could be said that his real literary life had begun.

In the autumn of 1950 he completed The Catcher in the Rye, the novel of Holden Caulfield, having worked on it sporadically for ten years. It had in some ways a difficult birth. Salinger did not want his photograph taken for the dust-jacket; he did not want portions of his biography to be released to the public; he did not want advance copies of the novel to be circulated; and he definitely did not want to see the reviews. All this, of course, was the machinery of self-protection. But there was another explanation. He said once that he had no “literary ego”, yet surely this was another form of pride, the pride of seeming not to care.

The success of the novel was instantaneous, but fame seemed to embarrass Salinger. One of his characters, in the short story Franny, declares: “I’m sick of myself, and everyone else that wants to make some kind of a splash.” He did not like to leave his small apartment for fear of being watched. By 1952 he had retreated to a village in New Hampshire, where he had bought a red barn on a property of 90 acres. He lived there for the rest of his life.

When an article appeared in a local newspaper soon after his arrival, he pulled down the shutters and refused to answer the door. He was soon consoled by a young woman who became his wife. They had two children. But there is always trouble in paradise. Salinger built a studio or bunker some way from the red barn, and stayed there for 16 hours at a time. He did not need, or want, the company of any other human being; his fictional characters are himself.

His real fame arrived in the late 1950s, when he became identified against his will with an alienated and angst-ridden generation who also admired Jack Kerouac and James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Yet still Salinger refused to be interviewed or photographed. He became one of the most famous non-persons in the world.

His final book, consisting of two long stories, was published in early 1963. He released another story in 1965 and never published another book. The last 40 years of his life are covered in less than 40 pages of this biography. He slowly became enveloped in his isolation. “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing,” he said. “I just write for myself and my own pleasure.” There may be another explanation. His last two long stories were met with incomprehension and derision; he did not wish to expose himself again. But he never stopped writing and Slawenski speculates that there may be 15 novels ready for publication.

At times Slawenski seems to overinterpret and over-praise his subject, but that is the way of the enthusiast. If we step back we see that Salinger created a small body of good and even great work. Yet there is no doubt that he possessed genius rather than talent. The voice of Holden Caulfield has joined those of Tom Sawyer and David Copperfield in praise of human innocence and affection.

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