Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger

Vintage Cover of Catcher in the Rye, 1964 by Per Ahlin

One of the unfortunate things about going to bed at 10 o'clock in the morning is that you miss the entire day's events. Just now I have been informed about the death of J.D. Salinger.

By tomorrow there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of blog posts about J.D. Salinger. Catcher in the Rye is an American classic that seeped its way into the culture, overtook the minds of young people, stole their hearts, spoke their voices . . . For me, it was no less.

Literature is always in flux, the trends come and go. But some books seem to never go out of fashion. Their place in the history of literature is defined by each generation's new perspective. Granted, many of us were younger when we read Salinger. But those experiences of reading his novels and short stories were often so powerful that we continue to reflect on them with nostalgia. Sven Birkets, in a book I highly recommend called Reading Life: Books for the Ages, writes beautifully about his memories of reading Catcher in the Rye:
All of us who love The Catcher in the Rye love it in our own special way--or imagine we do--for the nature of the bond with this book is that it feels like a private place, a sanctum custom-fitted to the contours of every unique alienation and holding for each of us our noblest and most wounded sense of ourselves.
I just started publishing chapters of a novel about my own adolescence on the Blog of Innocence. There is something about adolescence that is so powerful and hard to describe that when an author is able to convey these "special" emotions with candor, we listen. Salinger did just that. He retold the story of our own adolescence. It didn't matter that we had different experiences than Holden, we still could relate to him. Inside, both of us knew what it was like.

And now we've all become phony adults. Not quite. But we're aware that we're living in a different reality, of how things work, and what people are like. My adulthood continues to be wildly irrational sometimes, but nothing like when I was 18 or 19. By writing down my adolescence I am able to distance myself from that world. I can reflect on the person I am now versus the person I was then.

Birkets writes:
And from these talks I realized that the secret of Holden, his undying appeal, is that he remains fixed, through the genius of his disaffection, through Salinger's perfect grasp of the pathos of adolescence--its pained awareness of imminent fall--right at the point of sacrifice. Unable to take the one small required step toward accommodation, he becomes a martyr to the cause of doomed innocence, possessor of a cynicism that is so heartbreaking because it is entirely preemptive, in training for the disappointments of the life to come.
There is so much wisdom in this. The fact of Holden couldn't be more solidified as we read the parallels that are now made to the author himself in the New York Times and other newspapers. Salinger was Holden Caulfield, maybe not in the literal sense but in the self-portrait of the author. After the success of the novel, Salinger's desire to remove himself from society altogether is evidence of this. The world was too phony for him too.

Some writers commit suicide, Salinger stayed alive and miserable until today. What's strange is that I don't feel a close connection to the actual man who wrote these books. It's the author in my imagination that I admire, that I sympathize with, that I want to honor with this blog post. It's no secret that Salinger was not a happy man. His daughter has said he was abusive. Whatever the case, I feel a connection to the man who wrote these books, not the shell of the man who lived afterwards.

But it wasn't Catcher in the Rye which had the biggest impact on me as a young writer. It was the collection of short stories, For Esme-with Love and Squalor. It just occurs to me that while I was in Spain, living out the drama I recount in The Novel of Life, I was reading this collection of short stories.

I now recall carrying the book of short stories through the subways of Madrid. The blue cover faded, the spine breaking apart at the top, the words on the binding creased and unreadable. It is the same now as it was then.

I loved these stories that Salinger wrote. They amused me, entertained me, but also taught me matters of the heart. Of course, I admired the crisp, ebullient sentences, and that Salingeresque voice which is inimitable and immediately recognizable. There is intelligence in every word, and a particular attitude that almost never goes away. Salinger critiques society from the oddest angles, with detached humor or a kind of palatable morbidity.

The paradox of J.D. Salinger is apparent in the writing. It's a love/hate relationship to the world, and we can all identify with it. It's just too bad that he spent so much time on the other extreme during the second half of his life. With any death of a celebrity or a major figure, we have our own private meanings, our secret connections. Perhaps, then, it is us, the readers, who finally get to love the author.


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