Thursday, January 28, 2010
J.D. Salinger is gone
Yet he never vanished from the public consciousness. His detractors wrote him off as a precious purveyor of "New Yorker fiction." (Even John Cheever, often lumped in the same group, let fly at Salinger during a bad hair day in 1961, ranting at William Maxwell's proposed cuts to a recent story submission: "You cut that short story... and I'll never write another story for you or anybody else. You can get that Godamned sixth-rate Salinger to write your Godamned short stories but don't expect anything more from me." In his journal, however, Cheever was quick to recant, noting that "I admire Salinger... and I think I know where his giftedness lies and how rare it is.") In more recent years, memoirs by Joyce Maynard (the author's teen concubine in the early 1970s) and Margaret Salinger (the author's daughter) have smudged his reputation further. The New York Times has conveniently compressed these disclosures, along with Salinger's spiritual dabblings, into a single, savory paragraph:
Mr. Salinger pursued Scientology, homeopathy and Christian Science, according to the daughter. He also drank urine, and sat in a Reichian orgone box, Ms. Salinger wrote. He spoke in tongues, fasted until he turned greenish and as an older man had pen pal relationships with teenage girls.So much for the life (and let's recall that Saul Bellow and many other heavy hitters did their time in the orgone box during the Fifties). That leaves the work. Salinger's books have never stopped selling--especially Catcher in the Rye, which remains a touchstone for chafing adolescents worldwide. And he continues to earn praise from other quarters, too, some of them quite unexpected. When I covered an appearance by J.M.G. Le Clezio last April, I was surprised to hear that the Hermit of Cornish had a prominent spot in the Noble laureate's pantheon:
At this point the two writers shared a moment of lexicological bliss (Gopnik indicated a preference for the big illustrated Larousse). Then they moved on to another of Le Clézio's early infatuations: J.D. Salinger, who Gopnik described as "one of the local gods" at The New Yorker. What the French author loved about Salinger was, in a sense, what he loved about the dictionary: an accumulation of luminous details, and the feeling that "each word is a world by itself." He had particular praise for "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which he called "one of the best short stories ever written."ADDENDUM: My pal David Shields has been working on a secret biographical project for some time. Now Nikki Finke has finally revealed his subject (which turned out not to be David Hasselhoff after all): yes, folks, it's J.D. Salinger. The book has been assembled in tandem with an equally hush-hush documentary by 37-year-old screenwriter Shane Salerno. You can get all the details here.
At one stage I had a proof copy of Ian Hamilton's biography of Salinger, the one that was blocked from publication until some offending bit had been taken out... this was probably about 23 years ago. (Feck.) Unfortunately at some point, me being married to a secondhand book dealer at the time, I must have decided I was bored of it and the money would come in more handy, because I no longer have it. About once a month lately I remember this and curse that easy access to second-hand cash.
Hope you're well, your recent travels sound a little too exciting for me to read about in full... xx