I’ve been guilty over the years of making JD Salinger into a bit of a hero. (I’ve got several writing heroes and I spend too much time longing for more work from them, and I probably reread them too much than is good for me, as well – Salinger, Anne Tyler, Angela Carter, Armistead Maupin, Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood.) I’m not sure I can do that hero thing in the same way now, having read ‘Salinger’ by David Shields and Shane Salerno. JD comes out of it all as a bit of an old git.
It’s a huge, generous compendium of quotations from many sources, pieced together rather like George Plimpton’s astonishingly good ‘overheard’ Truman Capote biography of the late Nineties. This volume isn’t as good as the Capote, but neither was Salinger’s life as unremittingly interesting. We learn some harrowing things about his war years, and some astounding things about his later days spent in pursuit of much younger women (including the actress Catherine Oxenberg in the mid-Eighties. Imagine the incongruity of being stalked by JD Salinger on the set of Dynasty..!) There are many wonderful moments of listening to unheard-of bits of Salinger – letters, mostly. It’s like tuning into a voice you never thought you’d hear again.
Except… one of the big coups of the book is the information its writers withhold till the very last page. And that’s all to do with the revelations of what Salinger was up to in his writing hut in the mountains for all those secluded years. And it looks like we have our answer at last, and that one day soon we’ll be able to read those secret books. That’s what I learned yesterday, when I got to the end of this biography.
More Salinger..! It takes me right back to being sixteen and those German Literature lessons. There were only four of us in the class. Nicola and me and two others – studying Schiller and Wilhelm Tell. We all got D’s for the exams right at the end of the course, because we didn’t stick anywhere near to the syllabus. Our young teacher got carried away with reading Kant and getting us thinking all about ‘understanding’ and revenge and conscience and stuff and how and why William Tell did what he did. We also got carried away with The Catcher in the Rye. Nicola had it first. The yellow Penguin edition of the 1980s, with the cover designed to look like a school exercise book. I read it next and I’ve always been grateful that I first read it when I was sixteen. It’s exactly the right time.
Then our teacher got his hands on it. It was his first teaching job. He came from Newcastle. Affable, ginger. A bit anarchic. Intent on mixing it up in our German lessons by bringing in too much – in fact, a disastrous, exam board-confounding amount of - philosophy. He borrowed Nic’s copy and came back saying he’d sat up all night reading it. It was the best novel that he’d ever read. And we spent whole lessons after that talking about Holden and Salinger.
School lessons were like that then. In English, just the year before, another teacher – Mr Watson – had been reading us Hemingway and, upon reaching the word ‘lunatic’ asked us if we knew its derivation. We didn’t? He talked about the moon and werewolves and loonies and psychos. He spent a whole hour-long lesson acting out Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ for us. Every single scene, playing all the parts and keeping us utterly enthralled. Again the syllabus was out of the window. But I’ve never forgotten that hour, or the ones we spent talking about Kant and ‘verstand’ and ‘vernunft’ and the Catcher in the Rye.
Those four books by Salinger were ones I eked out into my university years. I was nineteen when I first read the nine stories in the collection we in the UK know as ‘For Esme – with Love and Squalor.’ Quirky, colloquial, rebellious, anti-establishment, hip, and stuffed with wonderful concrete details. That’s what I was getting out of him, when I was first teaching myself to write. Also, I learned that no scene can be too small. Nor can it be too static or chatty. Write a whole story where someone lies in the bath, smoking and talking with someone sitting in the doorway. The true drama of short stories happens some place between the inside of your characters’ heads and the shabby world they’re living in.
Rereading all four books in recent years I’ve felt myself recoil from the latter stages when his mysticism creeps in and it all gets a bit didactic and obscure. But they’re still books I’ve returned to for almost thirty years, and I’ve loved the bean-spilling memoirs and investigations that have come along over the decades – I loved Ian Hamilton’s book and the daughter’s frightening memoir. But I’d been waiting for the Shields and Salerno book for a long time, I realized, as I read it throughout Christmas week.
Yeah, it spoils the mystique a bit. When you pull back the curtain and see that the Wizard of Oz is just a horrid little man with strange habits. I always thought JD Salinger had the best career and the best life possible. I thought he was a real hero. He was a hero – but he wasn’t really happy, and he wasn’t very nice. The whole thing will keep me thinking for a long time, and returning to his work. (I learned on New Year’s Eve that his ‘uncollected’ early stories are freely available on the internet…) I’ll go back to his work – and happily anticipate the new books to come.