Friday, 4 January 2019


I was on BBC Front Row last night, with host Samira Ahmed and Erica Wagner, to discuss the 100th anniversary of the birth of JD Salinger, and his most famous creation, The Catcher In The Rye. You can link to the show here, the Salinger discussion starts about six minutes in. I've written about Salinger here before, when I appeared on BBC's The Strand after his death, and talked about my reaction to the book when I read it as a precocious 16 year old, who'd already read Look Homeward Angel, Lolita, and other books that dealt with adolescents in other ways. You can find that essay, written almost exactly nine years ago, here . It might be an idea to read it first.

I made the same mistake then that most readers did, and do, which is to assume The Catcher In The Rye is a story about Holden Caufield as a badly-adjusted teenager, when really it is a story about his looking into his parents' world, as if he were a child who already had experienced it. It has, in effect, been adopted as a classic for being something it on the surface is, but underneath is not.

Our discussion last night was fast-paced and never quite gave me the chance to say this fully, and say that the most important thing I now take away from the book is its expression of loss of faith, something that comes up often in Salinger, and reflects among other things his war service. I now see Catcher as a sort of allegory about that loss of faith, a picture of adults confronted with it and passing it on. As I said on the programme, I think it was the way readers leapt upon Catcher as a precis of teen-aged, rather than adult, angst that may have led, at least in part, to Salinger's so-called reclusiveness; not just a reaction to becoming a sort of celebrity -- which was something not everyone sought in those days --, but a celebrity recognised for perhaps the wrong reasons.

I mentioned Hemingway twice, which was probably once too much, but his influence on Salinger was huge. They met in Paris during the war, and then when Salinger was in the middle of his most harrowing time on the front in Germany; he and another would-be writer GI took a jeep and visited Hemingway, who was nearby on a reporting assignment, and of course carrying a supply of champagne.

You see Hemingway in Salinger's beautifully clean style, in the wonderful way he shows rather than tells what's happening in a scene. This is especially clear in the short stories, which are my favourites. 'A Perfect Day For Bananafish', in which Seymour Glass seems a remarkably Hemingway-esque figure, like Hemingway's characters holding in feelings which Salinger only hints at through action, and then, like Papa, giving in to that loss of faith or whatever and killing himself. It reminds me strongly of 'The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber', though of course the reasons for death are very different.  'Uncle Wiggly In Connecticut', which I also mentioned, is similar, reinforcing the reason 'Bananafish' is so moving: Salinger's women are far more real than Hemingway's. The plaintive end of the 'Uncle Wiggly', 'was I a nice girl?', to me echoes everything behind Holden Caufield in Catcher. 'Uncle Wiggly' was made into the film My Foolish Heart, which you only need watch once to understand why Salinger never allowed another of his stories to be filmed. The story 'Uncle Wiggly' is more outwardly playful with its imaginary friends and real cruelties, and its women and children are the focus. Which of course leads us to 'For Esme--With Love and Squalor', which was discussed in detail in the programme; it sets out the whole idea of loss of faith quite simply, and with Esme creates a young character who has innocently already absorbed it.

The moment where I started to speak, just as Samira moved on to the next item, was when I wanted to say I actually remember reading the New York Times Magazine piece by the 18 year old Joyce Maynard, then a student at Yale (of course) titled 'An 18 Year Old Looks Back At Life' when it came out in April 1972. I was just turned 21, less than three years older, and about to finish university a month later, after going through the turbulence of protest and college-change, and my reaction at the time was 'where did they find this female Holden Caufield'? (At Yale, of course!). In my previous essay, I said the sotry rang false, making it ironic in the extreme that Salinger might recognise in her that same sort of absence of a faith, or of a centre, and be so attracted to it. From today's point of view, we might consider him preying on her, but there may have been that real connection lying behind it.

I would also have liked to say that Salinger was writing a dissection of the American Fifites, in its conformity and comfort, after two decades of depression and war, well before Richard Yates, and writing it better, too. I would have liked to refer to Holden Caufield's ghost in the 1945 story 'The Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise': reading that reminds you of Holden's brother Allie; Allie's death is the moment you can identify Holden's own crisis of faith. Allie dies of leukemia in 1946, but whenever I think of that I think of the war in coded terms. If you read my earlier piece, you'll see I wondered if Salinger had somehow cut off the adult part of his talent, but that bothered me, and having read on since then, I think it's much more that he wrote his adult perceptions into the story--and created in Holden Caufield a character who was a product of those perceptions, and of what Salinger feared was their effect on his, his youthful protagonist, and humanity's souls.

No comments :