Thursday, January 16, 2014

Write And Wrong

Last year a documentary of J.D. Salinger came out, but the reviews were weak so I took a pass.  After all, I'd read a biography a couple years ago and didn't feel I had much to learn about the reclusive author.  Recently at the library I saw the book that came out with the doc and decided to check it out.  It still had the same basic outline, of course, but at almost 700 pages, including notes, was able to go more in depth in many areas.

It's actually an oral history, though not just of people who knew Salinger.  Some of them, for instance, talk about the battles he was involved in during WWII, others about his literary output.  But there's also a lot from people who met him, and a few who even had affairs with him.

Salinger was an odd duck.  It's hard to say why, though it's possible he never fully recovered from WWII. He landed at Normandy and was in the middle of the toughest fighting in Europe for ten months. He also helped liberate the death camps, and as a member of counter intelligence interrogated many Nazis.  Soon after, he had a nervous breakdown.  Some in the book believe his life post-war was one long episode of PTSD.

He also had early success, and that can change a person.  He became an influential New Yorker writer in his 20s, and by his early 30s cane out with his first--and only--novel, one that would become a touchstone for a generation (or two or three).  I haven't read Catcher In The Rye in years, but I did stop to look at a few pages not long ago and I admit Holden Caulfield had me laughing.  The book was not only a bestseller in its day, but it kept selling through the years.  This meant, if nothing else, Salinger never had to work again if he didn't want to.

But it was also the kind of book that made readers want to meet the author. He moved up to Cornish, New Hampshire to have peace and quiet while he wrote, but numerous fans made pilgrimages.  Perhaps more troubling, his book inspired three assassins in the 1980s, two who succeeded in killing their target, a third who came close.

He sampled many religions, searching for something--even dabbling in Christian Science and Scientology--but seemed most interested in Eastern thought.  He mainly followed Vedanta, which saw life in four stages.  First the apprenticeship; then worldly duties, where you might marry and raise a family; next a withdrawal from society; and finally a renunciation of the world.  We can see the effect of his beliefs on his writing--after Catcher, Salinger concentrated on the Glass family, publishing several stories and books about them; at first his religion informed these stories, but by the end the stories sometimes seemed to be mostly about selling his religion.

His first marriage, to a woman he met overseas, was a mistake.  In his second he had two kids, but the detached (to put it kindly) Salinger didn't seem to be much of a husband or father.  He devoted his life to his art, and would not allow any disturbances.  He perhaps reached religious transcendence working on his stories--his religion believed this work was what counted, not the fruit of the labor--but it couldn't have been pleasant for his wife and kids, stuck in Cornish with hardly any friends and not even Salinger around much.  (They did have a TV--Salinger liked shows such as Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke. He also loved movies, and would often pull out the projector to watch Hollywood classics.) His wife took the kids and walked out.  He'd have a third marriage years later, though she seemed to be as much his nurse as his spouse.

He did have friends--some of whom called him quite charming and witty (not hard to believe)--but with most of his acquaintances he had a falling out, as they couldn't measure up to his strict requirements. Sooner or later, most of his friends "betrayed" him, which usually meant they didn't do exactly what he wanted.

He published less and less, and stopped publishing entirely in the 1960s. It may have been his religion, or perhaps his reaction to the harsh reviews his latest work was getting.  But he did keep writing in the last decades of his life. One of the big revelations of the book is some of his work--including more on the Glass family, but also material about WWII (a subject he didn't directly write about after the war was over)--will be published by his estate starting in 2015.  If this is true, it'll be a major event.  Still, his last few works were awful, so I think it may be best to take a wait and see attitude.

Whatever the work is like, I guess his reputation is made.  All it takes is one memorable book.  But part of that reputation was his silence, which makes one wonder if that wasn't partly the idea.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fun Fact- His later awful stuff ranked highest on the NYT Bestseller List. (Yes- Catcher sold far more copies over the long haul but the public went crazy for his promise when something new came out).

I read and also listened to the audio version of this bio recently too (I find I like to do both) and thanks to the internet, went out and bought hos oeuvre in paperback for about nine bucks. Nine Stories is a lot of fun and I want to re-read Catcher to figure out the "license to kill" angle that the famous assassins took from it.

The main theme of the book was stated as: World War 2 destroyed the man and gave birth to his art and his later religious activity saved the man and destroyed his art. That's nifty and easy to remember but perhaps overstated.


NEG

7:36 AM, January 16, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fun Fact- His later awful stuff ranked highest on the NYT Bestseller List. (Yes- Catcher sold far more copies over the long haul but the public went crazy for his promise when something new came out).

I read and also listened to the audio version of this bio recently too (I find I like to do both) and thanks to the internet, went out and bought hos oeuvre in paperback for about nine bucks. Nine Stories is a lot of fun and I want to re-read Catcher to figure out the "license to kill" angle that the famous assassins took from it.

The main theme of the book was stated as: World War 2 destroyed the man and gave birth to his art and his later religious activity saved the man and destroyed his art. That's nifty and easy to remember but perhaps overstated.


NEG

7:36 AM, January 16, 2014  
Blogger LAGuy said...

There's something to it, though it's a little pat. He was on his was to being a successful writer before the war, and if he hadn't fought I'm guessing he'd still have had some sort of career. Would it be missing some depth? We'll never know.

And if his religion saved him personally, it's also possible it wreaked havoc on those among him.

10:59 AM, January 16, 2014  

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