Friday, October 04, 2013

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

The literature fan approaches biographies with a mix of caution and interest. On the one hand, it is the work that has driven our interest; on the other - and particular when you are a writer yourself - there is something fascinating about the life. This is not necessarily about whether the fiction mirrors the life or to what extent; the writer knows this is a complex business.

And if literary biography can be either a triumph for understanding or prurient intrusion, in the case of J.D. Salinger this balance is trickier than ever. For during the last half century of his long life, Salinger was mute; not just the life but the writing. Its not just that he didn't publish another story after his final Glass story, "Hapworth 16, 1924" in the New Yorker in 1965,(itself six years after his previous new story), but that he didn't publish a word of anything. Yet, famous or not, people don't just disappear; and Salinger, royalties coming in abundantly from "Catcher in the Rye" in particular, existed in plain sight in Cornish, a small town a long drive from both New York and Boston. He married (three times - but twice after the silence); had two children; had other affairs; visited his editor and other friends; wrote many letters to old army friends and to new (usually young and female) "penpals" he'd come across somehow; watched television (he watched a lot of television); chopped wood; went out to the shops; spoke with the locals; meditated (he was a devotee of Vedanta Hinduism); and - most intrigueing of all - wrote fiction that has to this date never seen the light of day.

Of Salinger the public man there is very little since the early sixties; but there wasn't so much before. He let the work speak for itself, as all writers do, as all readers must listen to; yet because his style was so seductive, and immediately spoke to its audience, those early readers of his stories in the New Yorker or "Catcher in the Rye" also felt they "knew" Salinger. In "Salinger", a new biography by David Shields and the filmmaker Shane Salerno, Shields in particular thinks he "knows" Salinger; but a different figure than the young boy on the cusp of adulthood, letting go of innocence and fearful of experience; Shields' Salinger is a manipulator of (young) women, a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and an adherent of an obscure religion. These, in Shields' reading, are the "real" Salinger and knowing these "facts" means that we understand Holden and Seymour and Franny and Zooey et al in a different way.

The book itself is an oddity even amongst literary biographies in that it reads more like a film script. We get a collage of voices from interviews, from written sources, from Salinger's books themselves. (When Ian Hamilton tried to quote from both his works and unpublished letters he wasn't allowed to do so - a legal ruling that saw one of Salinger's very few public utterances around.) Holden Caulfield famously wasn't sure whether he'd end up the hero of his own life or not - and Salinger both is and isn't the hero of his. Firstly he is a genuine hero. One of the American's landing on D-Day, he not only survived that; but some of the bloodiest conflicts of those last days fo the war. With liberation in Europe secured he was then one of the first to see the atrocities of the concentration camps. No wonder, a month after the war, he had had a collapse - and in his recovery, madly, confusingly, married a German woman who may well have been linked to the Gestapo. An odd kind of survivor's guilt perhaps - particularly for half-Jewish Salinger.

Back in New York, the story that had been held over before the war by the New Yorker finally got published and was the start of him becoming a "New Yorker" writer. Up to and including "Catcher in the Rye" this was where he made his reputation, new stories being talked about as events. After "Catcher" and its near unprecedented success, rejecting a Salinger story would have been very hard, even as they grew longer and longer - and less like his old work, which could be categorised as being subtle comedies of the contemporary malaise, to a newer kind of story that was part fable, part sitcom, part treatise. Never a prolific writer, his short published work (one novel, one book of short stories, four novellas over a further two books, a handful of unanthologised work) not only seemed to leap forward with each piece, but also leapt backwards filling in the backstory of the family Glass. The first Glass story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is near perfection; yet it asks as many questions as it answers - future stories tried to tell the answer.

For Shields the answer is certain. Salinger was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. End of story. His whole life a response to what he'd seen in Europe during the war; his work a fragile world which could remake his reality in fiction. Yet this doesn't seem to ring entirely true. For a start, unlike Mailer or Heller or Vonnegut, the material that Salinger used after the war was distanced from it. If "Catcher" and the Glass stories are "war novels" that is perhaps incidental. Besides, "Catcher" and Holden were with Salinger before he went to Normandy. That Seymour Glass is a survivor of the war is hardly the work of someone in denial about the war; and if Salinger is increasingly looking to find an innocence that was lost, then this seems an even more urgent task in the years after D-Day - maybe his creating of a new fiction may have been possible without the war, but probably wouldn't have had the same urgency.

"Catcher" as well is set in its time - the late forties - so there's a transplanting of the teenage Salinger via Holden - he's a time traveller; coming out the war on the other side. Again, I think there's a remarkable written control in all of this that is not the work of someone who is only traumatised.

The life is a different thing of course: but Salinger - determined from the earliest of ages to be a writer - becomes one, but also becomes a celebrity. His first major girlfriend ends up marrying Charlie Chaplin. He's circling in rarified circles - the least likely thing was that his first novel would be so remarkably successful. If there is PTSD might the trauma be "success" as much as the concentration camps? Shields presumes mightily.

In some ways, the determinedly private Salinger remains lucky in his biographers. Hamilton and his publishers really do come across as thuggish villains, at least in Shield's retelling - ploughing on with a book that Salinger, a living author at the time, didn't ever want to see. Why would a writer's writer like Hamilton be so intrigued by the man behind the sensitive Holden that he wouldn't recognise that sensitivity once he breached it? Other villains abound. Not Joyce Maynard or his daughter, who both wrote memoirs of life with Salinger - they surely had the right to tell their story. Salinger's friends were often dropped for the singlest of reasons (an accidental retitling of an early story for instance) so the "omerta" that they then operated under shows, surely, this was a man who people loved, cared for, and wanted to remain within his circle. But plenty of journalists and photographers hounded Salinger whilst alive, and Shields is doing a good hounding now he's dead. What's interesting is how often Shields own interventions in the text come to conclusions that are in no way inevitable. When Andrew Biswell wrote his life of Anthony Burgess he would weigh up several versions of a story (Burgess's own, other facts as they appeared) and let the reader hear each of them; rarely, where the evidence didn't agree, coming to a conclusion. Shields' whose "Reality Hunger" bemoaned fiction for not being as real as the factual, wants somehow to have a Salinger that is divorced from the fictions; that someone reduces those to little more than therapy. A cursory read of Salinger's output would show how wrong that is. Besides, lets assume Salinger was merging with his characters - the unanthologised "Hapworth" certainly feels like a wall has broken down between fiction and reality - what did he do to recognise this problem? He stopped publishing.

One reads this book with interest because it takes you back to the stories. Salinger is a remarkably modern writer yet he was a teenager in the 1930s - "Catcher" was published in 1951, Salinger was 32, Elvis Presley and rock and roll, Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and the beatnik odyssey are a few years away yet. The timing of the writing and publishing of the work is therefore quite important, and Shields and Salerno are diligent in telling this early publishing history. There's a remarkable young Salinger in these pages, serious and committed in a way that lesser writers rarely are. He knows what he's doing, but that's not to say he isn't able to take advice. Once he becomes successful, his certainty about what he is writing is absolute, but that's not to say it comes easy. The long novellas are intense pieces of work, by a writer at the top of his game, at the height of his energy.

Yet because so much of Salinger's life is shrouded in mystery - or at least, is without the normal incidents of a writer's life, publications and prizes etc. - this biography, which accompanies a documentary film, has little control over itself. There are long sections from the Hamilton trial, and from Joyce Maynard as these texts are available in a way that so much isn't. Similarly, there are attempts to fill out the latter chapters with speculation around his devotion to Vedanta philosophy (the book's chapters even follow the different stages of a person's life from that creed), and less relevantly the spate of murders, including Mark Chapman's killing of John Lennon, that have been associated with the book. Grasping for material for their film, we almost get more of the diabolical Chapman's own words, than Salinger's, surely a massive misjudgement on the authors' part. For if there is a connection between a number of killers who cited "Catcher" and the book, then its surely nothing implicit in Holden's world view, but a result of the 60 million copies of the book in circulation.  As the book comes to an end, with Salinger's death being reported in the newspapers, Shields goes into even wilder speculation on his already suspect thesis. Like a particular inept lawyer he brings forward stories as evidence; and life choices as the proof.

Salinger wouldn't be the first and won't be the last sensitive artist to seek solace in religion - and if there is something unnerving about his apparently consistent seducing of young women of similar age and looks, in such a long life, that he was married three times isn't so unusual. He was married to his second wife, Clare, for 12 years, having two children with her, and his third wife Colleen, he married in 1988 and lived with till his death. Shields talks of Salinger removing himself from the world from the eighties onwards - but couldn't it also mean he had found contentment at last?

In the final chapter we are given some scoop about the manuscripts that Salinger had arranged to have published after his death, not just relating to completing the Glass and Caulfield stories, but relating to his war experience and his Vedanta devotion. The writings of all these years remain the mystery of course; but Salinger's widow and son appear as protective of his wishes and legacy as he was himself. Is it really possible that Salinger never showed his work to anyone? Were the long letters to various penpal/girlfriends the most public of his writing?

Salinger remains as mysterious and elusive at the end of Shields and Salherno's book as at the beginning yet there are some positives in putting so much of the early life, the war years and those years writing for the New Yorker into context. Where the story is left to itself the book manages to evoke a fascinating time in American letters, a little before our modern world, but informing it. Salinger comes across, through the few glimpses we get of the man, as more normal than one would expect; a strange kind of recluse who was rarely alone. The book has other saving graces as well; there are photographs every few pages, and it therefore serves as a useful visual documentary of Salinger's life - including old newspaper cuttings and paparazzi shots.

The book has been pretty critically panned, for many of the reasons I've said above, but its not without merit. Its hard to illustrate how badly David Shields writes, but one example might suffice. Writing about Oona O'Neill, the early girlfriend who would go on to marry Chaplin, Shields surmises "his lifelong obsession with late adolescent girlhood was at least in part an attempt to regain pre-Fall Oona. She formatted him forever."
How absurd for a biographer to making such a judgement call and on such scant evidence - yet the book is full of them.

The Salinger story is clearly not over yet - for if there are other manuscripts to be released then they will surely reveal far more than this "cut" and "paste" version of a life. That its still worth reading it, I think, is - oddly enough - because of its fragmented nature. All lives are collages, and this book makes a virtue of that uncertainty. Its links to the film biography, and its over reliance on several episodes from the 1970s and 1980s to make sense of the "hidden" Salinger, as well as the misjudged philosophising and the irrelevant pchapter on Chapman and other "assassins" (Shields' word), these parts are easily skipped over. What remains sends you back to the four small but perfectly formed books that have kept Salinger's reputation alive since the day they were published. It seems we can expect those four books to be added to, though it wouldn't surprise me if that too wasn't part of the legend, part of the myth.


Jim H. said...

The movie biopic "Salinger" played here in ATL a couple weeks back. I managed to see it the weekend it showed. The news from the file is that there are 5 mss which JDS finished and bequeathed to a trust with instructions on their publication beginning 5 years after his death. The first is to come out in 2014-15, and the rest in dribs and drabs thereafter. There is at least one novel, a collection of stories (all continuing the Glass family saga), a tract on Vedantaism, and one other (I forget). They may or may not cement his reputation as our greatest mid-century writer, but they will be an EVENT!

Jim H. said...

The other may be a WWII memoir. But don't hold me to that. Frail memory, you know.