Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Review of JD Salinger: A Life Raised High, by Kenneth Slawenski

First published in The New Statesman, 24 April 2010, in abbreviated form, here is the uncut review:

The one thing virtually everyone knows about J. D. Salinger is that his reclusiveness was both combative and controlling, and he absolutely didn’t want anyone else to write about him. It is, perhaps, a worrying sign when a biographer’s failure to respect his subject’s most fundamental wish creates no discernible cognitive dissonance. In this, the first—but not, one presumes, the last—biography to be published since Salinger’s death earlier this year, Kenneth Slawenski has produced an earnest, well-meaning account which is accurate as far as it goes, but doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

A devoted fan, Slawenski maintains a Salinger website and has spent seven years painstakingly putting together this life. Unsurprisingly, as the biography was researched and written while Salinger was still alive, it received the cooperation of neither the author nor his estate. As a result, Salinger’s own words are minimal and there are no photographs at all; even the jacket cover is a penciled imitation of Salinger’s famous author photograph from the 1950s, a middling likeness at best. And unfortunately, this is one book that can be judged by its cover.

Slawenski has assembled a fair amount of data into a coherent narrative. He is especially successful at marshalling information about Salinger’s service in the Second World War, and his relationship with The New Yorker. But information is not the same thing as wisdom, and the facts of Salinger’s life before he became a recluse in the early to mid 1960s are better known than some might think: born into an upwardly mobile Jewish family in New York City, on New Year’s Day 1919; sent to Valley Forge school in Pennsylvania, which would later be immortalized as Pencey Prep in The Catcher in the Rye; the early ambitions to write, before serving overseas in the Second World War. Slawenski is at his best narrating Salinger’s combat experience, but even there his imagination often fails. For example, Salinger was clearly traumatized by the war: he served at D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge; he was there when Dachau and its satellite camps were liberated. (In a touching detail, Slawenski notes that Salinger carried early drafts of Catcher in the Rye with him throughout the war.) He suggests (like Ian Hamilton before him) that Salinger suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome: on V-E Day Salinger “spent the day alone, sitting on his bed, staring at a .45 pistol clutched in his hands. What would it feel like, he wondered, were he to fire the gun through his left palm. … The scene is a macabre one,” Slawenski concludes lamely, “and speaks powerfully of Salinger’s feelings of estrangement and imbalance after the war.” Quite.

The psychological effects of combat may be elusive, but Slawenski is also baffled by Salinger’s relationship to his work. Although he repeats that the young Salinger was always “ambitious,” he thinks that “Salinger’s tendency to ridicule his own works is something of a mystery.” Actually, it was de rigeur for any writer of Salinger’s generation with serious literary aspirations to disparage work sold to the commercial “slick” magazines (Salinger’s idol Fitzgerald did it routinely). He finds it equally “mysterious” that Salinger ever sold a story to Hollywood—before concluding that the “there can be only one explanation … his ambition had imbedded itself so deeply as to become a reflex.” How is reflexive, embedded ambition different from the ordinary kind? There is, actually, another explanation: perhaps Salinger wanted to make some money—and disavowed this desire, after earning enough that he could afford to. Salinger’s intense need for absolute control over his work did not only have artistic consequences, in other words: it had financial ones, too.

Readers who are curious about Salinger’s life can learn some salient facts from this book. But readers who are curious about Salinger’s writing should read it, rather than Slawenski’s numbingly reverential paraphrases. He greatly overstates Salinger’s genius: Franny and Zooey is far from “universally regarded as a masterpiece,” and The Catcher in the Rye is only “the most completely stream-of-consciousness experience offered by American literature” if we don’t count William Faulkner—or Jack Kerouac, or Henry James.

What genius Salinger did possess is inextricable from his tone, which at its best was pitch-perfect. The Salinger who emerges from this book is utterly humorless, but Salinger’s comedy is central to his work—and its popularity. The deservedly classic “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” for example, only transcends sentimentality because it so gracefully blends sardonic irony with a teasing sendup of Esmé’s solemnities. But Slawenski seems tone-deaf: “In writing for Esmé with Love and Squalor” it was necessary for Salinger to reach back into the events of his own past. That this story was written by a veteran who suffered the same traumatic stress as those the narrative addresses gives ‘For Esmé’ a certain moral authority.” Maybe—but moral authority is the least of that story’s virtues.

Any literary biographer who asserts flatly that “the aim of fiction is the re-creation of realism” has a fairly impoverished idea of his subject. Although he acknowledges that it’s a “mistake” to assume that Salinger’s writing is autobiographical, Slawenski also informs us that it’s “inconceivable” that Salinger could have altered the facts in a story he wrote based on an Austrian family he knew; because they die in a concentration camp in the story, they must have died in real life. He then proceeds to treat this speculation as fact—because he finds it inconceivable that a fiction writer might have employed fiction.

This is not what one might call a “critical biography.” It takes Slawenski 240 pages to admit that Salinger might be a trifle “controlling.” He sees no problem, either in literary or biographical terms, with Salinger’s near-obsessive penchant for saintly children as symbols of prelapsarian purity. Even Salinger’s reclusiveness was, to Slawenski, little more than an unfortunate accident, mostly caused by people pestering him. When Salinger took the writer Ian Hamilton to court, Slawenski mentions that Salinger referred to himself as a young man in the third person (as “the boy”) and comments: “Hamilton’s lawyer considered this method of reference odd.” Doesn’t Slawenski? He tells us of Salinger’s mysticism, but not his dabbling with Scientology, or Christian Science, or the occultism of Edgar Cayce. Once the public record fails him, Slawenski’s account just tails off: Salinger’s last forty years are hastily sketched in a couple of chapters. He shares the heartwarming fact that the reclusive Salinger took his two young children on a long-promised holiday to London, but neglects to mention his daughter’s claim in her memoir that he only did so in order to meet a teenaged girl with whom he’d been corresponding. He makes nothing of the fact that, by Slawenski’s own reckoning, Salinger doesn’t seem to have begun a relationship with any woman over the age of 19 until he was in his 70s—when he married a woman 40 years younger. He makes light of the 53-year-old’s relationship with the 18-year-old Joyce Maynard and never mentions any of the other string of adolescent girls in Peggy Salinger’s account, even to refute it.

Slawenski’s analytical inadequacies pale, however, beside his stylistic ones. Verbs become nouns (“the letter rings reminiscent of Whit Burnett and his cajoles for The Catcher in the Rye” and “Salinger’s letters overflowed with recounts of her antics”), nouns become adjectives (“his absence was foreboding”) and verbs are misused throughout: “He swore never again to deal with the slicks, regardless of how much they paid. ‘Let us be broke and obscure,’ he resigned.” And: "'His tragedy,' Faulkner derived, 'was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there." And, oh, the metaphors: “In Bavaria, Salinger’s sinews to normalcy were strained to the point of bursting”; “William Faulkner’s appreciation of [Catcher] brought full circle an inspiration that he himself had unwittingly catapulted.” If Salinger had read this, his sinews to normalcy would have burst, too.

In his story “Seymour: An Introduction,” Salinger’s narrator dismisses scholars and biographers as a “peerage of tin ears.” One can only conclude, with disappointment, that A Life Raised High would have done little to change Salinger’s mind. © 2010 by Sarah Churchwell. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Happy Birthday, Marilyn - Part 2

In honor of Marilyn's birthday, here is a short essay I wrote a few years ago for a small magazine, and have never reprinted. Hope you like it.

Why do we call Marilyn Monroe a goddess? She could not perform miracles, she was the miracle, a pure embodiment of the American Dream in all its counterfeit splendor. Like Fitzgerald’s vision of Jay Gatsby, she sprang from a Platonic conception of herself—but unlike Gatsby she did not stay faithful to her youthful conception to the end. The problem was that no one wanted her to reinvent herself a second time. It is a truism that Marilyn was desire incarnate, but we misconstrue what those desires were, seeing only our own, instead of the fact that hers are what drive the tale.

That Marilyn Monroe even happened—that the foster child Norma Jeane, so rootless that she had multiple last names, propelled herself from the sublunary obscurity of Van Nuys, California into a nation’s cosmology—is itself a miracle of such ardent wanting, such stubborn determination, such dogged, bloody-minded willfulness that it catapulted her to a level of stardom which has still to be matched, and may never be surpassed. Marilyn distilled, and radiated, America’s most treasured assurances: in the beginning, she soaked them up. She trusted that success would ensure esteem, that it should earn wealth, and that all of these things together would prove her worth. Didn’t she live in the greatest meritocracy on earth? She would put herself in the service of the vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty of Tinseltown and make her dreams come true. She didn’t realize that she wasn’t supposed to dream of more than tinsel.

The great struggle of Marilyn’s life wasn’t really her struggle against drugs, alcohol, depression—it was her struggle for respect. It can’t have been easy, to have been the world’s lightning rod. “In a way I’m a very unfortunate woman,” she said near the end. “All this nonsense about being a legend, all this glamour and publicity. Somehow I’m always a disappointment to people.” And has that really changed? Marilyn is venerated—but hardly venerable. Respect is still not part of the Marilyn lexicon. By any reasonable standard, Marilyn Monroe was staggeringly successful at her chosen profession. But she has never been given the kind of validation she might reasonably have expected: most people still think of her as rather vast, vulgar, and meretricious herself.

For starters, she was never well paid by contemporary industry standards. Although her films almost single-handedly kept Twentieth Century-Fox afloat in the 1950s (only the Cinemascope process contributed as much), Darryl Zanuck refused to pay her anything like her market value. She made Fox millions; they begrudged her a dressing room. The year Marilyn died, Elizabeth Taylor was earning $1 million for Cleopatra and Monroe the $100,000 a film she had wrested out of Fox six years earlier. Having publicly fired her, Fox secretly hired her back with a million-dollar contract just days before she died (how little time she had to savor that long-overdue financial victory). Now of course even Marilyn’s garbage is worth six figures at auction—Polaroid snapshots of her terrier sold for $220,000; her driver’s license for over $100,000—but we pay it to someone she never met. As ever, Marilyn exists only to make other people rich (Hugh Hefner, take a bow).

But in any event Marilyn repudiated money as such: “I don’t want to make money,” she said. “I just want to be wonderful.” People scoffed, but she meant it literally, and fervently. It was never about the money, only about the value, and validation, that money would represent (in that sense, she was a fine Marxist). The same was true of stardom: Marilyn didn’t mistake signs for wonders. Her stardom was the great feat of her life, but stardom might also once have seemed to prove the measure of her worth. What she wanted most, she said, was to be good at her job. “I didn’t want anything else. Not men, not money, not love, but the ability to act.” Stardom and wealth would be the rewards earned by talent and skill; merit would beget more merits. Stardom would say something—something good—about her.

Instead, she was mocked by the people whose approval she wanted most. Her marriage to Arthur Miller, which she hoped might establish her substance in the eyes of the world (and perhaps her own), was greeted with the derisive headline Egghead Weds Hourglass, thus demonstrating that—unlike guilt—respect does not work by association. Unsurprisingly, she resorted in the end to surrounding herself with a court of sycophants and flatterers who would tell her what she wanted to hear, trapping herself in the double-bind of those who can’t trust opinions they have to pay for.

We blather on about Marilyn’s need for love, her desperate insecurities, her inadequacies, because talking about her anxieties quiets our own, by making her sound like an anomaly, and reproving her for her shortcomings. But why do we find Marilyn so blameworthy for somehow having failed to acquire self-esteem, as if she misplaced it, or forgot to get in line for it? Where, precisely, was her sense of worth supposed to come from, if not from us? Self-esteem derives from feeling valued by others, and it is precisely that validation we have always, sneeringly, withheld—and then blamed her for lacking it. Offered precious little of it as a child, Marilyn did the sensible, the mature thing, as an adult—she tried to learn how to acquire self-confidence in the realms she could control. She tried to change her own mind, hoping that this might change the minds of others about her: in her own words, she sought to build a foundation in her work: “My work is the only ground I've ever had to stand on. To put it bluntly, I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation. But I'm working on the foundation.” But no one wanted a grounded Marilyn: they wanted her floating above Time Square. They wanted tinsel. Marilyn was a casualty of the Puritan work ethic: she worked extraordinarily hard; she succeeded, immeasurably; and yet we continue smugly to insist that she failed in all the things that matter.

Marilyn’s need to be loved was no different from that of everyone else in kind; perhaps it was greater in degree—but perhaps not. The same can be said of her insecurities, her anxieties: they were powerful, and she was not particularly good at ignoring them, but she certainly fought them. Her lack of confidence, her stage fright, her diffidence about her lack of education: she battled against them all, determined to show herself, and everyone else, that she was worthwhile. “I finally made up my mind I wanted to be an actress and I was not going to let my lack of confidence ruin my chances,” she said. “My illusions didn't have anything to do with being a fine actress. I knew how third rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my God, how I wanted to learn, to change, to improve!” She tried to change, but we didn’t let her—because then we’d have to change our minds, and admit she was one of America’s greatest success stories instead of our favorite tragic myth.

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the fault lies not in our star, but in ourselves?

The rapture with which she was greeted frequently betrayed a nasty edge: for everyone who called her a goddess there was someone else to call her a monster or “freak”—a beautiful freak, or freak of nature (they loved variations on that one). The implications are clear, and wouldn’t have been lost on her: her success was a grotesque accident, which she certainly didn’t earn; she was just an “arrogant little tail-twitcher who learned to throw sex in your face.” When Marilyn left Joe DiMaggio, she was handed a letter with the word “whore” written in shit. Even her own biographers tend to agree, and her freakishness and whorishness become fixed: they call her schizoid, paranoid, frigid, nymphomaniac, unformed, immature, embryonic, prostitute and madwoman. Every name in the book.

And the tributes? Take The Misfits, Miller’s “valentine” to Marilyn, which imagines her as a tree-hugging hysteric (“he could have written me anything and he comes up with this,” she commented). Billy Wilder said she was a genius—the first time she was photographed; cinematographer Jack Cardiff that she wasn’t an actress, she was a genius. Her passivity is enshrined: how could she take credit, take solace, gain affirmation from compliments that credited anything and everything other than herself with her own success? The people made her a star; the studio made her a star; God made her a star; her body made her a star; nature made her a star. All this to describe someone so self-propelled she was more of a comet, who took her ambitions, her career, and her life seriously, and wanted only to be treated seriously in return.

“Some people have been unkind,” she remarked once, revealing a great talent for understatement: “If I say I want to grow as an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don't expect me to be serious about my work.” In the beginning, they laughed at Marilyn because she couldn’t act; so (not unreasonably) she took acting lessons. Then they laughed at her pretension, her presumption. How dare she aspire to better herself! Who does she think she is, an American?

Near the end of her life, Monroe commented upon how she survived the difficult filming of The Misfits: “I had to use my wits, or else I’d have been sunk—and nothing’s going to sink me.” If only she could have convinced us. In 1953, she told The New York Times: “My dramatic coach, Natasha Lytess, tells everybody that I have a great soul—but so far nobody’s interested in it. Someday, though, someday—”

In the meantime, she kept chasing the promise of the green light: it receded before her, it eluded her, but no matter, she would run faster, try harder, and, “someday,” tomorrow … Aspirationalism in its purest form, that’s Marilyn Monroe—a greater Gatsby.

© 2006 by Sarah Churchwell. All rights reserved.

Happy Birthday Marilyn

Yesterday - June 1st, 2010 - would have been Marilyn Monroe's 84th birthday. It is hard to believe that it has been six years (yipes) since my book about her (The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe) first came out.

I've been lucky enough to spend the last couple of days going through early proofs of Farrar Straus Giroux's upcoming Marilyn: Fragments. (They wouldn't appreciate my giving anything away, so don't look for any spoilers here.)

The book comes from Marilyn's notes and papers, which were left to Lee Strasberg, her friend and acting teacher, when she died in August, 1962. Her will asked him to distribute her effects among her friends; because of legal wrangling (and perhaps some other reasons), that didn't happen. His wife Paula died; he remarried a woman called Anna, whom Marilyn never met; Anna Strasberg now controls Marilyn's estate, after Lee's death in 1982, and it is through her auspices that this publication has come about.

Marilyn: Fragments is due for publication in October; I will have more to say about it then. But I will say this: many books (many books) have purported to be "in her own words" since she died. This claim has been everything from highly arguable (such as her ghost-written "autobiography," My Story, which was co-authored by at least two writers, and probably ghost-revised after her death; it was certainly ghost-edited after her death) to the outright nonsensical (everything else). This book actually is Marilyn's own words--it reproduces notebook pages, in her handwriting, and then transcribes them. That alone makes it worth reading.

It was quite something to spend her birthday reading it. Happy Birthday, Marilyn.