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.

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