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JD Salinger: Not quite the 'Catcher in the Rye'


Amrita Tripathi,CNN-IBN
Mar 29, 2012 at 09:50pm IST

When JD Salinger passed away in 2010 at the age of 91, it became clear that he hadn't lost his ability to split the world into two. Either you get the Glass family, or you don't. The precocious siblings were refractions of the author's own identity, something that becomes more than evident as you read Kenneth Slawenski's excellent biography.

Even though I read 'The Catcher in the Rye' fairly late -- not as a precocious teen, but as a disgruntled adolescent -- Holden Caulfield spoke to me, as he did to millions (apparently more than 38 million!).

A professor recommended Franny and Zooey, but I only took that leap much later, and then read the most excellent To Esme With Love and Squalor (available at the time, it seems only in one independent book shop in Basant Lok), and Seymour: An Introduction. I say this as a disclaimer, because I am beholden (couldn't resist!) to JD for life. I believed in the Glasses, I believed in Seymour, and I believe in the 'fat lady' he refers to.

JD Salinger: Not quite the 'Catcher in the Rye'

This biography, 'JD Salinger: A Life Raised High', by Kenneth Slawenski, is a tour de force of a tribute.

This biography, 'JD Salinger: A Life Raised High', by Kenneth Slawenski, is a tour de force of a tribute. JD was notoriously private, and died as he lived, a recluse. Slawenski helps extricate the man from the myth, and also traces the oft-painful trajectory (courtesy several rejections and re-rejections) of JD's publishing career.

Salinger was nit-picking and particular, excoriated the phonies, just as Holden did, and held himself to a high standard, indeed. But that's not before experimenting, and compromising, to some extent. Which is to say, he was amazingly, dizzyingly human.

I didn't know that Salinger dated the beautiful, but reportedly ditzy Oona O'Neill, that he was besotted with her, and detested Charlie Chaplin, who she eventually married. JD rubbed shoulders with stalwarts like Lawrence Olivier, and felt embarrassed enough to apologise -- Holden at one points calls into question Oliver's relevance -- but also resisted the lure of Hollywood, after learning his lesson courtesy a couple of failed projects.

Salinger was excited to meet Ernest Hemmingway in Paris, right as the Second World War was ending, and the two became friends...but Salinger didn't spare Hemmingway's work (at one point saying the author had become a caricature of himself).

There's no doubt that the war shaped JD Salinger -- his language skills made him a valuable officer -- but Slawenski details horror after horror, that other army veterans would have attested to, including the liberation of Dachau concentration camp.

JD tried to write through it, and at one point exhorted his generation to essentially tell it like it is, do de-glamourise the entire notion. He also remarked that he wouldn't/ couldn't "do" the war story. The trauma is something his daughter also later referred to.

Salinger believed in Zen Buddhism and Sri Ramakrishna's teachings, Vedanta, before it became a new-age Cali, hip thing to do in the US and -- according to Slawenski -- constantly tried to fight the 'fruits of his success', battling his ego. He resisted the world's over-riding impulse to box him as The Catcher, to see in him some sort of subversive saviour.

He made a couple of strong friendships, but also was bitter in his anger, at what he felt was betrayal (when his stories weren't treated the way he wanted) and gradually closed the circle in on himself.

Slawenski presents him, heroic in his imperfections, with an unfailingly objective eye, not judging, but not witholding the unflattering, either. He paints a gripping portrait of isolation, even loneliness.

And judging from the reactions to his short stories - published after a long struggle, only in The New Yorker - which ranged from indifference to wild curiosity and critical acclaim, to derision, as critics stopped "getting" him, it's hard not to think of Salinger as a writer often seen through a prism.

Was he a man before his time? A prophet in the wilderness? Should he have been hounded into becoming a cult figure? Was he permanently scarred by his war experience?

Adored by his mother, judged prematurely perhaps by his father, and survived by a sister, an ex-wife, wife, daughter and son, readers see JD Salinger most clearly through the Glass family - his precocious children, siblings, refractions of his own soul.

Salinger didn't give an interview past 1980, and left the world guessing about what he was working on -- no one, it seems, could understand, or forgive, him for writing just for himself, not for publication. His daughter Margaret has written her own memoir, but for the moment, I'm going to leave it with this - Slawenski's 7 year labour of love, that couldn't have been easy, given his subject's penchant for privacy, even before it became a buzz-word.

Book: JD Salinger: A life raised high; Author: Kenneth Slawenski; Published in India by Tranquebar; Type: Biography; Price: Rs 395/-

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