Saturday, February 6, 2010


If you really want to hear about it.

We did, but then the storyteller stopped telling stories. Now he's dead.

Jerome David Salinger lasted to the ripe age of 91, passing away on January 27, 2010.

In the Globe and Mail, Andrew Pyper postulated that without The Catcher in the Rye there would have been no On the Road, no Less than Zero.

Given that On the Road was written in 1951, the same year Catcher was published (and Kerouac was heavily under the spell of Thomas Wolfe; and the book was largely autobiographical), that first claim seems unlikely.

However, Bret Easton Ellis all but confirmed the second with his now 'round-the-world tweet: "Yeah!! Thank God he's finally dead. I've been waiting for this day for-fucking-ever. Party tonight!!!"

I'd just add that literary influence is probably a little more open-ended than that, though it's hard, isn't it, to now read any teenage narrator without hearing Holden.

Once, as Hemingway noted, all anyone could hear was Huck Finn. (In Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway wrote: "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn...")

In any case, the best retrospective piece on Salinger recently, in my opinion, was written by David Lodge in the New York Times (Jan 29, 2010), and it expands the critical context.

Lodge quotes a paragraph from Catcher, then says: "It looks easy, but it isn't."

Here's a bit of Lodge. He ultimately compares Catcher to Tristram Shandy:

Nearly everybody loves “The Catcher in the Rye,” and most readers enjoy Mr. Salinger’s first collection of short stories, “Nine Stories.” But the work that followed, the four long short stories paired together in two successive books as “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction,” were less reader-friendly and provoked more critical comment, leading eventually to the retreat of the wounded author into solitude.

This was as much the consequence of critical failure as of authorial arrogance. These books challenged conventional notions of fiction and conventional ways of reading as radically as the kind of novels that would later be called post-modernist, and a lot of critics didn’t “get it.” The saga of the Glass family is stylistically the antithesis of “Catcher” — highly literary, full of rhetorical tropes, narrative devices and asides to the reader — but there is also continuity between them. The literariness of the Glass stories is always domesticated by a colloquial informality. Most are narrated by Buddy, the writer in the family, who says at the outset of “Zooey” that “what I’m about to offer isn’t really a short story at all but a sort of prose home movie.”

The nearest equivalent to this saga in earlier literature is perhaps the 18th-century antinovel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” by Laurence Sterne. There is the same minutely close observation of the social dynamics of family life, the same apparent disregard for conventional narrative structure, the same teasing hints that the fictional narrator is a persona for the real author, the same delicate balance of sentiment and irony, and the same humorous running commentary on the activities of writing and reading.

We all have our Salinger ancedotes, I'm sure. I distinctly remember reading all four books in a rush in the summer of 1989. The style, the voice, the insight. I couldn't say I'd ever seen anything like it.

A professor later tried to persuade me from being overly influenced. Salinger wasn't, he told me, a major writer.

Well, professor, it looks easy, but it isn't.

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