Wednesday, August 19, 2020

My Salinger Years

I first read The Catcher in the Rye (1951) when I was an undergraduate, as raw and ignorant as they come. It was a book that was different from anything I had read before, including the delicious profanity. I loved this account of two days in the life of a desperately unhappy teenage boy who decides to leave his fancy prep school after being expelled from it for failing in almost all subjects. (His parents don’t yet know about his expulsion).  Thanks to this book, I wanted to read more of Salinger’s works.                                                                                                      

Franny and Zooey (1961) is a slim paperback with identical front and back covers, no blurb, nothing. When I first picked it up I had absolutely no idea what to expect. It was, however, a book I must have been ready for. It spoke to my soul, and still does. The Glass family is richly and beautifully described, from their physical attributes to their gloriously overcrowded sitting room in their New York brownstone, their bathroom cabinet to Bessie Glass’s clinking kimono which her daughters have been conspiring, unsuccessfully, to evict from her life. “She was wearing her usual at home vesture- what her son Buddy (who was a writer, and consequently, as Kafka, no less, has told us, not a nice man) called her pre-notification-of-death uniform.……With its many occultish looking folds, it also served as the repository for the paraphernalia of a very heavy cigarette smoker and an amateur handyman….”                                                                                                                                                              Bessie and Les were, in their younger days, successful vaudeville performers. Their several children were, at various ages, child prodigies who appeared on a radio show called It’s a Wise Child. Seymour, the oldest, has died by suicide. Another son died in a freak accident in the war. (The second world war). One son is a priest somewhere on a Pacific island. The older daughter is a homemaker. The oldest surviving son, Buddy, is a reclusive writer-in-residence at a remote upstate location. The youngest son, the eponymous Zooey, is an upcoming actor, and his younger sister, Franny, the baby of the family, is also an aspiring actress, a college student, sick to her core at the phoniness of the world, the huge egos that abound in her life, and hating herself for being so judgmental and unkind, even in her thoughts. She had come upon one of Seymour’s books, The Way of the Pilgrim, and is trying to ‘pray without ceasing’. She has come home from college and collapsed. How does Zooey help her deal with her grief and transcend it? He takes you on a fascinating journey through his oldest brothers’ explorations of Eastern philosophy and wisdom.                          

In his next book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction (1963), Buddy, the second son is the narrator. It begins with him remembering a night when he and Seymour are, owing to an outbreak of mumps in their family, looking after Franny in their ostensibly germ-free room, and Seymour soothes the crying ten month old by reading to her a Taoist tale, which particular reading Franny claims to remember several years later! Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters is about Seymour’s wedding day in 1942, a day on which we actually do not see him at all. For various logistical reasons, Buddy is the only member of the family who can attend the wedding. This book describes his journey with four co-passengers in a limousine going away from the wedding that has not taken place, to his discovery of his brother’s journal in their shared apartment, to the revelation that the bride and groom have eloped!                                                                                                                                                           Seymour an Introduction is Buddy’s attempt to write about his brother. It is circuitous and convoluted and incredibly rich. The range of knowledge of Eastern philosophy and poetry it describes was, for me, a revelation.  Here again we have Seymour’s voice in his letters to Buddy, who, as an aspiring writer, greatly values his brother’s opinion. “If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.”                                                                                     Seymour remains, through his letters and poems, and his memories, Buddy’s guiding light. ‘I can’t finish writing a description of Seymour- even a bad description…..-without being conscious of the good, the real…..Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?’

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says, What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.”

I don’t think I’d particularly want to call up Salinger. But I would certainly want to meet his characters, especially the Glass family.