Thursday, July 1, 2010

If you want to know the truth

On Kenneth Slawenski's J. D. Salinger: A Life

Kenneth Slawenski’s new biography of J. D. Salinger is a maddening book. Its swift appearance on the heels of Salinger’s death – he died in January this year, at the age of 91 – raises the suspicion that it has been published in haste, and its stark lack of textual add-ons doesn’t do much to quell that fear. It contains no photographs, no note about the author, and unusually little in the way of bibliographical fortification. But Slawenski assures us, in his introduction, that he worked on the project for seven years. And there’s no doubt that some solid labour has gone into it. Slawenski knows the facts of Salinger’s life back to front, and he’s done a yeoman’s job of marshalling them into a readable and sometimes compelling narrative. Unfortunately he also writes like a yeoman. His prose bristles with gauche errors, and he has a worrying inability to convey basic pieces of information without distorting their meaning. The Australian edition of his book bears the imprint of a university press, and calls itself the “definitive biography.” No biography making that claim can afford to be as compromised by basic technical problems as this one is.

So who is Kenneth Slawenski? He seems bent on coming across as a man of mystery, like Salinger himself. All we’re told about him, in the book, is that he lives in New Jersey, and runs a Salinger fansite called “Dead Caulfields.” You can find out a bit more about him – but not a lot more – by surfing to that site. (Is this sort of thing about to become the norm? Is paper really that expensive?) Slawenski bills himself, over at Dead Caulfields, as an “amateur reader.” This is meant to remind you that Salinger, in the dedicatory note to Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, wondered “if there is an amateur reader still left in the world.” Slawenski, fifty years later, wants to affirm that there’s still at least one. The implication is that he is neither an academic nor a trained writer, but might be the kind of webmaster of whom Salinger would have approved.

But running a website is one thing. Can an amateur reader produce a respectable literary biography? In theory, there is no reason why not. There are academic biographers who know everything about their subjects except how to write books about them that a normal person might want to read. They can’t bring themselves to stop writing after one volume, or even two. Probably there’s a Salinger specialist at work on the definitive multi-volume life right now, the first instalment of which will appear in 2015 and will take us up to the appearance of J. D.’s first zit. For the moment, the field is wide open to the amateur. But is literary culture still robust enough to produce amateur biographers who can write to professional standards? Not quite, if Slawenski’s book is any guide.      

It’s a pity that Slawenski lacks formal know-how, because he’s a more than decent storyteller. He’s especially good on Salinger’s early life: the school years, the dating years, the army years. Salinger saw combat in some of World War Two’s most harrowing engagements, although you wouldn’t know it from his fiction. He landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, fought at Hürtgen Forest and in the Battle of the Bulge, and was present during the liberation of Dachau. Norman Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead – the towering novel of the war – after a tour of duty in the Philippines during which he mainly served as a cook. If Salinger extracted far less from his war experiences, it wasn’t just because he was a different sort of writer. It was also because he saw too much. 

Before the war, and even during it, Salinger had sold stories to a series of increasingly prestigious American magazines. Not long after his return from Europe, the most prestigious organ of them all, The New Yorker, put him on a lavish annual retainer. All he had to do was give them first refusal on his short fiction. From then on he was a professional writer. In 1951 he published The Catcher in the Rye – his only novel, and his masterpiece. When that book brought him more attention than he could deal with, he withdrew to a fenced rural compound in Cornish, New Hampshire. From inside he issued pieces of short fiction at long intervals. Finally he stopped issuing them altogether. His last novella, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. For the remaining forty-five years of his life, he didn’t publish another word. 

Salinger’s self-imposed silence gives Slawenski a juicy central mystery to chew on, but it also presents him with a problem. At the exact mid-point of Salinger’s life, the biographical evidence dries up. There weren’t many witnesses to his life in Cornish, and most of them have proved pretty good at keeping their mouths shut. The whopping exception is Salinger’s daughter Margaret, who in 2000 published a memoir called Dream Catcher. That book contained many a scandalous revelation about Salinger’s late eccentricities: he drank his own urine, he spoke in tongues, he flirted with the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard. But Slawenski, wearing his fan’s hat, can’t bring himself to report such scurrilous stuff. He does note that Salinger “developed an intense interest” in various forms of alternative medicine, but declines to mention that one of his preferred home cures, according to Margaret, involved jamming blunt wooden dowels into his children’s flesh.

Taking what he considers the high-minded path, Slawenski prefers to explain Salinger’s later isolation by returning to the fiction, and combing it for autobiographical clues. But that approach might be more harmful to Salinger than Slawenski thinks. For one thing, it calls for a pretty good literary ear, and Slawenski doesn’t have one. His own prose gives it away. He’s the kind of writer who says “garnished” when he means “garnered”, “blind-sighted” instead of “blind-sided”, “doubtlessly” instead of “doubtless”, “fallout” instead of “falling out”, “adverse” instead of “averse”, “Lugar” instead of “Luger”, “take precedent over” instead of “take precedence over.” Errors like this, which are rife on the Internet, are characteristic of people who aren’t on very intimate terms with the printed page. Nor do Slawenski’s sometimes awkward critical pronouncements give you the impression that he reads much literary criticism: “It is a singularly Salinger concept and a component that distinguishes his writings.” And his grammar can be pretty fancy-free: “Having embraced Salinger’s spiritual views, the event likely threw Claire into a crisis …”

A person who writes like this might not be the ideal target man for Salinger’s subtler linguistic gambits. One thing Salinger liked to do, when writing about characters who were sophisticated beyond their years, was to have them make small but telling verbal slips. Esmé, in “For Esmé with Love and Squalor,” says “intransically” instead of “intrinsically.” She misuses the word “extenuating.” Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, doesn’t always get his grammar right: “D. B. took Phoebe and I to see [Hamlet].” Salinger, who wrote in a relatively literate era, could be fairly confident that his contemporary readers would notice such gaffes. But already he has a biographer who can’t even detect such malapropisms and howlers in his own prose.    Are such effects beginning to pass outside the range of our hearing? 

Hampered by his ear, and strapped for hard information about Salinger’s later life, Slawenski has a tendency to treat The Catcher in the Rye as if it were a work of straight autobiography. In a way you can’t blame him. Does Holden Caulfield not fantasise about removing himself to a little cabin in the woods, where he will pretend to be a deaf-mute in order to avoid having “stupid useless conversations” all the time? But it’s important not to leap too ravenously at the bait. Holden was no doubt a portrait of Salinger’s younger self. But Salinger maintains an ironic perspective on him, by filling his prose with defiant little catchphrases that reek of juvenile insecurity. “If you really want to know the truth,” Holden says, “I’m a virgin. I really am. I’ve had quite a few opportunities to lose my virginity and all, but I’ve never got around to it yet.” He protests too much. Adolescents, who talk like that too, read the book as if its author were Holden. But adult readers will find the undercurrent of Salinger’s irony harder to miss. Holden is the classic unreliable narrator, who can’t talk without revealing more of himself than he wants to.

It’s true that Slawenski, during his set-piece analysis of the novel, takes proper measure of its ambiguities. But later on, while raiding the book for biographical fuel, he’s not above talking as if Salinger were Holden Caulfield. This reading yields a pretty one-dimensional Salinger: Salinger the tireless, indeed tiresome, scourge of the phonies. No doubt Salinger did become unattractively like that later on, after he’d dispensed with his worldly goods and his sense of irony. But Slawenski seems perversely determined to give us a Salinger who never had a sense of irony – a Salinger who was Holden all along. 

This is a strange thing for someone who likes Salinger to want. But on the face of it, Slawenski does present some pretty startling evidence in favour of this view. Consider something that happened in 1951, before Catcher was even published. The Book of the Month Club had read the manuscript, and wanted to make the novel their summer choice. But they had reservations about its title. “When they asked Salinger to change it,” Slawenski reveals, “he became indignant. Refusing, he maintained that Holden Caulfield would not agree to the idea, and that was that.”

So maybe Slawenski is right after all. This Salinger positively invites us to confuse him with Holden Caulfield at his least lovable. But wait a moment. How much of this did Salinger actually say? Slawenski’s source for the story turns out to be a book of literary anecdotes called The Making of a Bestseller. And here, as it appears in that book, is the original story:

When The Catcher in the Rye was chosen as the main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1951, the club’s editorial staff approached J. D. Salinger about changing that curious title. No, Salinger wrote back, ‘Holden Caulfield wouldn’t like that’ – and so the title remained …

You’ll notice, first of all, that this passage gives Slawenski no warrant to suggest that Salinger’s refusal was “indignant.” Indeed it reveals something that Slawenski has rather misleadingly failed to tell us – that Salinger’s refusal was tendered in writing. Slawenski, no doubt by accident, has managed to make it sound as if Salinger issued his refusal during some sort of heated face-to-face showdown. But all we’re really dealing with, it turns out, is a five-word phrase in a letter. How Salinger was feeling when he wrote it is purely a matter of guesswork. Maybe “Holden wouldn’t like it” was his standard blow-off line for people who approached him with impertinent requests. (When Elia Kazan wanted to turn Catcher into a Broadway play, Salinger rebuffed him with exactly the same phrase.) Slawenski has subtly contaminated the record, by overdubbing his own views onto what looks like a straight report of the facts.

He has an unfortunate habit of doing this. A little later on, he’s obliged to talk us through a famous episode. Just after Salinger moved to Cornish, a local high school girl interviewed him for a class project. The girl then betrayed him by publishing the results in the local newspaper. But at least she managed to ask him the money question: was The Catcher in the Rye autobiographical? This is how Slawenski reports the next part:

When asked if the novel was autobiographical, Salinger appeared to hesitate. ‘Sort of,’ he hedged. ‘I was much relieved when I finished it. My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book … ’

But again it’s worth consulting Slawenski’s source. Here is what the schoolgirl reporter actually wrote: “When asked if it was in any way autobiographical, Mr Salinger said: ‘Sort of, I was much relieved when I finished it. My boyhood …” And so on. There is no suggestion, from the schoolgirl on the spot, that Salinger “appeared to hesitate”, or that he was “hedging.” These suggestions come from Slawenski, who is once more exercising his knack for retrospective ESP. Convinced as he is that Catcher was straightforwardly autobiographical, he thinks Salinger must have been hedging – and doesn’t hesitate to shoehorn this impression straight into his account of the girl’s interview. It doesn’t occur to him that “sort of” might be an honest and indeed pretty instructive answer. 

I don’t get the impression that Slawenski, when he takes such liberties with his sources, knows he’s doing anything wrong. He just doesn’t know enough about the rules to know when he’s breaking them. But if this is how he handles the sources we can check up on, what about the ones we can’t check up on? Salinger’s unpublished letters are sequestered in various university archives, and they’re subject to unusually tight copyright restrictions. Biographers are allowed to read them, but they’re not allowed to quote from them. They’re only permitted to give a loose summary of the contents. Can Slawenski’s accounts of these letters be relied on? If I were a Salinger scholar, I wouldn’t be postponing my trip to the archives on the strength of this book.

Salinger kept writing during his later years, and he’s said to have earmarked certain manuscripts for posthumous publication. One seriously doubts that this trove of unpublished works will contain a candid autobiography. Salinger was fanatically committed to the principle that his private life was nobody’s business. But his attempts to evade attention looked crazily self-defeating from the start. He was too famous to keep the biographers out, so he tried to deprive them of the facts. But that only encouraged them to eke out fact with speculation, and left him more at their mercy than he was to start with. Even the well-meaning Slawenski distorts our picture of the man, by leaving out facts he doesn’t like, over-interpreting facts he likes too much, and shaking down the fiction for facts that aren’t there.

(Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, July 2010)