J D Salinger (1919-2010)

Fellow writers pay tribute to the reclusive genius of American letters.

 

The response to the death of J D Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye (a novel that the New Statesman's reviewer Jocelyn Brooke described in 1951 as "odd, tragic and at times appallingly funny"), has been copious. Tributes have been paid in particular by fellow writers, who acknowledge his place in America's literary history.

Annie Proulx declared that "despite his crank personal life, his work is much honoured, something of a cairn on the plains of American literature". Stephen King said that he was not "a huge Salinger fan", but described him as "the last of the great post-WWII American writers".

Henry Allen, writing in the Washington Post, could not compare him to Hemingway "on safari", or to Fitzgerald "in the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel", or even to Kerouac "hurling himself back and forth across America", because "they were famous public figures. Salinger was merely famous, idolised, envied; an acutely private figure who was a recluse for more than 50 years."

The author's style receives high praise. Robert Fulford wrote of Salinger's first publication, in 1948: "It was immediately obvious that a new writer, with a new voice, had appeared. His characters were sensitive, much given to verbal comedy and a kind of sophisticated cuteness, but they tended to make bizarre choices, perhaps committing suicide for some reason that readers could not easily understand."

Malcolm Jones, writing in Newsweek, strikes a more ambivalent note, recalling reading The Catcher in the Rye at 13: "All I remember about the experience was my ho-hum reaction when it was over . . . there was almost nothing in that book for me to connect with." But he concluded nonetheless that "I have him to thank for being the first writer whose work encouraged me to have my own opinions, no matter what anyone else said. That's a lot to be grateful for."

John Timpane at Philly.com considers Salinger's remarkable legacy: "What cannot be disputed is that his novel, novellas and short fiction have influenced half a century of writers, including Philip Roth, John Updike, Sylvia Plath and contemporary writers from Jay McInerney to Dave Eggers . . . Catcher may be a little dated. Yet a freshness remains in Holden's direct, slang-spangled American voice."

One of those contemporary writers, Dave Eggers, agrees. "His work meant a lot to me when I was a young person and his writing still sings, doesn't seem the least bit dated, and few were ever as good at dialogue as he was."

And John Walsh, in the Independent, joined everyone else in wanting "to find out exactly what this deeply talented, original and intensely self-conscious writer had been doing in his study for the last 55 years".

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump