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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism