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Bumptious theorising: why does J D Salinger inspire such blind devotion?

While Rakoff’s memoir is full of fabrication and thin on revelation, Thomas Beller’s biography is free of insight and confessional to a fault. 

Master of elusion: J D Salinger

 

J D Salinger: the Escape Artist
Thomas Beller
New Harvest, 192pp, $20

My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff
Bloomsbury Circus, 256pp, £16.99

 

“A genius who can’t tie his shoelaces”, Thomas Beller’s description of J D Salinger (1919-2010), might not be far off, but why use a metaphor when the facts speak just as well? Salinger was a genius – a literary genius with a particular interest in human appetite – who didn’t understand that retreating from public life when he was famous and feted would, rather than secure his solitude, turn reporters into scavengers, neighbours into eavesdroppers, friends into witnesses.

And fans into biographers – and intimates into memoirists. The writing by Salinger legally available in book form amounts to one novel, The Catcher in the Rye, and 13 stories, more than half of them containing some allusion to the shimmering, fragile Glass children. The writing published about Salinger, which began pouring forth around the time he shut up shop in the mid-1960s, runs to thousands of pages. If you hive off the critical monographs and anthologies, which every writer gets these days, this work can be divided into conjecture-bound pseudo-biography undertaken by men – Beller follows recent works by Kenneth Slawenski and Shane Salerno – and none-too-conjectural, though possibly delusional, reminiscences offered by women. Of these, Joanna Rakoff’s new book is the least invasive, for the simple reason that during her “Salinger year” she spoke to the writer just a few times, by telephone and never for long, and shook his warm, dry hand but once.

At the time – “This was 1996. The country was in the grips of a recession,” and so on – Rakoff was working as an assistant at a place she calls “the Agency” and specifically for a woman she refers to as “my boss”. In the kind of disclaimer one doesn’t like to read at the beginning of a tell-all memoir (or any memoir), Rakoff states: “I’ve fiddled with the chronology of a few events, and I’ve changed the names – and identifying traits – of most, though not all, of the people.” You’d be forgiven for wondering what Rakoff didn’t change. You’d also be forgiven for wondering on what principle she has protected various glad-handing literary agents while betraying a deeply wounded eremite whose privacy she was once employed to protect: Salinger’s name and identifying traits remain unfiddled with.

Unfortunately, Rakoff had already sold her story to the online magazine Slate, where she happily identified the Agency as Harold Ober Associates and her boss as Phyllis Westberg. My Salinger Year is little more than a rehash of that 2,000-word piece, its stretched and padded character a tribute, perhaps, to Salinger’s later narratives, in particular his last printed story, “Hapworth 16, 1924”, which takes the form of a letter rightly described by its author, the seven-year-old Seymour Glass, as an “onslaught”, and with whose complicated afterlife Rakoff’s book is partly concerned.

Not long after she was hired, Salinger called the Agency to say that he was considering publishing “Hapworth 16” with Orchises Press, a tiny imprint, in commercial terms barely distinguishable from a vanity press. While Salinger negotiates with the sole employee of Orchises over details of design (he wants the title printed horizontally on the spine, hard to achieve in a book of under 30,000 words), Rakoff struggles to get over her “college boyfriend”, to get along with her current boyfriend, to get by financially and to get around to reading Salinger, the dramatic irony being that this would provide just the amusement and consolation – just the perspective – she needs.

Rakoff’s responsibility for Salinger, beyond putting his phone calls through to her boss, is confined to sending form replies to the stream of letters asking him to do things he would never want to do – deliver commencement addresses, for instance – or to passing along compliments he no longer wants to hear, if he ever did. She becomes fond of the letter writers but since she has presumably blurred their identifying details, who can say what they actually wrote?

While Rakoff’s memoir is full of fabrication and thin on revelation, Thomas Beller’s biography is free of insight and confessional to a fault. J D Salinger: the Escape Artist contains a wealth of detail about the writer’s Upper East Side childhood, his half-Jewishness, his brief apprenticeship and his war record, which involved the liberation of a concentration camp, though nobody seems to know precisely which. But the factual strands become lost amid the bumptious theorising about Salinger’s experience and numerous fussy descriptions of Beller’s adventures (the back-cover comparison to Out of Sheer Rage would give Geoff Dyer grounds for a libel suit). Collecting a copy of Ian Hamilton’s never-published J D Salinger: a Writing Life, Beller reassures us, “My host greeted me warmly.” And then: “There was a divan, or a chaise longue . . . He had to go do something before he could sit down with me . . . My host returned, and we settled in for a nice chat.”

There’s stuff like this throughout the book, as well as unconvincing asides on Philip Roth’s career trajectory and John Updike’s golf-worship, and the writing about Salinger, when we get it, is hardly a cause for cheer. In Salinger’s work, repetition is a tool of comedy and pathos. Here it becomes something like a weapon of torture. OK, Salinger met Hemingway in Paris. OK, the 18-year-old journalist Joyce Maynard, later the author of At Home in the World, an account of her somewhat creepier Salinger year, received, quite unexpectedly, a fan letter from the middle-aged writer. OK, Maynard’s book and a memoir by Salinger’s daughter Margaret, Dream Catcher, were published two years apart (or “practically back-to-back”).

The further you read on, the less optimism you feel about reaching solid ground. Much is made of Salinger’s association with the New Yorker and his fondness for its editors Harold Ross and William Shawn, though Beller’s speculations about the magazine’s impact on the young Salinger do little to claw back the authority eroded by his various errors. “Whether the Salingers subscribed to the New Yorker before or after they moved across town in 1932 I do not know,” he writes, “but I feel confident they did.”

Conjecture strikes again in a discussion of Salinger’s story “The Long Debut of Lois Taggett” and its use of the word “iceman”: “Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh had been written in 1939, but it would not be performed until several years after Salinger wrote the story. Maybe Salinger heard it discussed.” Considering the song “Begin the Beguine”, which he danced to with Joyce Maynard, Beller raises numerous possibilities for its significance – did he listen to it in Vienna in the 1930s? Elsewhere in 1940? At the Stork Club? – before declaring: “Or all of the above.”

Although one usually groans when books about writers show such scant interest in literature, it is in these cases rather a relief. Neither Beller’s speculations nor Rakoff’s rhapsodies (“I loved it all”) whet our appetite for more and, besides, Salinger is an author whose cause it can seem pointless to advance. The same characteristics are strengths to some, vices to others. Janet Malcolm’s essay “Justice to J D Salinger” – recently republished in Forty-One False Starts – assesses the views of Salinger bashers from a 40-year distance and says, in essence, “Wrong!” Where John Updike, in a well-known review of Franny and Zooey (1961), the second and most polarising of Salinger’s three story collections, grumbled about his writing’s “extravagant self-consciousness . . . wherein most of the objections one might raise are already raised”, Malcolm says: “Salinger understood the offensiveness of his creations perfectly well.” To Updike’s claim that “ ‘Zooey’ is just too long,” Malcolm replies, “Today ‘Zooey’ does not seem too long.” There’s a neat portrayal of this stalemate in Whit Stillman’s film The Last Days of Disco, when a young New York book editor tells a Salinger-loving female colleague that his work had been the subject of “devastating pieces” by Mary McCarthy and Alfred Kazin: “They really destroyed him.” Interest unpiqued, the girl leaves the room.

Stillman intended to show that no amount of Salinger scepticism will change a true believer’s mind. He also provided yet more evidence that true believers don’t always know what’s good for them. After an early screening, one of the film’s backers warned that the Salinger scene “will cost us $1m in gross” but Stillman kept it in. The film made a loss. Just as, in Updike’s words, Salinger loved the Glasses “too exclusively” and “to the detriment of artistic moderation”, so, all too often, readers love Salinger excessively, at a cost of either dollars or dignity.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

The Tolkien Trust
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Beren and Lúthien: Love, war and Tolkien’s lost tales

Expanded and augmented version of tale which first appeared in Silmarillion mirrors Tolkien's own relationship with wife Edith.

In a woodland glade white with flowers, a young woman danced for her soldier husband. It seems a vision from a lost world, and for that Somme veteran in 1917 it was: a glimpse of joy as if sorrow, sickness and horror had never been. For Second Lieutenant J R R Tolkien the dance in the glade inspired a fairy tale, written that same summer in hospital, after a relapse of Somme trench fever. To call it a difficult birth would be the understatement of a century: it has taken 100 years for the story of Beren and Lúthien to become a book in its own right.

Of the nine years since Tolkien and Edith had met as fellow lodgers (and orphans), three had been spent under a communication ban imposed by his guardian. Reunited after Tolkien turned 21, they had married just weeks before he was sent to the trenches. There for four months with the Lancashire Fusiliers, mostly as a battalion signals officer, he repeatedly witnessed the carnage that he later called simply “animal horror”. He also lost many friends, including two of his dearest. Part exorcism, The Book of Lost Tales, begun when he got back to England, was his first attempt at recounting a mythological war over three “holy jewels” called the Silmarils – the multi-threaded epic he later named The Silmarillion.

Beren and Lúthien contains one thread, woven in turn from strands as diverse as the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen and the German “Rapunzel”. Tolkien’s big idea was that his “Lost Tales” were the pure, ungarbled originals of such oral stories. Aided by his storytelling verve, and embedded in his matrix of invented history, geography and language, it rises far above pastiche. A wild, ragged wanderer and an elf princess meet by unlikely chance and fall in love. Her scornful father sets what seems an impossible marriage condition – regaining one of the Silmarils from the iron crown of the satanic enemy Morgoth.

That inspirational moment in the wood at Roos, Yorkshire, was central both to Tolkien’s creative and to his personal lives. The names Beren and Lúthien are carved under his name (1973) and Edith’s (1971) on their Oxford headstone. So this book – with watercolours and pencil sketches by the veteran Tolkien artist Alan Lee – is presented by its editor, their third child, Christopher, as a memorial to his parents. And it is the capstone to a job Christopher began with The Silmarillion, published in 1977 – a seamless editorial construct from a bewilderment of posthumous papers, which he gave the full scholarly treatment in his later, 12-volume History of Middle-earth.

Isolating the thread of the Beren and Lúthien story, Christopher (now 92) walks a difficult line, but successfully conveys its evolution by making generous selections from Tolkien’s own versions, with some bridging comments of his own. The book includes the early “Lost Tales” plus nearly 3,000 lines of a verse version begun in 1925 and abandoned in 1931, The Lay of Leithian. Interspersed are portions of chronicle-style retellings from successive Silmarillions written in 1926, 1930 and 1937 – the last of these abandoned in mid-flow when a publisher demanded a sequel to the newly published Hobbit instead.

Christopher follows the thread beyond the end of the story proper to show how the lovers’ quest leads to later redemption and victory in the war against Morgoth. He discusses how their fates fit in with the concepts of mortality and immortality central to the whole “legendarium”. Finally, he adds a sequence from a rewriting of The Lay of Leithian begun with redoubled power after The Lord of the Rings, but again abandoned. So this is also a memorial to a story that might have been.

There is much to relish, even for those who have read The Silmarillion. Of all the 1916-19 “Lost Tales”, this one changed most. The early version, doubtless written for Edith, is a rollicking fairy tale crossed with a kind of “Just So Story” about why cats fear dogs; yet in its latter stages it steps up several gears and attains a mythic power. The verse Leithian is in this higher gear all along, setting the tone for The Silmarillion. Germanic saga rises to the surface, and so do war memories:

. . . the mighty field . . . turned to dust,

to drifting sand and yellow rust,

to thirsty dunes where many bones

lay broken among barren stones.

Nothing shows the gear change more clearly than that Beren’s captor in the earliest version is a demonic cat but in later versions the captor is the wolvish Necromancer – whom Tolkien in 1937 renamed Sauron. When in The Lord of the Rings Frodo first sees a vision of Sauron’s eye, “yellow as a cat’s”, he gazes into the deep well of Tolkien’s creative past.

In all the forms of the story here, Lúthien is the key figure, “more fair than mortal tongue can tell” but also more resourceful than Beren. It is she who springs him from prison and defeats his captor. When together they reach the end of the quest in Morgoth’s throne room, everything falls to her. If this is meant to be the lost original of “Rapunzel”, it is strikingly in tune with much more recent, female-centred fairy-tale revisionings. It is also a hymn to Edith – and to her power to lift Tolkien out of the depths. 

Beren and Lúthien
J R R Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
HarperCollins, 288pp, £20

John Garth is the author of “Tolkien and the Great War” and is writing a book on Tolkien and the 20th century, “Tolkien’s Mirror”

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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