The real reason Salinger sought escape

The seclusion of J D Salinger and Glenn Gould was a result of psychological damage.


Like 99.999 per cent of the population - considerably more, actually - I never met J D Salinger. Author of the iconic and quintessentially American Catcher in the Rye, Salinger died on 27 January, aged 91, on the 90-acre New England estate where he had lived in "seclusion" since 1953. I did know another remarkable artist who also went into "seclusion" soon after a similarly monumental initial success: the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (pictured above), who died from a stroke in 1982, a few days after his 50th birthday, having given his last concert when he was just 31.

Neither man really did live in "seclusion". That invariably is merely the dismissive epithet used by the media to describe any famous person - think Greta Garbo, Thomas Pynchon or even, more recently, Tiger Woods - who will not do what the media expect of them: give constant interviews, smile away on talk shows, issue press releases, and so on. Both Salinger and Gould were psychologically damaged men, but each tried to live as normal a life as he could, his privacy zealously protected by a small circle of loyal friends in New Hampshire and Toronto, respectively.

Salinger even married twice, was an inveterate womaniser, brought up two children and did such ordinary things as going to see Engelbert Humperdinck at the London Palladium. But unless he was writing books for posthumous publication, as some people speculate, he never wrote a single word for publication after his last short story was published in the New Yorker in 1965.

Verve and energy

Gould was no less stubborn in keeping his vow never to go near a piano again in public, but he did continue to make recordings, and even broadcast regularly on Canadian radio and television, although he controlled his appearances with manic zeal. The late Yehudi Menuhin, scheduled to have a televised discussion with him on the merits of recordings versus concerts, was astonished to be handed a script beforehand with the thoughts and words Gould envisaged he would express (which, in the end, an exasperated Menuhin went along with).

So why the "seclusion"? I could never get beyond the first few pages of Catcher, being uninterested in the ruminations of a 17-year-old boy. But, belatedly, I can now see why the novel has sold 60 million copies and remains as compulsively fresh and engrossing to today's teenagers as it was when first published six decades ago - precisely because of that ordinariness, the authentic, rarely heard voice of frustrated, aimless youth struggling to be heard with which the young (and sometimes not so young) can readily identify.

I had no such doubts, however, when I first checked out Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations from Luton public library a decade or more after it had come out (does any public library in the UK offer such material from its shelves these days, I wonder?) and was astonished, almost overjoyed, by the pulsating verve and energy Gould brought to a work of Bach that I had only heard before in leaden harpsichord interpretations.

Each man produced his work of a lifetime young - Gould at 22, Salinger at 31. Gould had endured a cosseted childhood, his precocious brilliance driven by a domineering mother who dressed him in frilly clothes and thrust him in front of adoring audiences in parochial Toronto. Emotionally distanced from his contemporaries, the 22-year-old who arrived at the Columbia recording studios in New York to record the Goldberg Variations was already manifesting unresolved neuroses: a terror of germs, an insistence on wearing far too many layers of clothing even on hot summer days, compulsive rituals such as soaking his hands in hot water for long periods before playing, and so on.

Salinger, for his part, had suffered a nervous breakdown after landing at Normandy on D-Day in the Second World War, taking part in the liberation of Dachau and using his linguistic skills to work in wartime counter-intelligence. What you read in Catcher, I suspect, is not so much the moody self-indulgence of 17-year-old Holden Caulfield, but shrieks of desperation from a 31-year-old man, damaged and robbed of his late adolescence and early manhood by the traumas of war.

Pursuit of peace

It is no wonder that both men - having been propelled by affliction to premature pinnacles in their careers - soon sought escape. Each was terrified, perhaps justifiably, that he could not repeat his early triumph. Each had already made enough money to last a lifetime. But, most tellingly, I will never forget Gould describing to me how he was still haunted by words he heard every Sunday when he played the organ as an 11-year-old at Evensong: "Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give."

For Gould, that elusive pursuit of peace spiralled into an all-pervasive hypochondria and increasing dependence on barbiturates and countless other pills he persuaded numerous doctors to prescribe for him - and an early death. Salinger, by all accounts not nearly so gentle and likeable a man, also sought solace in pills and potions that were bizarre and faddish rather than deadly.

To the rest of us, The Catcher in the Rye and Gould's 1955 interpretation of the Goldberg Variations were great artistic achievements of the 20th century. To Salinger and Gould, however, each was born of adversity and led to yet more adversity, from which both felt forced to flee. That was the price paid by both men for such astonishing artistry: lifelong banishments into what the media so jeeringly dismiss as "seclusion".

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis