The Heart of a Broken Story

A detailed biography of one of literature’s greatest recluses claims to have all the answers,but fails to convince.

Written by Sudeep Paul | Published:October 5, 2013 2:06 am

A detailed biography of one of literature’s greatest recluses claims to have all the answers,but fails to convince.

Book: Salinger: The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film

Author: David Shields and Shane Salerno

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Pages: 698

Price: Rs 599

A new book on Salinger only adds to the din. When it comes packaged as the “official” accompaniment to a documentary of debatable merit,you will be pardoned for wondering which is the appurtenance and which the real deal. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that the said documentary,too young to acquire the extended and overwhelming judgement implied by “acclaimed”,is attributed to another Salinger biography — Paul Alexander’s — that counts as one of the countless voices competing under the Lombard effect of this book.

To give Salerno (of Armageddon screenplay fame) and Shields (a fairly acclaimed novelist) their due,they have spent nine years on Salinger,interviewing “more than two hundred” people. That energy is all too visible in a format designed like a documentary script,with multiple characters speaking on Salinger or on his times,depending on how close they had approached him personally or how well they had imbibed his works or both. But this book commits the cardinal sin of biography: Messrs Shields and Salerno advertise it as the most comprehensive ever written (if chapters consisting of paragraphs as quotes from original or old interviews,memoirs,other biographies — none of it attributed and annotated in painstaking detail — and Salinger’s works can be called writing),the most insightful,and,above all,they claim to have all the answers,having cracked the enigma that was one of literature’s greatest recluses. For a biography screaming its Never Befores,it would certainly have benefited from an index.

Shields and Salerno pull off a number of scoops. Salinger buddy Paul Fitzgerald’s photographs of Salinger from the war (including the only,and previously unpublished,photo of Salinger writing The Catcher in the Rye during World War II) and previously unpublished photos of Salinger with his German wife Sylvia complete a picture Salinger himself never expanded beyond his only line on the most defining episode of his life: “I landed on Utah Beach on D-Day with the Fourth Division.” In the chapter “The Origin of Esmé”,Shields and Salerno reveal Jean Miller,hitherto known only as “J”,who might have been the model for Sybil in A Perfect Day for Bananafish. Salinger met Miller in 1949,when she was 14,“and over the next five years corresponds with her,dates her,and seduces her. The same pattern recurs throughout his life: innocence admired,innocence seduced,innocence abandoned.” It took several years of tracking Miller down and then

convincing her to break her 60-year-old silence.

The truth is,despite Salinger’s best efforts to hide away,his privacy had been invaded many times by biographers,reporters,photographers and fans — sometimes with calculated help from Salinger — and the results have been around for decades. If Ian Hamilton’s legally pulverised biography was a beginning,memoirs were written by his daughter,Margaret Salinger,his lover Joyce Maynard,and anybody who could meet the man or lie in ambush had enjoyed a kind of celebrity,as did journalists Michael Clarkson and Betty Eppes or Life photographer Ted Russell. Taken together,these and other accounts had pieced together,to a fair extent,the writer who ran from the world by choosing to run from the book that made him an overnight icon.

Working on the assumption that the reading public has sustained its curiosity about post-disappearance Salinger,Shields and Salerno answer the question whether he kept writing with an emphatic yes. No surprises there,again. That too was well-known. But their explosive claim,“verified by two independent and separate sources”,is that there are many more Salinger books (on both the Glass and Caulfield families and even the war) that his estate will publish “in irregular instalments starting between 2015 and 2020”. Matthew and Colleen O’Neill (Salinger’s son and third wife respectively and his literary executors) haven’t been too friendly towards Salerno and Shields. The safest bet is to lie in wait and think about other things.

Salinger cannot stave off an unkind judgement when we come to the “conclusions” Shields and Salerno draw to cast in stone Salinger’s life as a “slow-motion suicide mission”. We know he was deeply affected by the war,perhaps damaged (Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography is the most detailed account of Salinger in WWII) ,but how do the authors arrive at PTSD and the conviction that Catcher… is a disguised war novel,since Salinger would never talk or write about the war? His lifelong attachment to Vedanta and Ramakrishna is well-known. Nine Stories has been read as stages in transcendental meditation,Buddy Glass’s retreat into silence as Vedantic withdrawal. But how conclusively can it be said that Salinger organised every phase of his life as per the stages of Brahmacharya,Garhasthya,Vanaprasthya and Sannyasa (incidentally,the four parts the book is divided into)? It may be accurate to describe Salinger as an investigation of “the process by which a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself,through his art,into an icon of the twentieth century and then,through his religion,destroyed his art”,but only because the authors are as convinced about it,as they are about Salinger’s undescended testicle,or about the ghost of long lost Oona O’Neill compelling him to a lifetime’s obsession with girls on the threshold of adulthood.

Holden Caulfield is not a child,nor is he beautiful. Reading Catcher as America’s disillusioned middle-age and Holden as a prematurely adult Huck Finn,as we do,is not a prelapsarian pursuit. And the war is conspicuous by its absence. Salerno and Shields cannot be faulted for a hideously un-Salingerian biography,but the pursuit of closure on a figure as complex and contradictory as Salinger will leave people unconvinced. Salinger,dead three years and three quarters now,is better left in peace,finally — in the absence of the choice of returning the narrative to where Salinger broke it off. If we are not a bunch of “phonies”,we should return to those four books and that bunch of stories he never allowed to be republished.

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