Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Catching the magic of Glass

Remain in peace in the unity of God and walk blindly in the clear straight path of your obligations...

If God wishes more from you his inspiration will make you know it.

JD Salinger, 1958

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."

Holden Caulfield, in Catcher in the Rye

I first heard about JD Salinger and his Catcher in the Rye when I was a college student in Calcutta, more than 30 years ago. My sister Sita had got that from a library, and my father told me that so much had been made about the book but he had now read it and was unable to fathom what the book, and all the hullabaloo, was about!

I read Catcher after that, and later Franny and Zooey, when I was still a university student. That left a quietly powerful impression, and was then largely forgotten. I think some years later I read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. When my own fiction writing urge began surfacing, about 20 years ago - a natural outcome of reading a lot of fine literature - I found that there was strong influence of Salinger, and specifically the stories relating to the Glass family.

In 2003, on a visit to London after many years, I came upon and picked up a copy of Catcher and read it again a few months later, after my return to Calcutta. And thus began my "second innings" with JDS, but of course, by now, I too had been through the experience of life, and of walking along the mystic path. Visiting a bookshop with my sons in early 2004, I came upon Salinger's Nine Stories and the Raise High volume and picked those up. Reading them, soon after - I was finally in the inescapable grip or clutch of Salinger, and the magic of the Glass saga. I frantically searched for Franny and Zooey, which I was fortunate to find. I devoured that too.

But we were now living in the internet age, so thanks to Google, I could find so much on the net, by and about Salinger and his writing. I was also fortunate to be able to read Salinger's "uncollected" stories (i.e. those which had been published in various magazines but not collected in one volume). This included "Hapworth", his last published story, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. I read what several people, well-known writers, critics, had written about Salinger. I found myself differing from them. I read about the various purportedly eccentric things he had supposedly said or done.

Read the cover story in Time magazine on JD Salinger, which appeared on 15 September 1961.

I also came upon the wonderful Dead Caulfieds site, and began communicating by email with Kenneth Slawenski, the site owner. I am simply a reader-lover of literature, while Kenneth also has the faculties of a literary critic. So we had an interesting dialogue about JDS and his writing.

Since then I have been a translator of the stories of Bengali anti-establishment writer, Subimal Misra. He is also a reclusive, stubbornly principled, cantankerous, eccentric, cussed, and yet endearing, person. But I have been fortunate to win his trust and confidence. So now it is easier for me to understand Salinger.

I knew Salinger was of an advanced age, and every now and then - just like I used to do vis-a-vis Studds Terkel - made a mental calculation of how old he must be, and thought about him awhile. In fact just some days before Salinger pased away (on 27 January), I had reflected that he would be 91 now. I only learnt about his demise on 29 Jan. As it turns out, my son Rituraj has chosen Catcher for his high school graded study. So I subsequently gave my copy of the book to him and searched through my computer for articles I had downloaded that might be relevant to him. And so I was once again deep inside Salinger-dom.

I also wrote to Kenneth.

I was wondering what your thoughts were on his passing away.

Kenneth replied:

I was shocked by the news of Salinger's passing. I had heard that he was recovering well from hip surgery last spring and lulled myself with the belief that he would be around for a number of years to come. Extreme old age is not unusual in the Salinger family and while many laughed at him for his meager diet of organic vegetables in the 1960s, no one was scoffing in 2009 when he turned 90.

An amazing thing has happened here that gives me encouragement even at this sad time. In honor of the author, people have started to read and are discovering Salinger and his works in unprecedented numbers. YouTube is bursting with tributes sent in by ordinary people reading The Catcher in the Rye. Catcher is presently the #5 bestselling book in the nation - and would probably be #1 if it were obtainable. Even Amazon.com has run out of copies. Not only of
Catcher, but all four Salinger books.

That is a tribute even Salinger would have enjoyed. The only one that really matters.

I reproduce below my reply to Kenneth.


JDS was simply a magician, the allure, mystique, infatuation and pull he created for many people with those few books - that was the magic wrought by the writing.

As far as I can see and understand, JDS was of a strongly mystic disposition, though he also had several other uncommon and powerful elements in his make-up (e.g. military action service). There was also a rich creative synthesis of these multiple dispositions.

He experienced transcendence in his own being, and in his (latter) stories, and specifically through the Glass stories, he sought to write about being and transcendence. I suppose he had experienced for himself how reading and intellection can bring such transcendence.

What JDS lacked in terms of quantity (of disclosed or published output), he more than made up with the intensity of the work. Few writers with a much larger body of work achieve the kind of powerful hold over readers that he did.

There is a big gap between JDS and people in the domain of "literary-" or literature. But I would think his hold is largely outside the literary world, among (thinking) people who are only fiction / literature readers-lovers (like me), not scholars or teachers or literary critics etc. So when people in the literature world have criticised his writing (and his persona as deduced by them from his writing), that may be quite irrelevant.

He has a place even just within the literary domain, simply in terms of his superior story-telling craftsmanship. But JDS saw himself in the wider canvas of life, of public culture, and the thinking, sensitive, aesthetic, self-educating individual within that, writing as a medium within that. And essentially he was writing for people like himself; solitary mystic individuals, men I guess, who have been formed and re-formed through literature. He did connect to and become part of the mystic stream, flowing through the ages, of literature / epic / saga / mythology, and in turn helped to renew that grand stream, in his own time, from his own place .

My own disposition is not to form opinions or judge, but simply to try to understand, with the totality before me accepted as a given; to try to get inside him and his head, to share, to witness. So that is the relation I have to him and his work. From that perspective, I don't find things he said or did to be incomprehensible, just as I don't agree with things said by others (e.g. comments on Hapworth). I think it is an important part of the Glass saga, it is not redundant vis a vis the rest of the saga, for me, it stands well by itself, for someone who has been inside the Glass saga. (There should also be a long gap between the readers' "Glass-enclosure" and the reading of Hapwworth! Like a music composer, and in keeping with his quality-over-quantity nature, JDS also knew well the powerful value and quality of "silence", in the saga of his life and writing.)

Given his reclusive life and secured inaccessibility, his passing away makes no difference. The other way of saying this is that, he was alive (and eternal), and he continues to be alive (and eternal)! His passing away will hopefully have the positive effect of a renewed interest and appraisal and celebration of his writing.

Maybe he made arrangements for his work from his "silent" years to be made public at some later juncture. Who knows!

I guess one could call JDS a writers' writer rather than a writer.

Unfortunately, my father passed away long before I could have told him what the "hullabaloo" about Catcher was about! But I'm sure, by the end of his life, when his innate mystic disposition surfaced, no such explanation was needed.


Farewell, dear friend, and all strength for your onward journey. You remain in our hearts.

Read Adam Gopnik's obituary in The New Yorker here and a tribute by Lillian Ross here.

The quote in the beginning of this post appears on the Dead Caulfields site.


Rahul Banerjee said...

i tend to agree with your father that catcher in the rye is slightly overrated. it is typical american mish mash! whatever mysticism there is in it is of a very low order as compared to say the buddha. the rebellion is also betrayed in the end. a "three idiots" kind of fantasizing that does not lead us anywhere. i am surprised that given your sharply critical faculties you have fallen for this one.

Nila-kantha-chandra said...

Ha ha, that's a good one Rahul. Actually, "Catcher" did not appeal to me that much. Its the Glass stories that interested and intrigued me. There's no "mysticism" in "Catcher" I'm sure!