Revelations about Salinger the man are no substitute for understanding his workby Roberta Klimt / October 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
I used to know more or less nothing about JD Salinger’s life. Now I wish I had stayed ignorant. This is not because, reading David Shields and Shane Salerno’s new book Salinger, along with a handful of older biographies, I discovered deal-breakingly off-putting details about one of my favourite authors. It is not even due to the feeling of having given in to the Salinger industry, which capitalises on his wish to be left alone. Rather, it is the realisation that looking to Salinger’s life for clues about his work is a waste of energy. Salinger’s traumatic wartime experiences, his unequal love affairs, his crankish caprices, are interesting in the abstract, but it is only by straining that they can be made to line up, usefully, with his fiction.
In The Anatomy Lesson, Philip Roth’s literary doppelganger, Nathan Zuckerman, has this to say about the relationship between a writer’s life and his art: “The burden isn’t that everything has to be a book. It’s that everything can be a book. And doesn’t count as life until it is.” This claim seems to have been taken up, in reverse, by Salinger’s chroniclers. For them, something doesn’t really count as a book until, so to speak, it is life. According to Shields and Salerno, Esmé, of “love and squalor” fame, has to be based on a real girl called Jean Miller that Salinger met at a Florida resort. Shields and Salerno also make Miller serve as the model for another fictional character, the little girl, Sybil, who plays on the beach with Seymour in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” At best, such readings simply confirm that Salinger, like most writers, sometimes drew from real-life experience. At worst, they rule out the importance of his imagination. More to the point, though, these readings have no purchase on their object. Salinger’s writing, like suede spritzed with waterproofing spray, is protected against this sort of biographical interpretation.
There is something hermetic about Salinger’s stories. They have an internal logic, a self-referentiality, which makes readers more than usually conscious of our dependency on the narrator. “Teddy,” the last in the volume Nine Stories, deals with a precocious, quasi-Buddhist ten-year-old on a cruise with his parents and little sister. The reader is drip-fed little details and led towards a sinister, indeterminate conclusion. The sudden gathering-together of meaning—in this case the scream of “a small, female child,” whose cause we don’t see but can guess at—is a speciality of Salinger. His stories are all about atmosphere until, when decisive moments come, we must suddenly put together, logically, what we thought he had only been asking us to feel.