Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Salinger and Catcher in the Rye

Last week I watched a documentary about J. D. Salinger. He was one of the generation of young American  writers who went to war and returned traumatised to a greater or lesser degree. Some wrote straight war stories, largely based on their own experiences, Irwin Shaw's Young Lions, Herman Wouk's Caine Mutiny, Norman Mailer's Naked and the dead. Some wrote books reflecting their disenchantment with the war as a great patriotic effort, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, Joseph Heller's Catch 22, but Salinger expressed his disenchantment differently. in Catcher in the Rye he got inside the head of a rich, spoiled seventeen year old student, a dropout from a prestigous school, who saw the world as one inhabited by phonies. Ambition, success were meaningless for him. He did not want to emulate his brother, a successful writer, who sold out to Hollywood, or his father, a successful lawyer. He could only relate to his younger sister, the embodiment of childish innocence. Generations of teenagers identifies with Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye. Mark Chapman shot John Lennon, then proceeded to read Catcher in the Rye. John Hickley, who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan had this book with him. Holden Caulfield and I were about the same age when the book was published in 1951 and I must have read the book in my time. I certainly read Franny and Zooey in the New Yorker some years later and I was interested in Salinger as a writer. I appreciated a kind of perfection in his writing. The characters come alive. It is not the story, not the action that matters but the people who inhabit the book. Catcher in the Rye takes place over two days, and nothing much happens, but the narrative is so complete, it would not be possible to add anything to it. Yet I, as a seventeen year old, or perhaps a few years older when I read the book, could not identify with Holden Caulfield. To me he was a spoiled rich brat who had nothing to complain about, he should have got his act together. The world was threatened by nuclear war, the poor of the world ware oppressed by the rich, wars were waged in parts of the world for the aggrandisement of the capitalist  or the communist system and my contemporaries were slaughtered in Malaya, Korea, later in Vietnam. Leaders chosen by their people were assassinated in the Congo, in Iran, in Chile.The challenge for me and my generation was to make the world a better, juster place, Protesting about wars, protesting about injustice was OK, but sulking, withdrawing from the world, killing John Lennon, did not help to make the world and its future any better.