Friday, 15 April 2011

Zooey high the roofbeam, Seymour

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Ever since the summer of 1981 I have been periodically re-reading a trilogy of JD Salinger novellas: Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, Zooey and Seymour: an introduction (supplemented by the linked long short story of For Esme - with love and squalor.

(At the time I also loved Catcher in the Rye, but have never felt inclined to re-read it since.)

Sometimes I think I have left behind the Glass family saga, but it turns out not; I keep returning.

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The reason is probably somewhat related to my loving for Tolkien - the sense of reality, depth, detail - the impression that these are not fictions but windows onto a world.

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I also revel in the precision and (yet) flexibility of the writing. Every re-read I seem to notice things I hadn't noticed before.

This corresponds to the way the stories were written. They were revised (and the last two were edited, by William Shawn - editor of the New Yorker) over many months and hundreds of hours, literally word by word.

While this minute obsessiveness would probably kill most authors (it would certainly kill me!), and would certainly kill their prose - it created something unique and wonderful in this instance.

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My favourite sentence - from RHTRBC is the first in this passage:

It was a day, God knows, not only of rampant signs and symbols but of wildly extensive communication via the written word. If you jumped into crowded cars, Fate took circuitous pains, before you did any jumping, that you had a pad and pencil with you, just in case one of your fellow-passengers was a deaf-mute. If you slipped into bathrooms, you did well to look up to see if there were any little messages, faintly apocalyptical or otherwise, posted high over the washbowl.

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Salinger was also a very interesting personality, and was last year the subject of one of the most impressive biographies of my experience: J.D.Salinger: a life raised high, by Kenneth Slawenski.

The most surprising discovery of which was to learn that Salinger experienced just about the most arduous conceivable frontline military campaign of the Western Sphere of WWII, from the D-Day landings, through the Battle of the Bulge and up to the surrender of Germany.

That fact is worth holding at the back of the mind when contemplating the jewelled fastidiousness of his fiction.

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4 comments:

  1. Beautifully put and seldom noticed as the source of Salinger's power.
    To see how far the craft of American writing has fallen, take a look at Jonathan Franzen's New Yorker piece on himself and David Foster Wallace. It has benefited from New Yorker editing, but there is not a sentence - not a clause of a sentence - that manages to say clearly what Franzen intends to say (and there is nothing difficult, or interesting, about what he does intend to say). The only exceptions are when he uses a cliche so obvious that even he can't misuse it. Mr. Shawn and his writers are well out of it.
    It's a literary experience not to be missed, really - what used to be called "pure poetry".
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/04/18/110418fa_fact_franzen

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  2. Sam - The New Yorker rejected Zooey outright, until Wm Shawn intervened and over-ruled the whole editorial staff - after which Shawn accepted Salinger's stories without consulation and worked exclusively and individually with Salinger.

    This squuezed Seymour out, for which I am very grateful - and then Hapworth 16, 1924 - an arid work which I simply cannot find enjoyable or valid.

    And then that was that - unless there are more unpublished stories in Salinger's voluminous papers... which is quite possible.

    But I wonder whether they will ever be published, and if so whether it will be during my lifespan...

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  3. The power to evoke emotions of love for brothers and sisters has not been equaled to my reading. As a scientist who has done so much work on human emotions and the human logical faculty, you may have thought a great deal about the interface of the power and beauty of emotional "mountain experiences" (as in Neitzche's expression of this idea) with the rational faculty. In the medical literature, one seems to see this in the literature on Mania to some extent. But we shudder to have the power evoked by writers like Salinger somehow reduced to this, i.e., "RHTRBC and SAI are a chronicle of the suicide of a manic depressive and its effects on his slightly less affected siblings." But somehow both of these realities are true. The Glass family has a clinical meaning, but their saga is so much more than that and has to do with a manifestation of the love that brothers and sisters can feel for one another and for one another's memory. I can see why someone like bgc who ultimately can only see the meaning of it all in a religious way because it's all too big and meaningful to be anything else. Even writing this the thought of the Glasses brings me to almost tears. Powerful writing.

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