Posts Tagged ‘J. D. Salinger’

“The Catcher in the Rye”

  • So you write a blog?

I couldn’t deny it. Yes, I replied. What kind of blog? Oh, I write about whatever comes to mind, really, but it’s mainly about books.

  • So you read a lot?

Not a lot, I explain. Compared to many other book bloggers, I actually read very little. But yes, I do read, and I like thinking about what I read, and putting down my thoughts – such as they are – on paper. Or on a laptop screen, at least.

  • So what do you think of The Catcher in the Rye?

Now, that question came out of the blue, and I wasn’t quite prepared for it. But I said, truthfully, that it has been many decades since I read it, and I remember I rather enjoyed it at the time.

A pause. And then:

  • I hated it. I don’t know why it’s regarded as a classic. It was just this whiny kid going on and on. Irritated the hell out of me. I felt like slapping him.

Oh, I said. Well, never mind. Fancy another drink?

Now, to be frank, I don’t really understand why it’s considered a classic either. Oh, not that it’s a bad novel – it clearly isn’t: but if I were to compile one of those tiresome list of The Greatest Novels I Have Read, I don’t think I’d include The Catcher in the Rye. But I suppose it depends on where exactly you draw the line separating the Great from Nearly-Great-But-Not-Quite, or where exactly you separate that from Very-Good-But-Certainly-Nowhere-Near-Great, and so on. But whatever category you put it in, I don’t think it can be denied that the book is a cultural phenomenon. It’s one of those books that is read even by those who don’t normally read books. The impact it has made is more than literary, and that in itself demands attention.

When it was first published in the early 1950s, it was, perhaps rather quaintly from our contemporary perspective, deemed controversial. Many schools banned it from their reading lists. That in itself gave it the frisson of forbidden goods. It was, seemingly, anti-establishment, a handbook of teenage rebellion. However, nowadays, it is actually required reading in many schools, and that kills off whatever street-cred it might have had. And anyone looking in it for a frisson of that rebellious anti-establishment vibe is likely to come away thinking “Huh?”

For, looking around various comments on the net, I do not get the impression that The Catcher in the Rye is much liked these days – certainly not as much liked as it used to be in my own teenage years, back in the 1970s, when it was considered essential reading. The comments I see now mostly seem to agree that Holden Caulfield really is simply a “whiny kid”, and deeply irritating. Whether I should take these comments as in any way representative of contemporary tastes, and whether the tide really has turned so spectacularly since my teenage years, I do not know. But it seemed intriguing.

Now, even if we were to concede that Holden really is just a “whiny kid”, disliking a character, even the principal character, is, in general, a poor reason for disliking a novel. But I do concede that in this particular novel, we need, if not actually to see the world through Holden’s eyes, to be at least in sympathy with his perspective: otherwise the novel would make little if any emotional impact. In the course of the novel’s action, Holden has what we may describe as a mental breakdown: merely to stand in detached and unsympathetic judgement over this is unlikely to bring us very close to the heart of what the novel is about.

But what is the novel about? The general consensus appears to be that it is about teenage angst, and teenage rebellion. But even when I read it as a teenager I could see that it wasn’t that. Or, rather, the angst it depicts is not something that can reasonably be described as teenage angst.  Something described as “teenage angst” must, by definition, be widespread amongst teenagers: but no other teenager in this novel feels anything like the mental agonies that Holden goes though; and Holden himself is as powerfully alienated from people of his own age group as he is from adults. What we are asked to observe is not, I think, a general condition, but rather, an affliction affecting one particular individual.

And Holden is not really rebellious. His “rebellion” really amounts to no more than walking out of the residential school he attends (he is obviously from a privileged background), and spending a few days by himself in New York. And even in those few days, he doesn’t actually do anything bad, as such: even when he has the opportunity to sleep with a prostitute, he finds he cannot go through with it. Of course, he dislikes all that he sees around him, but, beyond expressing his dislike, he does little to rebel against them.

In many ways, he is very much a product of the society he finds himself disliking. His attitude to homosexuality, for instance: while not openly hostile or malicious, homosexuality is nonetheless something he finds disturbing, and, by modern standards at least, we would certainly deem him “homophobic”. But given the background he has grown up in, it really would have taken a very fearless and independent thinker to hold what we may nowadays consider tolerant and enlightened views on the matter; and Holden as a thinker is neither fearless nor independent. Indeed, he is not much of a thinker at all: his dissatisfaction with life is purely an instinctive, emotional response to what is around him, not an intellectual stance.

So why is he so dissatisfied? Holden himself cannot explain this, for, firstly, he does not analyse himself, and is possibly incapable of doing so; and secondly, neither is he very articulate. His general sense of dissatisfaction is something he feels, but which he cannot understand, or express in words even if he could. So it is up to us, as readers, to try to look beyond his natural inarticulacy. One word he uses frequently is “phoney”. He doesn’t explain what he mans by this, but we can see that he tends to apply this word to describe what he regards (although he would possibly be unable to articulate it thus) as emotional shallowness, or insincerity. And this he sees all around him. People say things, do things, not because they feel it, but simply because that is the form, as it were, simply because this is what everyone does. What appears to dissatisfy him is a lack of feeling, a lack of emotional depth in peoples’ day-to-day lives. But why seems it so particular with him? However, as with Prince Hamlet (in this if little else), he knows not “seems”: for Holden, it is. It is the seeming in others that he deplores.

And the reason for this, though not immediately apparent, emerges slowly over the course of the novel, and takes centre stage in the climactic passage towards the end, where he meets with his sister Phoebe: Holden is still in grieving for the death of his brother Allie, and he cannot understand why the rest of the world isn’t also in grieving with him. How can people – even his own parents – carry on with their lives as before after something so momentous as this? How can they all go inside to take shelter from the rain immediately after his funeral?

This, I think, is at the heart of the matter. The novel is not about teenage angst, or rebellion, or about the difficulties of coming to age: it’s about a sensitive young lad who cannot articulate his grief, nor understand how the rest of the world, his own parents included, could fail to grieve as he does, could carry on living when his own life seems to have come to a halt. And considered as such, it strikes me as a very poignant novel, and not deserving the opprobrium so frequently heaped upon it these days.

I honestly can’t remember how many years it has been since I last read it. And, unlike many other books I have read, it is not one that has been a prominent presence in my mind in those years. But when, prompted by the conversation I reported at the start of this post, I started to think back on it, I was surprised by how vivid it had remained in my mind, by how well I remembered it – even above many other novels that are arguably of a higher literary quality.

A great novel? No, probably not. It probably doesn’t have the artistic scope that one might expect from something labelled “great”. But I think it’s a minor masterpiece, all the same.

On opening lines

In this post, I consider what makes for good opening lines.

That wasn’t really very good, was it? Not only does that opening line not impart much beyond what the title has already said, it establishes a tone of voice that is unlikely to engage the casual reader. Or even, for that matter, an interested one. It presents a picture of an author who is scrupulous and correct, but also bland and boring; and who – as Wilde said most unfairly about Henry James – sees writing as a “painful duty”. Perhaps it might work better if expressed as a rhetorical question:

What makes for a good opening line?

A bit better, perhaps: it opens the prospect of a discussion that could lead to some sort of answer. But it’s not much better than the first attempt, to be honest. Many of my earlier posts in this blog started in this manner, but once I made the effort to read through some of my older posts in a critical frame of mind – a salutary though frequently dispiriting thing to do – I realised quite soon how irritating a mannerism this is. I take care never to start any post like this nowadays.

For openings are difficult, and also important, especially in our attention-straitened times. If you haven’t captured the reader’s attention within the first few lines – sometimes within the very first line – then the prospective reader has gone: that extra “view” on your blog statistics does not translate to someone who has bothered to read what you’ve written.

This obviously puts at a disadvantage writers such as myself whose natural style tends towards the prolix rather than the snappy. But snappy opening lines are not without their problems either. All too often, they seem designed to capture the reader’s attention: it’s sometimes a sort of metaphorical throat-clearing – a call to attention which, once delivered, clears the way for the piece really to begin with the second sentence. This is not necessarily a shortcoming: one can sometimes find this sort of thing even in very fine works. Take, for instance, the opening of Joseph Heller’s brilliant Catch 22:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

Instantly, the reader (well this reader at any rate) is hooked. But the paragraph that follows has nothing to do with the chaplain: it tells us that Yossarian was in hospital, and explains why. The writing is still brilliant, the reader is still hooked, but that first sentence does not lead to what immediately follows: there is a disjoin.

Of course, that isn’t a problem here – especially as this novel delights in comic artifice, and constantly, and quite deliberately, draws attention to itself. But if that opening line were to be omitted, there would be no hole in the narrative. Writers lesser than Joseph Heller (which is just about all of us, I guess) would, I think, be well-advised to be careful about using this sort of throat-clearing opening gambit. I try not to use it myself: I know my limits, and, badly done, it could become as irritating a mannerism as starting posts with rhetorical questions.

Of course, opening lines don’t have to be snappy to capture the reader’s attention: take for instance the famous openings sentence of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Sixty-three words, by my count, which could easily be cut down dramatically while still retaining its sense; but, as written, it captures the reader’s attention because it establishes a very distinctive tone of voice: the “David Copperfield kind of crap” is a particularly felicitous touch. The model for this sort of thing is, I suppose, the opening of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

Once again, it captures a very distinctive tone of voice. The “don’t” rather than the grammatically correct “won’t” helps capture the tone, but the real touch of brilliance here is, I think, the word “without”. Most of us would have written something along the lines of “You won’t know about me unless you have…”; or “You won’t know about me if you haven’t…”; but anything along those lines would have disrupted the distinctive rhythm of Huck’s manner of speaking. I don’t know how much time and thought Twain had given to that opening sentence, but I suspect it was the product of hard work rather than a spontaneous effusion. And how he must have rejoiced when he finally came up with “without”, and realised that the opening sentence was now absolutely perfect.

But one can also create arresting openings without being snappy, and without establishing an engaging and distinctive narrative voice: but such openings arrest the attention only of a certain kind of reader. Here, for instance, is the opening sentence of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove:

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass above the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.

Of course, this is unlikely to attract readers who are not prepared to take their time and to engage closely, but James is not writing for such readers anyway. Here, all in one sentence, we are given a sense of the passage of time (Kate Croy is waiting “unconscionably”); the detail of the glass above the mantel gives us a sense of place; the irritation that brings Kate Croy to the point of leaving without seeing her father conveys a sense of her character, and also a sense of tension for reasons as yet unspecified; the face “postively pale” implies a sense of crisis either impending or apparent; and even the four opening words (“She waited, Kate Croy, …” rather than “Kate Croy waited …”) places the emphasis on the act of waiting rather than on the more mundane matter of the naming of the character; while the two commas punctuating these first four words make for a halting, stuttering rhythm that conveys admirably a sense of strain and of unease. All this in a single, harmoniously constructed sentence. Admittedly, this is unlikely to make the Flavorwire or Buzzfeed (or whatever) list of great opening lines, but if ever there were a finer opening to a novel than this, I don’t know it.

And only yesterday, on starting for the first time the essays of Francis Bacon, I came upon this opening line:

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

The essay is entitled “On Truth”. In the gospels, Pilate does indeed ask the captured Jesus this most profound of questions, “What is truth?” (John 18:38); we do not know if Jesus had answered, for no answer is recorded. In Bacon’s version of this story, Pilate did not stay for an answer – either because he did not think there was an answer, or because he did not wish to hear what he thought (or feared) the answer may be. And Pilate, according to Bacon, was “jesting”. Not that he asked the question “in jest”, but that his entire person may be described as “jesting”; that he either refused, or pretended to refuse, to take life too seriously. The two possibilities put forward in this brief sentence are intriguing: either Pilate did not take life seriously, and had asked “What is truth?” fully convinced that no answer was possible; or that he pretended, for reasons we may only guess at, not to take life too seriously, and did not wish even to hear any possible answer to his question.

What wondrous vistas of thought, rich in possibilities, are brought to view by this seemingly simple opening line! It draws me into this meditation on the nature of truth as surely as if it were a thrilling adventure story. Now, that’s how to start an essay, and, to judge by the generally mundane opening lines of my posts here on my blog – the critical reading of which remains, as I said, a frequently dispiriting thing to do – I clearly have some considerable distance yet to go…