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A life set in mystery
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, October 20, 2013 15:24
Tags : Salinger | David Shields | Shane Salerno |

Somewhere in the middle of Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist and the narrator, Holden Caulfield, amidst his continuous whining, says that how good it would be if you could just call and talk to an author after reading his book, whenever you wished to. That, one must admit, is not a thought that thrilled merely Holden Caulfield. It is part of the fantasy of nearly every avid reader and appreciator of the written texts. A fantasy that seldom gets fulfilled; and thankfully so.

Some commentators have time and again said that these lines in The Catcher in the Rye sort of give a window inside J D Salinger’s mind and possibly explain his years of reclusiveness. The jury is still out. Four serious biographies in the last two decades have tried to decode this seemingly undecodable mystery. All of them failed. And miserably. If you are dealing with Salinger, bloody well your failings should be momentous. Or you did not attempt.

Salinger: The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film by David Shields and Shane Salerno is the latest offering in this quest. In terms of treatment of the subject and availability of scoops, the book is different from some of the previous ones that I mentioned. But that is not a qualification on its own.

To start with, the book does not follow a coherent pattern of narrative, which is not always a bad thing. Considering this supplements the documentary film that was released early last month, the narrative looks more like a screenplay. There is a curious mix of testimonies, interviews, admissions, assertions, and scoops.

The book starts with an opening that vividly reminds one of the famous opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. A young Salinger prepares to participate in the famous D-Day landing and we are taken through by now overused scenes of blood and gore. Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of the Kaufering IV concentration camp follow. In fact, this segment is dealt with in length. It is also revealed that of the 337 days that the US saw real active combat in the WW II on the western front, Salinger fought for as many as 299! The writers put a marvellous effort to bring in voices of veterans who fought those battles, including some of those who fought in the unit where Salinger served. However, you start to feel uncomfortable when the authors bring in WW II expert historians to reflect upon the details. You sense that the authors are trying to drive home a point, one that is revealed in latter pages.

The authors suggest that the battles and especially the liberation of the concentration camps had a deep and not-unusually long-lasting impact on the part-Jewish Salinger. There have been some voices in the past suggesting that The Catcher in the Rye should be treated as a veiled war novel. Or rather a veiled post-war novel. In fact, somewhere in the middle of the novel, Caulfield touches that theme for a moment. He mentions that all wars are phony and so are the generals, in not exactly those words. He even briefly criticises his older brother, a screenplay writer who hates war yet loves a particular war-based movie. But the hints stop there.

There is also pretty little to suggest to what extent his experiences of battles affected Salinger. However, the authors leave the scholarly judgement here and starts dwelling in rumours and far-fetched assertions. To one’s horror, they conclusively reach the conclusion that Salinger suffered from an untreated Post Stress Traumatic Disorder (PSTD). It is also revealed that Salinger was working in the counter-intelligence unit, a fact hitherto unavailable in the public domain. However, the authors again squander the scholarship by suggesting that his divorce from his first wife, a German, was primarily because he suspected her to be a Gestapo spy! Or more bewildering: that his reclusiveness in the later life had something to do with his experiences during his stint with the counter-intelligence unit. If this sounds preposterous to you, join the club. Salinger enjoyed the company of people and a little bit of spotlight during much of 50s. It was only after some scathing reviews of Franny and Zooey emerged in the mainstream media that he started his phased withdrawal. 

But there are good things in the book too. The volumes of hitherto unused and unknown letters by Salinger give considerable details about his thought process in later years. It is also revealed that there is a volume of unpublished works that might see the printer’s ink between 2015-2020.

The strength of this book is the way it deals with some of the personal aspects of his life. It is suggested that Salinger had a sort of creepy liking for teenage girls. Jean Miller’s account suggest that while he started a chaste relationship with her when she was merely 14, he left her the day after they had their first intercourse when she turned 19.

The book has both serious and juicy details. But it cannot be called a definitive read. But then again, nothing about Salinger is definitive.

Author: David Shields & Shane Salerno

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-1-47113-038-0

Pages: 730

Price: Rs. 599

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017