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Posts Tagged ‘J.D. Salinger

To Write Or Not To Write

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Victor Hugo once said: “If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away.” Great novels are not dated in any essential sense as they capture the timeless human condition and longevity is the ultimate test for them. A vexing question for writers is as to why they write and what they seek to achieve via writing. In this post I’ll take some authors and present their views on the writing process and elaborate on how they look at what they do.

J.D. Salinger in a 1974 telephonic interview given to the New York Times from his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, said: “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

When he gave the interview it was about nine-and-a-half years since he had published his last novella ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’ in The New Yorker magazine in June 1965. The interview in 1974 was also his first since 1953, when he gave one to a 16-year-old girl of a high school newspaper in Cornish.

Salinger, who died aged 91 in January this year, blasted his way to literary fame and cult-like devotion with the 1951 publication of 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.” That’s how the frenetic three-day account around Christmas of Holden Caulfield began in the modern epic that is the benchmark against which all coming-of-age novels are measured.

Salinger remained a unique celebrity after the novel in the sense that his absence from public life further fuelled the curiosity around his life and works. Salinger was an extremely private man and after Catcher he devoted himself to creating fiction that centred on religion and ‘exposed the spiritual hollowness’ in American society (from http://www.deadcaulfields.com/; a website dedicated to the life and works of Salinger). To this end he collected characters from his early stories and bound them together into a single family—the Glass family. He described the family of seven children and their parents Les and Bessie Glass as ‘settlers in twentieth century New York.’

Salinger said: “I think writing is a hard life. But it’s brought me enough happiness that I don’t think I’d ever deliberately dissuade anybody (if he had talent) from taking it up. The compensations are few, but when they come, if they come, they’re very beautiful.”

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting the Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera discusses graphomania (a mania for writing books). The author recounts his encounter with a garrulous taxi-driver in Paris. The driver has chronic insomnia (Has had it since the war when he was a sailor and his ship sank. He swam three days and three nights before being rescued). In his extra time he writes and is working on a book about his experiences.

‘“Are you writing it for your children? As a family chronicle?’

He chuckled bitterly: ‘For my children? They’re not interested in that. I’m writing a book. I think it could help a lot of people.’

That conversation with the taxi driver suddenly made clear to me the essence of the writer’s occupation. We write books because our children aren’t interested in us. We address ourselves to an anonymous world because our wives plug their ears when we speak to them.

You might say that the taxi driver is not a writer but a graphomaniac. So we need to be precise about our concepts. A woman who writes her lover four letters a day is not a graphomaniac. She is a lover. But my friend who makes photocopies of his love letters to publish them someday is a graphomaniac. Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, personal diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s close relations) but a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers).”

This is another quote by Kundera: “The irresistible proliferation of graphomania shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down into the streets and shout: we are all writers! For everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen, into an indifferent universe, and because of that everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words. One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.”

In the afterword of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a novel that unfolds on a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son and becomes ‘a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live’ author Robert M. Pirsig says: “Certainly no one could have predicted what has happened. Back then, after 121 others had turned this book down, one lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, I shouldn’t be discouraged. Money wasn’t the point with a book like this.

That was true. But then came publication day, astonishing reviews, best-seller status, magazine interviews, radio and TV interviews, movie offers, foreign publications, endless offers to speak, and fan mail… week after week, month after month. The letters have been full of questions: Why? How did this happen? What is missing here? What was your motive? There’s a sort of frustrated tone. They know there’s more to this book than meets the eye. They want to hear all.

There really hasn’t been any ‘all’ to tell. There were no deep manipulative ulterior motives. Writing it seemed to have higher quality than not writing it, that was all.”

The last author that I want to consider in order to approach the writing process is the 2006 Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. I discovered Pamuk late and was blown away by My Name is Red. The novel is set in Istanbul in the late 1590s. The Ottoman Sultan commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and his empire, to be illuminated by the best miniaturists of the day. The novel opens with the murder of one of the artists and the mystery behind it sustains the pace and some of the tension in the plot. However, the murder is the backdrop from where the author enters into a meditation on art, love, artistic devotion and the conflict between East and West.

My Name is Red is a first person narrative; the titles of the chapters tell you who is doing the talking. It works brilliantly as you get to see how the same event is perceived by different people. The novel surgically opens and reveals the entire panorama of human relationship and motive. For instance you get to see the novel’s love story from the perspective of Black as well as Shekure (the man and the woman).

My Name is Red was translated by Erdag M. Goknar. The recent works of Orhan Pamuk are translated by Maureen Freely, a US journalist, translator, author, and professor who grew up in Turkey and now lives in England. In a review for New Statesman Freely said of My Name is Red: “More than any other book I can think of, it captures not just Istanbul’s past and present contradictions, but also its terrible, timeless beauty. It’s almost perfect, in other words. All it needs is the Nobel Prize.”

Dick Davis in a review for the Times Literary Supplement wrote: “Heartbreakingly persuasive… This novel is then formally brilliant, witty and about serious matters. But even this inclusive description does not really capture what I feel is the book’s true greatness, which lies in its managing to do with apparent ease what novelists have always striven for but very few achieve. It conveys in a wholly convincing manner the emotional, cerebral and physical texture of daily life, and it does so with great compassion, generosity and humanity.”

Pamuk himself has given less weight to the murder mystery and the East-West question and has called the arduous work of the miniaturist, the artist’s suffering, and his dedication to his work as the central issues of My Name is Red. The stories within the narrative of the old masters of Herat and of the great Bihzad are fascinating. Even towards the end Pamuk makes the reader marvel when Master Osman gets completely lost in admiring the illuminated pages of yesteryears and when the other miniaturists lose themselves while remembering the long days of their apprenticeship in the Sultan’s workshop. Pamuk has the gift of offering the reader any number of diversions to savour even when the tension of the plot is approaching boiling point.

‘Sirin falling in love with Husrev by looking at his picture is the best-known and most frequently illustrated story in Islamic literature’ and Pamuk uses it as a model for many scenes, gatherings, and stances in the novel. In a similar manner Pamuk sketches the character of Shekure so brilliantly that it becomes possible to fall in love with her just by reading.

In Pamuk’s words: “My book really has only one center, one heart: the kitchen! It is the place where Hayriye seeks to influence Esther the clothier with gossip and food; Shekure, too, comes downstairs to the kitchen to advance her intrigues, send off letters and notes, scold her children, and supervise the cooking. The kitchen and all that it contains are the platform on which everything stands.”

Pamuk captures the essence of a writer’s occupation in his book Other Colours: “In order to be happy I must have my daily dose of literature. In this I am no different from the patient who must take a spoon of medicine each day. …To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true—nothing makes me happier, nothing more surely binds me to life. …If my daily dose of literature is something I myself am writing, it’s all very different. Because for those who share my affliction, the best cure of all, and the greatest source of happiness, is to write a good half page every day. For thirty years I’ve spent an average of 10 hours a day alone in a room, sitting at my desk. If you count only the work that is good enough to be published, my daily average is a good deal less than half a page.

…But please don’t misunderstand me: A writer who is as dependent on literature as I am can never be so superficial as to find happiness in the beauty of the books he has already written, nor can he congratulate himself on their number or what these books achieved. Literature does not allow such a writer to pretend to save the world; rather, it gives him a chance to save the day. And all days are difficult. Days are especially difficult when you don’t do any writing. When you cannot do any writing. The point is to find enough hope to get through the day, and, if the book or the page you are reading is good, to find joy in it, and happiness, if only for a day.”


Anton Chekhov: The Tsar of Russian Literature

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During my school days in the eighties there was a lot of Russian literature that I had easy access to courtesy Progress Publishers and one of my uncles. My uncle is an avid reader and those days his library was flush with Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov and also innumerable folk tales from Russia. Some 5-odd first cousins and I grew up in a small hill town surrounded by Russian folk tales. Aldar Kose and Shigai-Bai were household names and we were all too familiar with the laziness and the charm of the youngest son Ivan.

The first time I read ‘Misery’ by Anton Chekhov it was a Hindi translation called Vyatha Ka Bhar. The story of Iona Potapov, a sledge-driver in Petersburg, takes just over 2000 words to capture crushing grief. Chekhov is brilliant in using the settings of Russian rural life; lived under the weight and silence of snow. The primary purpose of this post is just to provide a link to the story for an interested reader. In ‘Misery’ death ‘came for the father’ but took the son instead; and Chekhov, in the most beautiful manner, captured the stone deafness of the living.

Author J.D. Salinger referred to Chekhov in his book Franny and Zooey. ‘At ten-thirty on a Monday morning in November of 1955, Zooey Glass, a young man of twenty-five, was seated in a very full bath, reading a four-year-old letter. It was an almost endless-looking letter, typewritten on several pages of second-sheet yellow paper, and he was having some little trouble keeping it propped up against the two dry islands of his knees.’

The letter is addressed to Zooey and written by his eldest alive brother Buddy Glass and it deals with, among other things, the acting career of the recipient.

“And if you go into the theatre, will you have any illusions about that? Have you ever seen a really beautiful production of, say, The Cherry Orchard? Don’t say you have. Nobody has. You may have seen ‘inspired’ productions, ‘competent’ productions, but never anything beautiful. Never one where Chekhov’s talent is matched, nuance for nuance, idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy, by every soul on-stage. You worry hell out of me, Zooey. Forgive the pessimism, if not the sonority. But I know how much you demand from a thing, you little bastard. And I’ve had the hellish experience of sitting next to you at the theatre. I can so clearly see you demanding something from the performing arts that just isn’t residual there. For heaven’s sake, be careful.”

Salinger gets it so right; it is near impossible to match Chekhov’s talent nuance for nuance, idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy. The Wordsworth Classics edition of selected stories of Anton Chekhov carries an introduction by Joe Andrew, Professor of Russian Literature, Keele University, and some information in this piece is distilled from it. From being a writer partly to earn money to train to be a doctor and partly to amuse himself Chekhov drifted into literature seriously in the mid-1880s when he moved to St. Petersburg and met a number of famous writers who praised the great talent they saw semi-submerged beneath the hackwork. In his work Chekhov combined the dispassionate attitude of a scientist and doctor with the sensitivity and psychological understanding of an artist.

One of the works, The Robbers, appeared in Suvorin’s New Times in 1890 and the publisher reproached Chekhov for his ‘objectivity’ (that is, lack of ‘message’), and Chekhov responded with a tired irony: ‘You tell me off for my objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil … When I depict horse thieves, you want me to say that stealing horses is wrong. But surely this has been long known without me saying so. Let the jury condemn them, but it is my job simply to show them as they are.’

Yet there was a shift in Chekhov’s own approach as shown in a few of his last works and just two years later he wrote to the same correspondent that the best writers ‘are realistic and describe life as it is, but because each line is saturated with consciousness of its goal, you feel life as it should be in addition to life as it is, and you are captivated by it.’

The twentieth-century Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg sums this up well: ‘Chekhov’s sympathies and antagonisms are clear, but he does not touch up the people he likes and he finds human traits in those he dislikes or even hates. As a result of these tendencies, it would be no exaggeration to say that Chekhov was perhaps the most human, liberal, and basically decent man in Russian literature.’

This understanding of what the artist needed to do at the end of the nineteenth century in Russia arose in part from his deepening consciousness as an artist, but also because, as a man who had risen from very humble origins, and who continued to work (for free) as a doctor well into the 1890s, Chekhov knew life ‘in the lower depths’ better than any of his predecessors. Perhaps that is the reason why this profound line came from him: “Any idiot can face a crisis — it’s day to day living that wears you out.”

Notes: Misery and Grief by Anton Chekhov; Wordsworth Classics, Selected Stories, Anton Chekhov, 1996. Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger.

Written by Deepan Joshi

May 28, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Janet Malcolm: ‘The Journalist and the Murderer’

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It has taken me a few days—as I have been wandering in the national capital in search of a new house; a task that was to be achieved towards the end of last year but has dragged on to the new one—to pick a subject for the first piece of the year. In this transition phase I discovered a beautiful article ‘Justice to J.D. Salinger’ by Janet Malcolm and then a great one on her. That set the twin search processes in motion that I completed today.

Janet Malcolm is the author of The Journalist and the Murderer, a 1990 book that first appeared as a two-part article in the New Yorker in 1989. As I started following the links—whenever I got respite from the tedious house hunt—betrayal and justice were the two themes that resonated clearly and loudly in my ears. “Freud said nothing is coincidence.”

The Journalist and the Murderer opens with this stunning line: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of non-fiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

In a February 2000 piece for Salon Craig Seligman did justice to Janet Malcolm just as Janet later did to Salinger in her 2001 essay. Craig was aware of the background as he had worked as a fact checker in the New Yorker under William Shawn, a decade before his Salon piece and had even checked some of the facts for Malcolm’s photography pieces. In his article on Janet Malcolm—and the conflicts she got embroiled in—Craig lays bare a stunning story of the inherent contradictions of narrative as Janet sees it and dissects the work of a virtuoso stylist in Malcolm with a refined and amazing style of his own. Craig has not pulled punches while writing about Malcolm but he has given, for lack of a better metaphor, ‘the devil his due’. He shows with precision and clarity that The Journalist and the Murderer is not an attack or a question mark on the ethics of journalists—Malcolm’s point is ‘the canker that lies at the heart of the rose; the ethical paradox at the core of all journalism.’ Which is, as he proves effectively, the case with Malcolm’s writing about biography, psychoanalysis, and judiciary.

Malcolm was born in pre-World War II Prague and moved with her family to New York in 1939, when she was 5 years old; just in time when anti-Semitism was rising in Europe. Janet’s father, not surprisingly, was a psychiatrist. She is an author of eight books and has been a contributor to The New Yorker since 1963.

“The public pillorying of Janet Malcolm is one of the scandals of American letters. The world of journalism teems with hacks who will go to their graves never having written one sparkling or honest or incisive sentence; why is it Malcolm, a virtuoso stylist and a subtle, exciting thinker, who drives critics into a rage? What journalist of her caliber is as widely disliked or as often accused of bad faith? And why did so few of her colleagues stand up for her during the circus of a libel trial that scarred her career? In the animus toward her there is something almost personal.

Yet I can’t deny that she brings some of it on herself, with the harshness—the mellifluous harshness—of her work. Malcolm is hard on her subjects. As she sees it, being hard on them is her job; ‘putting a person’s feelings above a text’s necessities’ is, in her arid and damning formulation, a ‘journalistic solecism’. Like Sylvia Plath, whose not-niceness she has laid open with surgical skill, she discovered her vocation in not-niceness. Dryden famously noted the ‘vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place.’ Malcolm’s blade gleams with a razor edge. Her critics tend to go after her with broken bottles,” wrote Craig.

Click on the headline to read the full story.

Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters

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“There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called ‘Sex Is Fun-or Hell.’ She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand. She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.”

The paragraph above is the beginning of J.D. Salinger’s novella ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish,’ published in the 31st January 1948 edition of The New Yorker. It is the first story about the fictional Glass family created by Salinger. The lady mentioned above is Muriel; the wife of Seymour Glass, the eldest in a family of seven brothers and sisters, who in 1948 is 31-years-old and on a vacation in Florida. Seymour meets a six-year-old girl Sybil Carpenter at a beach and there is a conversation that follows. Seymour tells little Sybil a story about ‘bananafish’ and how it is a perfect day to spot them. They wade in the water for a while and then the man returns to the hotel. Below is the last paragraph of the story.

“He got off at the fifth floor, walked down the hall, and let himself into 507. The room smelled of new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover. He glanced at the girl lying asleep on one of the twin beds. Then he went over to one of the pieces of luggage, opened it, and from under a pile of shorts and undershirts he took out an Ortgies calibre 7.65 automatic. He released the magazine, looked at it, then reinserted it. He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.”

Salinger’s 1951 book The Catcher In The Rye is by far the work he is most renowned for; both for acclaim and censure. The book is considered as one of the classics of post-war American literature. “A first-person narrative by Holden Caulfield, or rather, a dialogue between Holden and the reader, this novel is unique in literature by the apparent absence of the author.”

On January 1, 2009 Salinger turned 90 and he still remains the celebrity because of his absence from public space. The year 1955 was a very productive one for Salinger. In the beginning of the year he released Franny and by the end of the year gave a novella through which many of his past efforts would converge; Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. It was also the first year of his marriage with Claire Alison Douglas on February 17, 1955. The wedding took place twenty miles west of Cornish, in Barnard, Vermont, and it was attended by only the closest of family and friends. Salinger had spent years drawing characters into the Glass family but it was only in 1955, with the publication of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters that the members of Salinger’s ‘settlers’ assembled as a unit. The New Yorker’s editor William Shawn worked the year round with Salinger on this seminal work about the Glass family. In book form it was published with another story called Seymour An Introduction.

I am using an extract from Seymour An Introduction for the one brilliant poetic illustration in it: “It would be absurd to say that most young people’s attraction to poetry is far exceeded by their attraction to those few or many details of a poet’s life that may be defined here, loosely, operationally, as lurid. It’s the sort of absurd notion, though, that I wouldn’t mind taking out for a good academic run someday. I surely think, at any rate, that if I were to ask the sixty odd girls (or, that is, the sixty-odd girls) in my two Writing for Publication courses—most of them seniors, all of them English majors—to quote a line, any line from ‘Ozymandias,’ or even just to tell me roughly what the poem is about, it is doubtful whether ten of them could do either, but I’d bet my unrisen tulips that some fifty of them could tell me that Shelley was all for free love, and had one wife who wrote ‘Frankenstein’ and another who drowned herself.

I’m neither shocked nor outraged at the idea, please mind. I don’t think I’m even complaining. For if nobody’s a fool, then neither am I, and I’m entitled to a non-fool’s Sunday awareness that, whoever we are, no matter how like a blast furnace the heat from the candles on our latest birthday cake, and however presumably lofty the intellectual, moral, and spiritual heights we’ve all reached, our gusto for the lurid or partly lurid (which, of course, includes both low and superior gossip) is probably the last of our fleshy appetites to be sated or effectively curbed. (But, my God, why do I rant on? Why am I not going straight to the poet for an illustration? One of Seymour’s hundred and eighty-four poems—a shocker on the first impact only; on the second, as heartening a paean to the living as I’ve read—is about a distinguished old ascetic on his deathbed, surrounded by chanting priests and disciples, who lies straining to hear what the washerwoman in the courtyard is saying about his neighbour’s laundry. The old gentleman, Seymour makes it clear, is faintly wishing the priests would keep their voices down a bit.)

I can see, though, that I’m having a little of the usual trouble entailed in trying to make a very convenient generalization stay still and docile long enough to support a wild specific premise. I don’t relish being sensible about it, but I suppose I must. It seems to me indisputably true that a good many people, the wide world over, of varying ages, cultures, natural endowments, respond with a special impetus, a zing, even, in some cases, to artists and poets who as well as having a reputation for producing great or fine art have something garishly Wrong with them as persons: a spectacular flaw in character or citizenship, a construably romantic affliction or addiction—extreme self-centeredness, marital infidelity, stone-deafness, stone-blindness, a terrible thirst, a mortally bad cough, a soft spot for prostitutes, a partiality for grand-scale adultery or incest, a certified or uncertified weakness for opium or sodomy, and so on, God have mercy on the lonely bastards. If suicide isn’t at the top of the list of compelling infirmities for creative men, the suicide poet or artist, one can’t help noticing, has always been given a very considerable amount of avid attention, not seldom on sentimental grounds almost exclusively, as if he were (to put it much more horribly than I really want to) the floppy-eared runt of the litter. It’s a thought, anyway, finally said, that I’ve lost sleep over many times, and possibly will again.”

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