Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Bananafish might not get it

JD SALINGER IN 1951. His famous novel. From Quixote's nag to carousel horse?

J.D.SALINGER, who died last week, aged 91, is one of the few serious modern authors I have read. That does not say much for me as a literary critic, and I'd hesitate to enter the fray. On the other hand, some of the "tributes" I've seen from successful hacks and literary sorts sound like they are happy to see him go, or at least have not forgiven him for declining to do the round of interviews, lectures and chat shows, in fact becoming known as a bit of a recluse.

So, especially after hearing Salinger belittled by a panel on TV last night, I've decided to have my say. I was probably about the last of my mates to read The Catcher in the Rye(1951), Salinger's novel of teenager Holden Caulfield's three days on the lam from school, attempting to be an adult. But not just any adult. With a prostitute he only wants to talk. He dreams of some great role, standing in the rye field to catch kids before they go over the cliff. His plans to escape are cut short not by adult admonitions but by kid sister Phoebe who awakens his sense of responsibility when she wants to join him, and whom he takes for a day at the zoo, and a ride on the carousel.

Like Huckleberry Finn, the Catcher is written in the first person and in the vernacular, so vernacular (all those goddams) many American colleges and libraries wanted to ban it or put it on the top shelf out of reach, and even some of today's critics seem to think there are too many "fucks" in it (7). Have they listened to their daughters lately? Caulfield was a teenager, and there may have been an element of autobiography in the book, but of course Salinger had left his teenage years behind, and the book was not necessarily written for teenagers. It is humorous after all, appreciated when looking a little back.

Some of those who read it as young rebels became teachers making it a set book. Anyway, it has been translated into numerous languages, and named among the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Around 250,000 copies are sold each year, with total sales of more than sixty-five million.

Though I may have reached Catcher late, I had already made the acquaintance of J.D. Salinger. On a holiday by the sea my parents had picked up a second-hand copy of "55 short stories from the New Yorker". When I got to dip into it, one story in particular made an impression on me. It was called "A Perfect Day for Bananafish". By J. D. Salinger, and first published in 1948. You can read it now online. I've just been refreshing my memory.

It starts off with a Florida hotel full of New York advertising men monopolising the 'phone lines. Then a woman called Murial who has filled time removing a stain, and seeing to her nails, gets through to her mother, who is worried about her, and more especially about her husband, Seymour, who has apparently been behaving oddly. Muriel's father has spoken to the doctor about it. "Well. In the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital--my word of honor. He very definitely told your father there's a chance--a very great chance, he said--that Seymour may completely lose control of himself. My word of honor."

Seymour meanwhile is down the beach. He keeps on his bathrobe, worries about someone looking at his feet, but relaxes with children, amusing them with his nonsensical story about bananafish, which swim into a hole for bananas, eat too many, and can't get out. Back at the hotel, Muriel is asleep. I won't tell you how this ends.

Was there anything of Salinger in Seymour Glass? Well, Muriel says he had been asking about a book of German poetry he had brought her as a present. And there was that release from army hospital, evidently with psychological rather than physical scars.

Jerome David Salinger was born in Manhattan on New Years day, 1919. His father was a Polish-Jewish kosher foods seller, his mother of Ulster Protestant origin, though she passed as Jewish. Salinger went to local schools and later to Valley Forge Military Academy. Sent to work and learn about the meat business in Vienna, the young New Yorker got out of there just ahead of the Nazi Anschluss. on March 12 1938 He must have seen something of the build-up to that, but so far as I know he did not write about it. His interest was in short stories, not journalism.

Called up to the US forces during the War, Salinger was to see action in Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge. He was assigned to field intelligence, using his proficiency in French and German to interrogate prisoners of war. He was also among the first soldiers to enter a liberated concentration camp. Salinger's experiences in the war affected him emotionally. He was hospitalized for a few weeks for combat stress reaction after Germany was defeated. He married a German woman, but this marriage did not last.

In later years Salinger told Margaret, his daughter by second marriage, : "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live." She acknowledged that "the few men who lived through 'Bloody Mortain', were left with much to sicken them, body and soul,". (this battle was a desperate attempt by German forces to break through the advancing allies and regain the coast at Arromanches). But she said her father remained proud of his service record, keeping his old army jacket and a jeep.

For all that, in A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Salinger had depicted a sensitive and troubled man back from the war, and unable to fit in or feel comfortable in middle class civvy street with its conformity. He can talk to children because they recall his own pre-war innocence. I suppose in recent years this will have set people speculating about paedophilia, just as they might have done about Lewis Carol and his relationships. Honi soit...

As for the bananafish, I don't want to attach a significance which may not have been intended to this tale. When I first read the story as a youngster myself I just thought it was a bit of light-hearted nonsense which made the ending even more of a shock. But reading it again, I am reminded of something in Leo Huberman's Marxist classic Man's Worldly Goods, published ten years before Salinger's short story. It is a parable taken from Arthur Morgan's account of how people in the East Indies caught monkeys. Hollowing out a coconut shell, they would put sugar cubes inside, then hang it from a tree. The monkey would come along and insert a paw to grasp the sugar, but then it could not remove its clenched fist from the hole without releasing the sugar cubes. Huberman drew an analogy with the capitalists in crisis. Would they let go of the sugar?

Salinger had seen some of the lengths capitalism would go to. Would the bananafish be able to swim out of the hole? Do the bananafish get his story? I don't know whether he intended anything like that interpretation. He gave us enough to puzzle over before he became "reclusive".

For Esme...

For Esme - With Love and Squalor was a short story Salinger had published in 1950, and it became the title story of a book of short stories by him when it was published in this country. It is a warm lttle story about an army sergeant who befriends a young girl called Esme before he goes off to war. She asks him to write letters when he gets the chance, "with love and squalour".

I used to know an Esme, from Glasgow, when we were teenagers, and it impressed me as an unusual name, adding to my attraction to the book.

While Hollywood still has its eyes on Salinger, I read in the paper that his books are being republished. "There are strict rules about JD Salinger's covers. The only copy allowed on the books, back or front, is the author name and the title. Nothing else at all: no quotes, no cover blurb, no biography. We're not really sure why this is, but it gives you definite guidelines. ..."

Whatever the reason, I'm glad to hear it. The paperback I purchased here many years ago had a blonde in a flimsy negligee draped across the cover, nothing like the sweet Esme I knew or how I imagined the one in Salinger's story. Seeing that and the title For Esme -With Love and Squalour, my Mum, who was emptying my coat pockets, the way they do said "Oh, I did not realised you read that sort of book!" I had to assure her it was not "that sort of book", and point out the author whom she must have heard of. You can call me an old fogey if you like, but it is about time that publishers stopped making assumptions as to what will sell paperback books, and started sparing teenagers from embarrassment.



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