2013: a year in reading

BooksI started the Tredynas Days blog in April this year, since when I’ve written about most of the books I’ve been reading and found worth posting about.  In the spirit of all those end-of-year lists that are everywhere at the moment, here are some highlights of my reading in the first four months of the year:

Kevin Jackson: Invisible Forms (Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Press: New York 2000; first published UK 1999)

Essays on books’ titles, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, indexes, blurbs, epigraphs, acknowledgements, first lines, marginalia (with examples from KJ himself!), and so on.  Witty, beguiling, informative and enormous fun.

Inspired by Isaac d’Israeli, father of Benjamin, and his Curiosities of Literature, first published in 1791, and reprinted many times subsequently – also full of anecdotal literary ramblings.

David Foster Wallace, Oblivion (Abacus, 2012; first published in the UK 2004)

Short stories: some weirdly brilliant (‘Mister Squishy’; ‘The Soul is not a Smithy’); others are a little too clever and contrived (‘Another Pioneer’) or inconsequential (‘The Suffering Channel’ is like a cannon deployed to shoot a wren).  But they are all beautifully crafted and showcase DFW’s astonishing range of voices, registers and styles.  He can also be wickedly funny (‘Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature’).

GroszStephen Grosz, The Examined Life: How we Lose and Find Ourselves (Chatto and Windus, London: 2013)

I bought this after hearing readings from it on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Book of the Week’: wise, perceptive, lucidly written case histories by a humane, sensitive psychotherapist who composes each miniature story with a literary sensibility.  I found them deeply moving.  His quotation from Karen Blixen reveals his theme: ‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.’

 

Alice Munro, Dear Life (Chatto and Windus, London: 2012)

Her Nobel Prize for Literature award this year was merited.  This collection is maybe not her best, but still full of her customary insight into the human condition.  The last four pieces, unusually for her, are partially autobiographical.  At times a bit dour, but never dull; many have sufficient depth and breadth for a full-length novel, but Munro manages to compress the material into twenty or so pages.

Sam Riviere, 81 Austerities (Faber, 2012)

Another purchase inspired by a radio programme, this time Ian McMillan’s consistently engaging Radio 3 show ‘The Verb’.  I heard him interview Sam R, who also read some of these poems.  His poetic voice is unique and original.  He manages to sound colloquial, spontaneous and yet mysterious – even metaphysical – while avoiding pretension (most of the time, as Mr Dylan would say).

Books 2013 Ali Smith, Artful (Hamish Hamilton, London: 2013)

A peculiar book that doesn’t fit neatly into any single genre.  Its four sections are narrated like a loosely structured or fragmentary novel by a woman recently widowed; she writes on four themes – Time, Edge, Forms on Offer and Reflection – using, she says, notes left by her deceased academic husband.  There are illustrations throughout the text, and a sequence at the end, many involving Oliver Twist.  There’s dazzling wordplay and exegesis of numerous literary texts.  Innovative, daring, not entirely satisfactory, but fascinating.  I read it on the long return train trip to Suffolk to visit my sister on the anniversary of her husband’s sudden, unexpected and untimely death, which added a layer of poignancy to the experience.

Knut Hamsun, Hunger (Canongate, 2001; first published 1890 in Norway)

This is one of those books that’s been on my TBR pile for ages; I’m so glad I eventually got round to reading it.  It’s one of the strangest, most haunting novels I’ve ever encountered.  It’s quirkier and more experimentally modernist and strangely bleak than Joyce, Kafka and Beckett, who often deal with similar themes and with similar acerbic starkness or stylistic invention, but who came some decades later.  Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, Hamsun became an advocate of fascism in later years.  Strange how many writers and artists espouse unpleasant causes and display characteristics that are dissonant with their works.

BooksAmong the other novels I read Jan-April was Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (2012), written in a stripped-down Hemingway-esque prose style with lyrical interludes more like Denis Johnson: raw, visceral accounts of hollowed-out men at war in whom all humanity has gone awol.   John Self on his Asylum blog has eloquently championed the cause of Hawthorn & Child, by Keith Ridgway (2012), so I won’t reinvent the wheel here: the strangest detective novel you’ll ever read.  It’s a sort of post-modern riff on the impossibility of interpreting ‘plot’.  Funny, baffling, brilliant.

Omitted here are several titles by Robert Walser among others, about whom I hope to post next year.  Happy Christmas (or happy winter holidays if you’re in the USA) and have a great 2014.

 

 

Anna Kavan, ‘The Parson’: a critique

Anna Kavan, The Parson. Peter Owen paperback, 2001; first published 1995.

I wrote about Anna Kavan and her story collection Julia and the Bazooka on this blog yesterday.  Born in Cannes in 1901, Kavan died in 1968.  The Parson was discovered among her papers and published posthumously.  It seems to have been written in the late 50s-early 60s.

This is a good, bad novel.  The plot is lurid noir; a ‘most improbable meeting’ leads to a liaison that erupts in a wild, sinister northern land between two opposites: an innocent young army lieutenant called Oswald, a native of this land, and the glamorous femme fatale from the south, Rejane, ‘like the heroine of a romantic story, beautiful and extremely rich’.

These words from the opening paragraphs of the novel reveal its weaknesses.  The structure is contrived, the plot overheated to the point of ridiculousness.  Yet somehow it works as a short, compelling  piece of fiction.

There is a genre of novel which deals with decent men who hook up with bad, mean women who do them wrong, from Parade’s End (Ford Madox Ford) to the Sword of Honour trilogy (Evelyn Waugh) and beyond.  But this time the author is a woman, and there’s a different take on the format.

Dec 13 scenes Kavan 004The mismatched lovers are straight out of B-movie central casting.  Oswald is described on the opening page as a ‘tall, athletic young man, whose skin was tanned much darker than his fair hair’.  Rejane is attracted to him by his ‘good looks’ (modified seven lines later to ‘severe good looks and superb physique’), and a ‘puzzling’ quality she discerns in him, ‘something incongruous that required explanation.’

Rejane is described, two pages later, in potboiler romance style:

In the blond north, in that remote and unlikely setting, Rejane’s dark beauty was quite extraordinary, with its sensuous contrast of pale flawless skin and almost black hair and eyes.  Her complexion was pure magnolia.  And her hair fell in soft, dark waves that always looked perfect and perfectly natural…

The ‘glamour’ of this Lamia enchantress is apparently that of a ‘charming and lovely girl’, ‘unspoiled by money and adulation’.  Although the narrator grimly reveals that this impression is ‘misleading’, vulnerable Oswald is smitten, unable to resist.  The clunky contrast of blond/dark, innocent/experienced is overstated – but this is not a realist novel.  Just look at that knowing repetition of the ambiguous ‘perfect/perfectly’.

The melodramatic stage is set for a soul-bruising brief encounter.  Kavan is capable of much better writing than this sub-Mills and Boon tosh, fortunately.

Oswald’s nickname had been acquired in his tropical posting because of his refusal to respond to the army wives’ brazenly seductive advances.  He did so out of a mixture of loyalty to his fellow officers and sense of duty to his family.  In that morally tainted environment his comrades began to turn against him, finding his behaviour towards the wives they know are serially unfaithful an insult.  The nickname ‘The Parson’ became increasingly used as a sneer.

We’re told insistently that he’s no woman-hater, but that he has an ‘idealized notion of womanhood that made the promiscuous sexiness of the young wives so repulsive to him.’  Really?  Then we’re told he was ‘singularly innocent…without being in any way prudish, priggish or epicene.’  Perhaps Kavan protests too much.  He may not be gay, but he’s repressed.

AK Walker Evans photo A Gullette site

AK Walker Evans photo A Gullette site

He becomes lonely, unhappy and isolated, a misfit outsider.  Full of longings that ‘only a woman, he knew instinctively, could satisfy’ he returns to his Nordic homeland on leave.

His loving mother and downtrodden, resentful sister fail to provide the support and comfort they had done in the past.  It is in this setting that Oswald experiences the coup de foudre when he first sees Rejane in her hotel lounge.

He timidly offers to show her the wild beauties of this barren land of tors and moors.  Intrigued and amused by his adoring air of ‘respect and profound devotion’ – she’s clearly more used to less gallant sexual advances, and has a lover back home whom she’s temporarily punishing by taking this unlikely trip to the north – she leads him on.  She’s surprised and slightly disgusted at his failure to attempt to seduce her.

The narrator clearly dislikes Rejane:

Her pleasing, unaffected façade, the pretence that all her beauty and wealth made her no different from other people, concealed the implacable underside of her character, and an obsession with self that was truly phenomenal.

Her ‘narcissism’ and ‘glorified self-image’ cause her to believe she’s a superior being, ‘almost as though she possessed supernatural powers.’  At no point does the narrative simply ‘show’ us these characters; we are ‘told’ constantly how to assess them – yet strangely this is done with such endearing venom that it doesn’t matter.  Kavan isn’t trying for psychological depth or realism; this is the polarised world of saga and folk-tale.  Rejane is a ‘malevolent’ Wicked Witch or a Lamia – and her sinister, witchlike, reptilian qualities are frequently alluded to.  In his innocent, almost virginal worship of her Oswald flatters her ‘dream-self’ so that she is able to enjoy feeling his placing her on a throne or pedestal.

She is experienced and cynical enough to know that he loves her, but thinks he might be ‘afraid of love in the physical sense’ – he’s transforming her into a goddess.  Her ‘queenly enchantress-self’ enjoys this, but her rational self finds him laughable, even contemptuous:

That there was something witchlike about her, Oswald’s instinct had told him, warning him off.  He had ignored the warning, already infatuated by this dangerous charmer; but if he’d seen that inhuman look of mocking, cold-blooded amusement, his chivalrous soul might have taken fright.  However, he was unsuspecting and saw nothing.

Despite this purple prose, the narrative becomes more interesting from this point.  The perspective alternates between the two characters: first we see what’s going on inside Rejane’s head, then Oswald’s.  It lifts the creaky plot into a more interesting zone.  Occasionally the narrator then shifts into a neutral space between them, to pass crushing judgement:

‘How do you like our tor?’ Oswald asked, turning his blond head to beam at her warmly and protectively – he might as well have beamed protectively at a tiger.

During his month’s leave Rejane indulges him.   Just as the army husbands felt insulted by Oswald’s rejections of their wives, so Rejane feels his restraint is insulting, and she resolves to ‘teach him a lesson.’  Her contempt and ‘jeering malice’ slowly grow.

Norse peak: Wiki Commons

Norse peak: Wiki Commons

So he drives her in his car through the stark setting of this ‘barbarous’ northern land with which he feels a mystical attachment, as he does to the ‘old stories’ of the moors,

…while she amused herself with her race of imaginary pre-men, half magicians, but doomed to extinction because their development had taken a wrong twist.  Their resentment had spun a venomous web of magic to last as long as the rock into which they’d infused it.

The relationship takes a shocking turn when she insists he take her to a remote, derelict castle.  Oswald finally realises how she really feels about him, and drops his diffident manner dramatically.  They both lose track of sanity.  The final third of the novel shows how each of them has been transformed by this sexual-emotional crisis, with the narrative point of view entering into each of them alternately with a scalpel’s precision.  This is the most innovative and successful aspect of the novel.

It’s only Oswald who has undergone some king of epiphany, however.  The mask has slipped from her face, and he sees the ‘undisguised witch-like look on her face.’  But the revelation is to have terrible consequences as her indifference becomes openly cruel.

This is a curious novel, but for all its flaws it has an intensity that isn’t too marred by the exaggerated analogies with Nordic sagas and sultry southern gothic belles.  The depiction of Oswald’s tortured grief at the novel’s end after his flash of insight into Rejane’s true nature is powerful and affecting –  it reminded me of the anguish in Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness portrayal of Eveline at the end of her story in Dubliners.

I’d urge you to give Anna Kavan a try.  Just avoid her 1948 novel Sleep Has His House, which I couldn’t finish.

 

 

 

 

 

Anna Kavan, ‘Julia and the Bazooka’: a critique

Trying not to look at the stars: Julia and the Bazooka, by Anna Kavan (Peter Owen Modern Classics paperbacks, 2009; first published 1970). 

'Sleep Has His House' front cover of the Peter Owen paperback (my own copy photo)

‘Sleep Has His House’ front cover of the Peter Owen paperback (my own copy photo)

Writers such as Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard have praised the writings of Anna Kavan, but I find her work uneven – I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages of self-indulgent, rambling dream visions in Sleep Has His House, first published in 1948.  Julia and the Bazooka is also uneven, but serves as a good introduction to the qualities (and weaknesses) of Kavan’s fiction.  

AK Walker Evans photo A Gullette site

AK Walker Evans photo A Gullette site

Born of wealthy British parents in Cannes in 1901, Helen Woods (she assumed the name Anna Kavan later) was brought up in Europe and the USA.  Her glamorous mother was a feckless socialite who largely abandoned her daughter to the erratic care of a series of nannies, relatives and boarding schools; this emotionally fraught childhood probably contributed to the nervous and mental problems that Kavan suffered from throughout her adult life.

Her early life was also troubled.  When she was fourteen her father drowned at sea, possibly a suicide.  At nineteen she wanted desperately to take up a place at Oxford, but her mother refused to let her, and instead encouraged her to marry an engineer on the Burma railways by the name of Donald Ferguson, twelve years older than Helen, and possibly one of her mother’s own ex-lovers.

She lived with him in Burma for some time, but the marriage was a failure: her husband was a boorish drunk, and she eventually left him and obtained a divorce.  This difficult period of her life furnished the material for her novel Who Are You? (1963).

Her first six novels were published between 1929 and 1937 under her married name, Helen Ferguson.   After a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt in 1938 she took on the identity of a character from her 1930 novel Let Me Alone, Anna Kavan; she used this name for the rest of her professional life.  She dyed her hair blonde and adopted a chic persona at odds with the stereotypical figure of the addict she had become.  Her associates were largely unaware of her double life.

This transformation also took place in her writing; from Asylum Piece (1940) onwards her literary work became more intense and unconventional – the polished and eerie avant-garde style she called ‘nocturnal language’.  It has traces of influence from Kafka and other modernists, and is suffused (sometimes excessively so) with the surreal symbolism and structure of dreams, and the psychology of drug-related experience, mental instability and a profound sense of alienation.

Her second husband (there is no formal record of their marriage) was an alcoholic artist

Self portrait (from the Peter Owen website)

Self portrait (from the Peter Owen website)

named Stuart Edmonds.  Her life with him is the subject of the story ‘Now and Then’ in this collection.  In this account the artist stops working and spends his time drinking and smoking.  He becomes an obese, lazy brute who feels repelled by his wife and stops talking to her.  She’s reduced to smashing plates in the kitchen.  If this portrayal is accurate this sounds very like marriage number one.

She left Edmonds in the 1950s and moved to London, where she set up a property development business.   She lived there for the rest of her life.

Anna Kavan’s tennis coach in the 1920s had encouraged her to use cocaine ‘to improve her serve’, says Virginia Ironside in her sympathetic introduction to this book, although it seems more likely that her addictions arose out of the desire to self-medicate; she attempted suicide several times in her life, and underwent detoxification treatment in a number of clinics in Switzerland and England – but she never overcame her drug addiction.  The racing drivers she took up with in the South of France after her divorce introduced her to heroin, which was to become her lifelong ‘friend’.

I’m no psychologist, but it’s interesting to note how she describes these racing drivers in the story ‘World of Heroes’: ‘they live in a wartime atmosphere of recklessness, camaraderie and heightened perception’, the narrator declares excitedly, lending them a ‘personal glamour’ she finds ‘irresistible’.

They were all attractive to me, heroes, the bravest men in the world.  Vaguely, I realised that they were also psychopaths, misfits, who played with death because they were unable to come to terms with life in the world.

This gushing is quite disturbing, especially when she goes on to say that it’s their doomed sense of detachment from the mundane lives of ordinary people that also attracts her; she’s drawn to those who, like her, find everyday life too much.  Whatever the case, these are the only people she feels accepted by; she trusts them and believes ingenuously that they’ll never let her down.

At the end of the story the tone shifts and the narrative voice is chilling; her heroes have all gone and she is, as always, abandoned and alone:

I don’t look up now.  I always try not to look at the stars.  I can’t bear to see them, because the stars remind me of loving and of being loved.

Confessional literature can be interesting only to the writer, but this controlled, minimalist strain is Kavan’s writing at its best.

Bluth on the cover of 'Asylum Piece', from the Peter Owen website

Bluth on the cover of ‘Asylum Piece’, from the Peter Owen website

These fifteen short pieces  were first published two years after her death in 1968.   They mostly portray the terrifying, tormented inner world she inhabited for the last decades of her life.  Her main drug supplier was a married psychiatrist, Dr Theodor Bluth (1892-1964), a near neighbour, who started treating her when she was in a psychiatric ward in 1943. She had an intense but apparently platonic relationship with him; he figures in several of these stories, usually known only as ‘M’.

He was an unconventional practitioner and may well have done more harm than good to his vulnerable patients.  As the story ‘Obsessional’ shows, to Kavan he became ‘a famished longing’; she craved his occasional visits almost as much as the heroin he supplied her with – she describes there the ‘instantaneous charge of purest joy that went through her like an electric shock’ at his reappearances.  ‘Cosmic rays and the mystery of mutation’, the narrator enigmatically claims, had committed them to each other.

These strange, rather silly images reappear in the other stories involving this older male doctor-figure, who seems to be both longed-for lover and father.   I find this sci-fi strain in her writing one of the weakest features; her biographers say she was a fan of the television show ‘Doctor Who’ – not an auspicious influence, in my view.

‘Obsessional’ shows her tortured sense of anguish at his absence and loss – an emotional pain and isolation that pervades the whole collection.  Without him the narrator feels ‘estrangement’ from the chaos of London life that rushes past her in the streets outside; after his death doctor ‘M’ becomes a ghost for her in a way that ‘was not altogether pleasant, although, like an addiction, it was essential to her.’

Bluth seems to have accepted her assertion that heroin provided her only relief from the tortured sensibility and suffering depicted with such rawness in her writing.  Even if the character of ‘M’ is a kind of personification of her addiction to drugs, her narrator’s distress when he leaves her (withdrawal symptoms?) is intense; in ‘Mercedes’ he drives away in the eponymous car:

Suddenly, to my horror, the car started to move.  I sprang at the door again wildly, determined to open it and get in, or else drag him out.  Too late.  The Mercedes was far out of reach already, my hands only grasped the air.  ‘Stop!’ I shouted in desperation.  ‘You can’t leave me behind!’  All these years he’d been saying we’d drive off together, I simply couldn’t believe he would go without me.  Like a lunatic, I started running…

The hallucinatory tendency frequently turns surreal, most notably in ‘The Zebra-Struck’.  The narrator, a Kafka-esque ‘K’,  lies in hospital after her fourth suicide attempt (once again to escape that recurring image in these stories, the prison of life).  Those annoying cosmic rays reappear; she believes that they cause mutations like the stripes on a zebra, and have connected her with ‘M’.  He is the only one who understands her, who enables her to endure the metaphysical horror of her existence.  He’s kind and clever and praises her.  As always she’s doomed to be bereft, left isolated in her unbearable, haunted loneliness.

The title story relates in a hallucinatory sequence how the narrator was introduced to heroin by her tennis coach, and the drug helped her to win a silver cup.  His practice of calling the syringe a ‘bazooka’ is taken up by the narrator (and the author), and this enables her to laugh off the ‘sensational stories’ about drug addiction, making the ‘whole business seem not serious.’  Other scenes from the life of Julia, surely a fictionalised Anna, pass by like dream visions, with childhood, marriage, the death of a husband, a roof garden during the London blitz, another kindly doctor who understands that she needs her drugs as a diabetic needs insulin.  The ending is bleak – the undertaker has left, her ashes are in the trophy cup she won at tennis:

It has got quite dark outside, the wall has turned black.  As the wind shakes it, the faintest of tinkles comes from the pigeon-hole where all that is left of Julia has been left.  Surely there were some red flowers somewhere, Julia would be thinking, if she could still think.  Then she would think something, she would remember the bazooka and start to laugh.  But nothing is left of Julia really, she is not there.  The only occupant of the pigeon-hole is the silver cup, which can’t think or laugh or remember.  There is no more Julia anywhere.  Where she was there is only nothing.

This again is Kavan at her best: crisp, spare prose deployed with icy lucidity.

In the first story, ‘The Old Address’, another unnamed first-person narrator has been discharged from what is presumably a rehab clinic; she steps into the ‘absolute mob’ that surges along the pavement outside:

I search in vain for a human face.  Only hordes of masks, dummies, zombies go charging past, blindly, heads down…Cold enemy eyes, arrow-eyes, pierce me with poison-tipped suspicion, as if they know where I’ve come from.

Terrible eyes.  Terrible noise.  Terrible traffic.

The sky is full of unnatural light, which is really a darkish murk and makes everything look sinister, a black conspiracy hanging up there in the air.  Something frightful seems to be happening, or going to happen.

This hellish nightmare becomes even more infernal when the narrator sees herself crushed by a car; she spouts blood ‘like a whale’, and passers-by slip in the mess, which is poisonous to them.  She hates them all, calls them ‘bastards’, delights in this sanguinary revenge, drowning them ‘as if they were so many eels’.

But the sense of freedom is illusory: she realises she’s trapped and will never escape.  The streets are deserted but cars continue to roar past; in a panic she feels she’s been (a now familiar theme) ‘betrayed and abandoned’ in this terrifying prison:

Above the din of their engines louder crashes erupt all round.  Avalanches of deafening noise explode in my ears like bombs.  In all the thunderous booming roar I can distinguish the sobs of heartbroken children, the shrieks of tortured victims and addicts deprived of drugs, sadistic laughter, moronic cries, the moans of unsuccessful suicides- the whole catastrophe of this inhuman city, where the wolf-howl of ambulances and police cars rises perpetually from dark gullies between the enormous buildings.

Why, the narrator asks, is she ‘locked in this nightmare of violence, isolation and cruelty?’  Then she realises this hell is self-created, and that she can’t possibly live in ‘this terrible, hideous, revolting creation of mine.’  Neither can she escape.

So there’s to be no end to my incarceration in this abominable, disgusting world…My thoughts go round in circles.  Mad with despair, I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t remember or think any more.  The terror of life imprisonment stupefies me, I feel it inside me like an intolerable pain.  I only know that I must escape from this hell of hallucination and horror.  I can’t endure my atrocious prison a moment longer.

There’s only one way of escape that I’ve ever discovered, and needless to say I haven’t forgotten that.

So now I wave my arm frantically at a passing taxi, fall inside, and tell the man to drive to the old address.

Her syringe is in her handbag.  I don’t recall reading a more searing account of the mental torment and the doomed psychology of the addict.

 

Kavan's own illustration to 'A Visit' (from Bookforum website)

Kavan’s own illustration to ‘A Visit’ (from Bookforum website)

Other stories are at times more lyrical but equally haunting, if slightly less harrowing.  Most of them depict a central character lost in various kinds of nightmare or distorted reality – and at times, it must be said, these traumatised, disorientated characters become repetitive and tiresome.   But there’s just about enough variety to offset this tendency: in ‘A Visit’ there are visions of a leopard in a jungle by the sea; the narrator is saddened when it departs over the waves with a young man, seen earlier in another vision.  It’s pretty silly again, but strangely beautiful, like a Rousseau painting, which her own illustration for the story demonstrates.

Cars feature centrally again in ‘The Mercedes’, ‘Clarita’ and ‘High in the Mountains’; they are often seen as a means of attempting to escape into solitude or oblivion, as well as instruments of destruction – Kavan’s preoccupations.

My own copy of 'Julia and the Bazooka'

My own copy of ‘Julia and the Bazooka’

These stories are not a cheerful read, but there is a strange kind of uplifting hope to be found in some of them, even when the narrators confront obliterating despair.  ‘The universe has no meaning’, Kavan once wrote, but these fragments of prose prove that she was capable of circumventing, if only temporarily and incompletely, the absurdity and terror of existence.

 

 

The Anna Kavan website has a list (with links) of all of her published works.

J.D. Salinger, ‘Seymour – an Introduction’: a critique

J.D. Salinger, Seymour – an Introduction, Penguin paperback; first published in the  New Yorker in 1959, first published in book form with Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters in the USA and UK in 1963; first Penguin edition 1964; original American edition published in the UK in 1994, reissued by Penguin, 2010.

Last week I wrote about the first of the two novellas in this book – Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; today I turn to the second, Seymour – an Introduction.

The first novella dealt with the consternation caused in his bride’s small-minded, vindictive family by Seymour’s non-appearance at his wedding in New York in 1942.  The stories were initially met with hostility by reviewers; one said it should have been called Seymour – a Disaster, and is written in a prose ‘so arch and cloying as to be almost impenetrable’ (Steven Marcus in The New York Review of Books, Feb. 1, 1963).

Cover of the edition discussed here, from the Penguin website

Cover of the edition discussed here, from the Penguin website

Once more the narrator is the second oldest of the Glass siblings, Buddy, a reclusive college lecturer who lives in an isolated rural spot near the Canadian border in upstate New York, and again his subject is the one that haunts the family: the suicide of his older brother Seymour while on holiday with his wife Muriel (they did eventually marry) in 1948.  This event is only described in any detail once by Salinger elsewhere, in his story ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, in his collection of stories For Esmé – with Love and Squalor (1953), which I wrote about here recently.  But Seymour’s mystical presence and subsequent death resonates through all of the stories which deal with the Glass family.

After an enigmatic epigraph which Buddy later claims is by Kafka and Kierkegaard there’s a six-page one-paragraph introduction in which Buddy riffs like a beat poet on…well, I’m not quite sure what, exactly: writing, and the writer’s relationship with his ‘general reader’, who Buddy disconcertingly addresses familiarly and often with the second person pronoun.  It’s not surprising that early reception of the novella was negative – this is the kind of metafictional, post-modern playfulness with which we’ve become accustomed in the past few decades, but which in 1963 would have seemed pretty outlandish.

For example, the syntax is as tortuous as that of the late-period Henry James, but the register is closer to the amphetamine prose of Kerouac’s On the Road; here’s a taste from the second page:

In this entre-nous spirit, then, old confidant [he’s addressing us, his general readers], before we join the others, the grounded everywhere, including, I’m sure, the middle-aged hot-rodders who insist on zooming us to the moon, the Dharma Bums, the makers of cigarette filters for thinking men, the Beat and the Sloppy and the Petulant, the chosen cultists, all the lofty experts who know so well what we should or shouldn’t do with our poor little sex organs, all the bearded, proud, unlettered young men and unskilled guitarists and Zen-killers and incorporated aesthetic Teddy boys who look down their thoroughly unenlightened noses at this splendid planet where (please don’t shut me up) Kilroy, Christ, and Shakespeare all stopped – before we join these others, I privately say to you, old friend (unto you, really, I’m afraid), please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses:  (((()))).

This free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness prose also shows traces of Joyce (that sly reference to blooms, perhaps), and perhaps Laurence Sterne (the ludic typography) – though I don’t know if Saligner had read him.  There are even quasi-erudite footnotes that foreshadow David Foster Wallace.

Admittedly it’s not everyone’s cup of literary tea, this kind of thing: it’s not what a Booker judge might call an ‘easy read’.  Personally I think it’s great fun, stimulating and witty.  Pretentious, of course, but that shouldn’t bother us.  Oddly enough I just listened to a Radio 3 podcast (‘Night Waves’) on what Virginia Woolf called the Common Reader; surely the kind of person she had in mind, now represented by the average blog poster or reader, is quite capable of enjoying this kind of thing, and not finding it ‘impenetrable’ or self-indulgent?

Ontgies semi-automatic pistol: the kind with which Seymour shot himself in 'Bananafish'

Ontgies semi-automatic pistol: the kind with which Seymour shot himself in ‘Bananafish’

From the seventh page Buddy turns to his theme: the life and death of Seymour.  He was the family guru, a ‘mukta, a ringding enlightened man, a God-knower.’  As his epigraph suggests, he’s trying to set forth the impossibility of encapsulating the truth, the essence of Seymour in one concise story; this evades him, and he finds it impossible, he claims, to write a short story about him.  This will be, instead, ‘a thesaurus of undetached prefatory remarks about him.’  He’s going, in fact, to ‘follow [his] nose’ here.

Given this advice, we shouldn’t, as Mr Marcus did, try to read this as a standard short story or novella.  As Buddy says, it’s a distribution of ‘mementos, amulets’ broken out of his wallet and passed around like ‘snapshots’:

In this mood, I don’t dare go anywhere near the short-story form.  It eats up fat little undetached writers like me whole.

The impressionistic, jazz-riff flow continues like this for over sixty more pages.  It’s disjointed, digressive, it does, as Marcus says, loop and repeat, but so does Bach.  It’s an exhilarating read, original, subversive, weird as anything subsequently done by Beckett, Krasznahorkai or the DFW I mentioned a moment ago.

The picture we get of Seymour is therefore patchy.  He talked a lot, or not at all.  There’s a reference to Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and how Seymour didn’t appear in that novella, and another to the Bananafish story, in which Buddy suggests the character of Seymour resembles Buddy himself, as his family pointed out.  Buddy was also recently returned from the war; like Seymour, he wasn’t himself.  This novella, and the other Glass family chronicles, in other words, are a palimpsest of autobiographies of Seymour, Buddy, and Salinger.  Or a fused biography of all three, narrated by someone who resembles Buddy most out of the three of them.

Seymour left a MS of over 150 poems, all variations of Chinese or Japanese forms of haiku.  The eastern mysticism noted in the other Glass stories is central again in this novella; Seymour’s spirituality, and that of the siblings he influenced, arose from his study of Hindu/Zen scripture (there are references throughout these stories to the likes of ‘the great Vivekananda’, Advaita Vedanta, classical Taoism, and ‘the New and Old Testaments’).

His uselessness at sport is mentioned, but his prowess at a game of marbles is a consequence of a technique like that of the Zen archer – though Buddy insists he was no Zen adept.

Salinger's signature

Salinger’s signature

There’s no traditional narrative in this novella, then; it’s more the kind of literary essay genre that the likes of the Davids Markson and Shields advocate should replace conventional fiction.  Buddy even calls it, half-seriously, a ‘semi-diary’ form.  There are multiple voices and forms in this novella, such as inserted critical ‘notes’ by Seymour on Buddy’s (or Salinger’s) short stories.

The ending is strange, too.  Buddy just sort of stops:

I’m finished with this.  Or, rather, it’s finished with me.  Fundamentally, my mind has always balked at any kind of ending.  How many stories have I torn up since I was a boy simply because they had what that old Chekhov-baiting noise Somerset Maugham calls a Beginning, a Middle, and an End?

Throughout the narrative Buddy has complained about how tired he is, and now he says it’s time for him to go and teach his class of college girls.  There’s just time for a quick nap and freshen-up.  He admits he’s been egotistical here, sharing what he calls ‘top billing’ with Seymour.  His final koan is reminiscent of the one Zooey told Franny near the end of ‘Franny’: Seymour’s aphorism about the Fat Lady in the theatre audience being ‘Christ Himself’ is what snaps her out of her existential angst.  Here Buddy says that going to teach his group of mediocre girls enlightens him; they are like his sisters, they ‘shine’:

This thought manages to stun me: There’s no place I’d really rather go now than into Room 307.  Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next.  Is he never wrong?

Just go to bed, now.  Quickly.  Quickly and slowly.

When I read The Catcher in the Rye many years ago, and some years later taught it in college to groups of mediocre literature students, I hadn’t thought of Salinger as a particularly experimental or unconventional writer.  Now I’ve finished reading his other works published by Penguin, written about in these recent blog posts, I find him engaging, exciting and constantly surprising.  He even enables me to see my students shining…

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