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 Salinger 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 unenthusiastic 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…

Unless stated otherwise, all images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

J.D. Salinger, ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters’ – a critique

J.D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; Seymour – An Introduction, Penguin paperback; first US and UK book publication, 1963; first Penguin, 1964; original US edition first published in UK 1994; reissued by Penguin 2010.  Raise High and Seymour  were first published in The New Yorker in 1955 and 1959 respectively

I’ve now finished the shorter works of Salinger as published by Penguin: I wrote recently about Franny and Zooey (1955; 1957), then about the story collection For Esmé – with Love and Squalor (1953).  In this blog post I shall focus on the first of the two novellas in this slim volume.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters develops the story of the Glass family, who featured in many of the other stories, with particular focus here on the oldest of the seven brilliantly precocious Glass siblings, Seymour.  As I wrote in my previous Salinger blog posts, Seymour committed suicide in Florida while on holiday with his self-centred wife Muriel in 1948, and his death haunted the family down the years that followed.  This story goes some way to indicating why Seymour ended up shooting himself – but as usual it’s narrated from his brother Buddy’s point of view, and it’s difficult to tell how reliable a narrator he is.

Yin and Yang Taoist symbol: duality of all things in nature

Yin and Yang Taoist symbol: duality of all things in nature

The story opens with a typically mystical-ironic account of the time twenty years before this narrative is set (1955) when Seymour soothed to sleep ten-month-old baby sister Franny, the youngest of the Glass children, by reading her an edifying Taoist parable – which she now claims to remember hearing.  These passages serve to show that the Glass siblings are set apart, different, but also misfits, whose love for and solidarity with each other are what keeps them, just about, sane.

The narrative then jumps to 1942 and Seymour’s wedding day.  Buddy, who narrates both these novellas, as he did most of the other Glass family stories, is in military hospital with pleurisy.  He’s discharged so that he can represent the family at the wedding – the rest of them are unable to attend the ceremony in New York.  The two youngest, Franny and Zooey, are just eight and thirteen years old and living with their parents in Los Angeles; they are still continuing the family tradition of appearing on the long-running radio quiz show called, ‘with typically pungent Coast-to-Coast irony’ It’s a Wise Child.

Seymour was at the time a corporal in the Air Corps.  Buddy receives a letter from his sister Boo Boo urging him to go to the wedding; although she doesn’t directly  mention Seymour’s mental health problems (which ultimately contributed to his decision to shoot himself – an event which is the subject of the story ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ in the collection For Esmé – with Love and Squalor), she hints that he’s unwell, and her premonition is ominous:

Please get there, Buddy.  He weighs about as much as a cat and he has that ecstatic look on his face that you can’t talk to.  Maybe it’s going to be perfectly all right, but I hate 1942.

The novella’s title derives from the quotation from Sappho that Boo Boo had scrawled with soap on the bathroom mirror in the apartment that Seymour shared with her and Buddy when they were in town.  It’s typical of the well-read Glass family, another of the traits that some critics rail at.  Here surely it’s touchingly ironic that this extract is from an epithalamion, and Buddy reads it at the moment when Seymour has failed to appear at the wedding.

Om symbol

Om symbol as written in Devanagari, the alphabet of Hindi in India, and since the 19C of Sanskrit: it’s a mantra and mystical sound sacred in Dharmic religions

All of the Glass siblings are described as possessing preternatural intelligence, and Seymour and Buddy have instilled in the younger ones a spiritual quality derived from the teachings of Buddhism and oriental religions (as Zooey says in Franny and Zooey).  In her letter, for example, Boo Boo says that Franny recently described to the radio announcer on air how she ‘used to fly around the apartment when she was four and no one was home…He said she surely just dreamt that she was able to fly.  The baby stood her ground like an angel.’

Some critics have found this aspect of the Glass family irksome.  But Salinger always infuses these passages about their unusual character with ambiguous humour, as we saw with the Sappho quotation; there’s also a darker sense that they are outsiders – they often mention that they are ‘freaks’, they don’t fit in with the bourgeois society they inhabit, and can’t conform to what is generally considered normal; this saddens them.   I don’t find them annoyingly hypersensitive, then; they are simply so unusually gifted they find ordinary life almost unbearable.  Especially Seymour, whose nature radiates a kind of damaged spirituality through all the Glass stories.

The wedding is a disaster.  Seymour doesn’t turn up, and Muriel’s family is outraged.  Buddy finds himself sharing a cab with three of her relatives.  The greater part of the novella describes with acerbic humour how Buddy has to listen to their vicious, small-minded demolition of his big brother’s character and sanity, as they pretend not to know who Buddy is.  One of them says of the radio quiz show the Glass children participated in: ‘I loathe precocious children.’  Eventually Buddy snaps back at them with a heated retort.

As usual Seymour is physically absent from the narrative (‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ is the only story in which he’s a living presence).  But as usual his spirit permeates the novella, and his words are presented via the extracts that Buddy reads from his diary, which he finds in his apartment.   They are full of his habitual allusions to eastern mysticism, but more tellingly, of his bitter-sweet accounts of Muriel and her family’s behaviour: ‘A terrible and beautiful phenomenon to watch.’  He mentions that her mother thinks he’s ‘schizoid’, and Muriel has told her where he got the scars on his wrists from, ‘poor sweet baby’.  This seems to be a reference to an earlier suicide attempt that hasn’t featured in any of the other stories.  They both think he should see a psychoanalyst.  Seymour accedes to this; he knows Muriel won’t feel ‘close’, ‘familiar’ or, more revealingly, ‘frivolous’ with him if he doesn’t get himself, as he ironically puts it, ‘slightly overhauled’.

Adi Shankara

Adi Shankara Bhagavadpada, expounder of Advaita Vedanta, commentator on the Upanishads

Her mother clearly thinks Seymour is insane; like the rest of the normal world she can’t understand why he’s so detached.  When she asked him once what he intended doing after the war he replied that he’d like to be ‘a dead cat’; she laughed nervously.  He was alluding, he explains in the diary, to a Zen fable.

We see indirectly why Seymour failed to show at the wedding.  He says Muriel doesn’t really love him, and he doesn’t make her happy.  All she wants is to be a conventional housewife and to escape from her mother, who is an ‘irritating, opionated woman’, and Muriel, we feel, is very like her:

A person deprived, for life, of any understanding or taste for the main current of poetry that flows through things, all things.  She might as well be dead, and yet she goes on living…

It’s easy to see why critics find this sort of thing condescending and smug; personally I think it’s just artistic honesty.  Countless writers have portrayed characters recoiling from mediocrity.  Seymour does so with gentle sadness and a sort of passive serenity; I don’t find him smug.

In a later entry, written when he was about to fly to New York for the wedding, Seymour gives a final insight into his conflicted but ecstatic state of mind; he’d spoken to Muriel on the phone:

I really called to ask her, to beg her for the last time to just go off alone with me and get married.  I’m too keyed up to be with people.  I feel as though I’m about to be born.  Sacred, sacred day…I’ve been reading a miscellany of Vedanta all day.  Marriage partners are to serve each other.  Elevate, help, teach, strengthen each other, but above all serve.  Raise their children honourably, lovingly and with detachment.  A child is a guest in the house, to be loved and respected – never possessed, since he belongs to God.  How wonderful, how sane, how beautifully difficult, and therefore true.  The joy of responsibility for the first time in my life.

Here again there’s a beauty in the prose that just about insulates Seymour from the charge of pretentiousness.  He’s more a Myshkin – a holy fool – than a saint.  Nevertheless it’s hard to fathom why he goes ahead and marries the awful Muriel.  Maybe he just tries too hard to see the God in everyone.

Cover (from the Penguin website)

Cover (from the Penguin website)

There’s much of Salinger’s wonderfully modulated dialogue in this novella; it serves to reveal character with understated precision – there’s hardly any narrative description, yet each character is fully, clearly realised through slight, deft touches.  The long scene in the limousine where Buddy is trapped with Muriel’s venomous, insensitive relatives is dazzling and full of surprising twists: the humour, wit and pathos are sustained in ways that few other writers could manage.

There’s weirdness, too, especially in Seymour’s self-revelatory diary extracts: he says he has received stigmata-like scars on his hands from resting them on the ‘downy pate’ of Franny’s head when she was a baby, and on Franny’s head when he was six or seven.

He goes on to say:

I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse.  I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.

Once again this is not intended as a serious suggestion that Seymour is Christlike; it’s an indication of his way of explaining his experience with a poet’s licence, in cryptic aphorisms intended to be both mysterious but also revelatory of an ineffable kind of unveiled reality – the hypersensitivity and spirituality mentioned earlier, and which some readers find sententious, uninteresting or ridiculous.

If it is then so are the Upanishads, Tolstoy and The Idiot, which all seem to have had some influence on Salinger’s work.

Next time I’ll write about the second novella, Seymour – An Introduction.


J.D. Salinger, ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’: a critique

J.D. Salinger, For Esmé – with Love and Squalor (Penguin paperback, first published in the US and UK in 1953; Penguin edition 1986 in the UK, reset 1994 from the first US edition; reissued 2010.)

I wrote in a recent blogpost about Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1919-2010).  For Esmé, with Love and Squalor was published in America as Nine Stories in 1953, two years after The Catcher in the Rye.  Both books were bestsellers.  This was also the year he left New York City and moved to Cornish, New Hampshire, where he spent the rest of his life.  There he became increasingly reclusive and litigious; he published just four more stories in the next seven years.

Salinger was drafted into the army in 1942, and served in the infantry until the end of World War II; he took part in the D Day invasions, and in the subsequent campaigns across Europe until the downfall of the Third Reich.  He was assigned to a counter-intelligence unit, using his knowledge of French and German to interrogate prisoners of war.  In spring 1945 he entered a liberated concentration camp.  Recent biographies have indicated that he was deeply traumatised by this and other wartime experiences; he possibly suffered from what is now called PTSD, and spent some weeks in hospital recuperating.

Salinger during WWII (photo from NY Times website)

Salinger during WWII (photo from NY Times website)

Most of the stories in this collection concern war and its effects on individuals, and the traumatised memories of post-war Americans.  Even when its presence isn’t directly felt, the war has created in the characters in the stories a damaged, questing quality; as we saw in Franny and Zooey, most of them seek solace in oriental mysticism.

Some (usually children) find enlightenment; others are thwarted.  The opening epigraph to the book is the famous Zen koan – what is the sound of one hand clapping?  This serves as the theme of the collection: how to transcend or deal with mundane reality when in contact with the dulling, deadening effect of what Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and members of the Glass family in other stories call ‘phoniness’.

The opening story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ sets the tone with the story of Seymour Glass’s suicide in 1948 while on holiday at a Florida beach hotel with his shallow bourgeoise wife Muriel.  In the opening section there’s Salinger’s usual technique on show: Muriel chats distractedly on the phone with her mother – there’s minimal authorial intrusion or commentary.  This is typical of Salinger’s fiction: characters talking.  In this way he shows us their foibles, weaknesses and strengths without having to tell us what’s going on.

In the story’s second section we see Seymour, about whose mental health Muriel’s mother had been expressing (not very sympathetically) concern to her daughter, chatting on the beach with a small girl called Sybil.  Unlike the women’s selfish talk, Seymour shows himself as sensitive and charmed by Sybil’s innocent prattle.  He teases her gently about the fictitious titular fish, telling her they eat so much they get too bloated to escape from the holes they enter on the seabed, causing their own deaths.  The shocking denouement echoes this jolly, innocent narrative, told to amuse and entertain the girl, in a chilling, existentially tortured way.

The edition under discussion (photo: Amazon uk website)

The edition under discussion (photo: Amazon uk website)

This metafictional form is also seen in the title story; like Seymour, the Sergeant who calls himself ‘X’ is suffering from battle combat fatigue (or PTSD) – he has the shakes, facial tics, and can’t sleep.  The precocious, rather coquettish young girl, Esmé, whom he’d met in a tearoom in the first part of the story, when he’d been stationed in Devon undergoing training prior to the D Day landings, brings him the peace of sleep when he reads her affectionate letter to him.

This story also has two sections, also mainly in the form of dialogue, but its structure and form are complex.  At the end of the first section the American has promised to write a story for the girl; make it ‘extremely squalid and moving’, she’d urged him.  He obligingly describes the opening of the second section, where he’s stationed in Bavaria immediately after the end of the war, serving in an intelligence unit, interrogating prisoners of war (ring any bells?), as the ‘squalor’ part.  The story, therefore, is the one he’d promised, but it ends with a direct address to Esmé:

You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac- with all his ‘f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

In mirroring her last words to him in the tearoom, and the innocent-adult way in which she’d spelt out the word ‘slain’ to protect her little brother, X demonstrates that she’s brought him the kind of peace (or love) that passes all understanding.  It’s a deeply moving moment, and one doesn’t have to be a believer in Christ, the Buddha or any mystic or guru to respond to it positively.

The cheesy US Ace paperback cover: what were they thinking?

The cheesy US Ace paperback cover: what were they thinking?

In the unlikely setting of a commandeered Nazi woman’s house in Germany, Sgt X finds the epiphanic peace that eluded Seymour, whose death haunts all the stories about the Glass family.  That his release is brought about by the innocent affection of an orphaned girl – a lonely soul, like him – is characteristic of Salinger’s fiction.

‘Down at the Dinghy’ is the only other Glass family story in the collection.  Boo Boo Tannenbaum, née Glass, talks with her four-year-old boy Lionel, who’s been upset by a crass racist remark by one of the servants.  As Zooey manages to use big brother Seymour’s wit and wisdom to bring about Franny’s rehabilitation when she was enduring existential despair in Franny and Zooey, so Boo Boo is able to talk Lionel round to a kind of emotional stability.  In his innocence he doesn’t realise the full significance of the ugly word the servant had used.

Redemptive innocence crops up frequently in the other stories.  In ‘Teddy’, the eponymous ten-year-old is a kind of savant; he’s been touring European universities with his parents, propounding his mystical insights and prophetic visions to incredulous professors.  On the ocean liner en route for home in the USA he’s engaged in conversation by a young academic who wants to learn about his spiritual gifts.  Teddy talks with the precocity blended with naiveté that was seen in Esmé.  For example he asks the young man if he’s a poet.  No, he replies, why did Teddy think he might be?

Poets are always taking the weather so personally.  They’re always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions.

He goes on to declare he favours logic over emotions: ‘I don’t see what they’re good for.’  He’s disparaging about sentimental love.  He goes on to discuss his state of enlightenment achieved through meditation, and his theories of reincarnation.  In a peculiar passage he talks about a previous incarnation and his current state of spiritual imperfection:

I mean it’s very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America.  People think you’re a freak if you try to.  My father thinks I’m a freak, in a way.  And my mother – well, she doesn’t think it’s good for me to think about God all the time.  She thinks it’s bad for my health.

Character wu (mu in Japanese) meaning 'nothing', from the famous Zen koan of Zhaozhu's dog

Character wu (mu in Japanese) meaning ‘nothing’, from the famous Zen koan of Zhaozhu’s dog

Like the Glass siblings, Teddy is so gifted, precocious and extraordinary – he’s another of Salinger’s youthful geniuses – he’s sort of deranged, an outsider, unable to thrive in the world of ordinary people.  In Franny and Zooey, Zooey says to his mother that he and his sister are freaks; he blames Seymour and Buddy for teaching them oriental religion – it’s enlightened them, but made them unfitted for life in unenlightened post-war America.  In ‘Franny’ his sister had declared a similar dissatisfaction with everything.

‘Nobody’s aiming to please, here.  More, really to edify, to instruct’, said the narrator of the title story of this collection, in setting down his thoughts about Esmé.  Some critics have taken exception to Salinger’s precocious, ingenuous young characters and their guru-like tendencies; they don’t like what one called his glamorising of self-pity and his elevation of the Glass family to the status of sanctity, full of ‘stricken sensitivity’.

That I think is understandable – Seymour and his fellow devotees of Dharma can come across as a little smug or priggish – but the warmth and humanity of Salinger’s stories more than compensates for this occasional earnestness.  Passages like this one in ‘Esmé’ could easily grate:  Sgt X picks up a book by the German woman Nazi arrested by him and in whose house he now stays.  He reads the fly-leaf inscription she’d written in the book by Goebbels: ‘Dear God, life is hell’.  In his traumatised, nerve-shot state he finds this a ‘classic indictment’, and struggles, ‘against heavy odds, not to be taken in’.

He writes in pencil underneath:

‘Fathers and teachers, I ponder “What is hell?”  I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.’

This typically enigmatic quotation (from Dostoevsky) is one of many such gnomic, often Zen or Hindu philosophical notes in Salinger’s stories (the long list of mystical quotations from Seymour and Buddy’s door in Franny and Zooey fits into this same category; we’ve just seen Teddy’s dharma views).  Some critics have found such pronouncements pretentious and discordant; I think they’re quite endearing.  I don’t think he’s showing off – and why shouldn’t he write from his own spiritual point of view?  Dostoevsky did.

Why not rail against the ‘phoniness’ of materialist American culture and insincerity in people, and strive for authenticity?

In her letter Esmé wrote that she hoped that D Day would bring about a ‘swift termination’ of the war (she loves those polysyllabic nouns!) and ‘a method of existence that is ridiculous to say the least.’  This is inadvertently what she has brought about for Sgt X.  She’s shown him an alternative to the phony ridiculousness of life.

Salinger's childhood home in Park Avenue, NYC

Salinger’s childhood home in Park Avenue, NYC

I did find some of these stories weak: ‘Laughing Man’ seems contrived, but it has charm; ‘De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period’ is too flashy – but it also contains one of the finest lines in the book.  The nineteen-year-old narrator, yet another flawed, precocious youth, has taken a post as instructor in a correspondence art school.  One of his students is a gifted nun to whom he writes with inappropriately candid ardour.  After an epiphanic vision of a woman framed in a shop window, he writes in his diary:




I am giving Sister Irma her freedom to follow her own destiny.  Everybody is a nun.

That he does so, pretentiously, in French, adds an ironic dimension that diminishes his pomposity; Salinger’s humour and affection prevent the story from overbalancing into affectation – and the young man does seem to have undergone a life-changing experience.  The sententiousness is of the same order as Esmé’s gauche attempts to sound grown-up by employing expressions she doesn’t fully understand.

I’d be interested to hear if others agree with me that Salinger is worth reading…

Images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons, unless stated otherwise














‘Franny and Zooey’, by J.D. Salinger: a critique, part II

The novella ‘Zooey’ completes the book Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, and was first published in The New Yorker in 1957, then with the short story ‘Franny’, about which I wrote recently here, in book form in 1961.

Its first section takes place bizarrely in the bathroom: Zooey, an exceptionally good-looking 25-year-old actor, soaks in the bathtub, smoking and reading a long letter from his older brother, Buddy, which had been written four years earlier, and a script for a TV drama.  When his mother enters he’s irritated but wryly amused; a long conversation ensues, with Zooey screened behind the shower curtain while his mother sits on the toilet seat and, like her youngest son, smokes continuously.  The precocious Glass siblings all address their parents by their first names; Bessie has come to report her concerns about the spiritual and emotional breakdown of her youngest daughter, 20-year-old Franny.  The story ‘Franny’ serves as a kind of prologue to this novella – it shows her argument with her cynical, poseur boyfriend Lane, and her existential distress.


Autumn in Central Park

Autumn in Central Park

Now she has come home to the shabby genteel Manhattan apartment where the Glass parents live, and has taken to the sofa with her scruffy cat Bloomberg, and sleeps and frets there like a latter-day Elizabeth Barrett, refusing to eat or do anything.  When Bessie urges Zooey to do something about his sister’s emotional collapse, he banters with and teases her, repeatedly ordering her to leave and afford him some privacy.  Bessie, like most of her children, is an eccentric, and accepts his breezy irony calmly, simply wondering how Zooey turned out so like his older brothers and they all lost their sweet innocence.

In the second part of the story Zooey has dressed and entered the living room to speak to Franny.  Their conversation is also lengthy.  He questions her motives for adopting the ‘ceaseless prayer’ mantra of the Pilgrim book (which I described in the previous post), upsetting her deeply.

He then retreats to the former bedroom of his older brothers; Seymour had committed suicide some years earlier, and his spirit haunts all of the surviving family.  Buddy has moved north and become a teacher (a foreword to the story written from his perspective suggests that he is the true ‘author’ of this story).  The story ends with Zooey tapping in to the spiritual wisdom of Seymour in order to get through to Franny.

The narrative fizzes with colloquial vigour, but the dominant voice, Buddy-Salinger’s, is literary and sophisticated.  The dialogue, as in ‘Franny’, is witty and animated, with carefully placed emphases to show up the speakers’ intonation and character – this is Bessie in full flow, complaining that her husband isn’t taking enough interest in Franny’s spiritual-emotional breakdown:

Right after the eleven o’clock news last night, what do you think he asks me?   If I think Franny might like a tangerine!  The child’s laying there by the hour crying her eyes out if you say boo to her, and mumbling heaven knows what to herself [that’ll be the Jesus Prayer], and your father wonders if maybe she’d like a tangerine.  I could’ve killed him.

Later, after another plaintive request from Zooey that she leave the bathroom and let him complete his ablutions in peace:

‘I wish you’d get married,’ Mrs Glass said, abruptly, wistfully.

Everyone in the Glass family – Zooey certainly not least – was familiar with this sort of nonsequitur from Mrs Glass.  It bloomed best, most sublimely, in the middle of an emotional flareup of just this kind.

Although the narrative teeters occasionally on the brink of tweeness or whimsy, as here, Salinger manages to infuse sufficient seriousness to hold it all together: Franny’s crisis is real, and despite his laconic sarcasm, Zooey’s love and concern for his little sister is palpable.  Similarly the mystic theme, as in ‘Franny’, because it’s treated by Zooey with such scepticism, doesn’t become intrusive or embarrassing.  This is Zooey who, like Franny, is having a bit of an existential crisis of his own; he hates the arty-creative TV types he has to mix with:

They’re as happy as pigs till I show up.  I feel like those dismal bastards Seymour’s beloved Chuang-tzu warned everybody against.  “Beware when the so-called sagely men come limping into sight.”’  He sat still, watching the snowflakes swirl.  ‘I could happily lie down and die sometimes,’ he said.

Ilya Repin (1844-1930), watercolour study of a pilgrim; in the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Ilya Repin (1844-1930), watercolour study of a pilgrim; in the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

He accuses Franny of indulging in an emotional ‘Camille routine’,  and is ironic about her love of Epictetus and Emily Dickinson; he’s also dubious about her commitment to the Jesus Prayer business:

‘But I still say I don’t like it.  It’s rough on Bessie, it’s rough on Les – and if you don’t know it yet, you’re beginning to give off a little stink of piousness.  God damn it, there isn’t any prayer in any religion in the world that justifies piousness.  I’m not saying you are pious – so just sit still – but I am saying all this hysteria business is unattractive as hell.

As an antidote to the plotless metafictions I’ve been reading lately Franny and Zooey works well; it’s slight, a little pretentious (all those quotations from Kafka and oriental mystics on the bedroom door of Seymour and Buddy’s old bedroom), but beautifully crafted, and a highly rewarding read.

All pictures from the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


‘Franny and Zooey’, by J.D. Salinger: a critique, Part I

In my recent post on G. Murnane’s Inland I mentioned that I’d gone on to read Salinger as an antidote to obscure modernist plotless fiction.  This is what I read…

Salinger in 1950, photo by Lotte Jacobi

Salinger in 1950, photo by Lotte Jacobi

The short story ‘Franny’ and novella ‘Zooey’ by J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) appeared in the New Yorker in 1955 and 1957 respectively, and were published together in book form in 1961.  The eponymous siblings, both in their twenties, are the youngest of the precocious Glass family, whose members were the subject of many of Salinger’s stories.  The Penguin paperback edition first appeared in the UK in 1964; the original American edition was first published here in 1994, and reissued by Penguin in 2010, and it is this most recent paperback edition which I refer to in this post.

Franny is the eponymous protagonist of the 30-page short story.  She’s a twenty-year-old New Yorker student of English who meets her boyfriend,  Lane Coutell – another student, but as pompous as Franny is clever.   He affects an air of lofty insouciance, pretending to have taken little notice of her gushing love-letter he’d been reading when her train pulled in.  As they drive away in a cab she realises she doesn’t feel any real affection for him.

He takes her to a fashionable restaurant famed for its French cuisine; there he smugly indulges an ‘almost palpable sense of well-being’ at finding himself ‘in the right place with an unimpeachably right-looking girl – a girl who was not only extraordinarily pretty, but, so much the better, not too categorically cashmere sweater and flannel skirt’.  Salinger here slips partly into the idiom of the priggish, privileged young bore, in the modernist narrative style, with its blend of omniscient narrative voice and interior monologue.

When he brags about his intellectual precocity, Franny accuses him of talking ‘like a section man’ – usually a graduate student whose conceit is matched only by his capacity for ‘ruining things for people’.  She sees Lane is irritated, but can’t stop speaking her mind.  She apologises for what he calls this ‘bug’ she’s suffering from, and says she just can’t snap out of her ‘destructive’ mood.

He eats voraciously, smoking prodigious numbers of cigarettes, but Franny doesn’t touch her sandwich and sips her glass of milk.  Unimpressed by his boasting about an essay he’s written,  she becomes increasingly distressed with what she considers his phoniness and that of everyone else associated with academic life (this is a theme familiar from Salinger’s hugely successful first novel, published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye).  She’s even contemplating dropping out of her university English course: ‘It’s all the most incredible farce’, she says.  ‘Brilliant’, Lane responds with chilling sarcasm; ‘That’s really brilliant.’

Later she lets slip that she’s also dropped out of the Theatre Department and given up performing in dramatic productions.  Lane is incredulous.  ‘All those egos running around feeling terribly charitable and warm’, she explains.  Salinger’s dialogue, with the italicised, emphasised syllables, catches the tones of the speakers with precision and wit: Lane’s inanity and pretensions are acerbically revealed through his modishly academic jargon mixed with swaggering slang and swearing, while Franny’s exasperation is pitch perfect .  Despite its serious moral and spiritual themes, this story is extremely funny.  Salinger himself had become an adherent of Ramakrishna’s Advaita Vedanta Hinduism in the early 1950s, and both ‘Franny’ and ‘Zooey’ reflect this spirituality; he later flirted with numerous other mystical or alternative sects and belief systems.

The argument escalates as Franny fails to make Lane understand the nature of her ennui and dissatisfaction with the insincerity and mediocrity she sees in academic and literary types.  ‘I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect’, she says.  Our narrator slyly refrains from telling us how the increasingly despondent young man responds to this.

Feeling unwell, she visits the ladies’ room and cries bitterly.  Lane is now thoroughly annoyed at the ‘goddam peculiar start’ to a day he’d anticipated as turning out more gratifyingly.  His veneer of charm disappears, and he’s revealed in all his unattractive nastiness and vacuity.  When she returns she complains that everyone in their social circle is ‘just so tiny and meaningless and – sad-making…I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere,  do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting.  It’s disgusting – it is, it is.

He questions her about the book she’s carrying.  The Way of a Pilgrim, she tells him, is

Christ Pantocrator, Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 13C (Wikimedia Commons)

Christ Pantocrator, Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 13C (Wikimedia Commons)

the story of a Russian peasant who seeks enlightenment on the significance of Paul’s words in Thessalonians about praying ‘without ceasing’.  He wanders throughout the land with a knapsack containing just bread and salt[1].  A mystic  ‘starets’, a kind of guru-monk, teaches him the power of uttering  ‘the Jesus Prayer’ without ceasing, a heartfelt prayer that has to be internalised for its efficacy to be experienced: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’.  In the manner of a Zen koan or the eremitic-ascetic tradition of hesychasm (stillness, quietude), it becomes like a heartbeat, and you get to ‘see God’, she believes.  Lane is cynical about such ‘mumbo-jumbo’, and scoffs that it could result in ‘heart trouble’.  Franny is evidently hurt by his attitude, seeing the effect of repeating the names of God as similar to that of the mantras of Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism.

[1] First published in Kazan in 1884 but probably written several decades earlier; the Russian title translates fully as ‘Candid Narratives of a Pilgrim to his Spiritual Father’.

Lane is more interested in going to a party and ‘Yale game’, but when Franny faints, probably because she’s starving herself, he’s initially attentive, but spoils the effect by hinting at a sexual assignation later.  We’re left in the closing lines with her alone:

…quite still, looking at the ceiling.  Her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move.

The story shows Franny rejecting the competitive egotism of the superficial material world in favour of a more mystical, religious experience (she cites The Cloud of Unknowing in positive terms) – she’s on the brink of starting an inner journey in quest of enlightenment herself, like the Pilgrim.  She wants to stop competing: ‘I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.’  She craves the kind of annihilation of ego that mystics and anchorites seek, although she never quite articulates this fully. Lane is portrayed as typifying the crassness of secular self-interest which repels her.

The cover of the Penguin edition under discussion, from the Penguin website

The cover, from the Penguin website

Salinger is famous for his reclusiveness – he lived in near-isolation in Cornish, New Hampshire for almost fifty years, alienated from the world, avoiding interviews, litigiously preventing biographical and other works about him.  Salinger, an unconventional ‘biography’ by David Shields and Shane Salerno, was published this year to accompany a documentary film about him.  It adopts the collage approach advocated in Shields’s 2010 book Reality Hunger,  with its scattering of unacknowledged quotations profusely through the text.   The authors attempt to pierce the many myths about him, asserting for example that his tetchy seclusion was a consequence of PTSD brought on by his wartime experiences; they dwell upon his predilection for very young or much younger women, linking it with his central themes of innocence and nostalgia.  Most reviewers (like this one in the New York Times) have found some of the authors’ dramatic claims unconvincing.  Shields and Salerno also assert that up to ten previously unpublished works of Salinger’s are planned for release within the next few years.

In the second part of this post I shall turn my attention to  ‘Zooey’ and the negative critical reception which greeted the two stories, and how it’s now possible to see Franny and Zooey as the work of a master – albeit one whose character seems now to have had a decidedly unsavoury side.