Saturday 24 March 2018

JD Salinger -- still fuming at age 90

He's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. He's JD Salinger and at the age of 90 he's still as litigious as ever. This week, his lawyers lodged a lawsuit to prevent the publication of an unauthorised sequel to Salinger's most famous work, Catcher in the Rye.

Penned by an unknown with the unlikely name of JD California, 60 Years Later: Coming Through The Rye brazenly picks up the plot of Salinger's 1951 classic, propelling the teen rebel, Holden Caulfield, from coming-of-age to old age. Salinger's lawyers branded the attempted sequel as "a rip-off pure and simple".

The incident brought about a rare sighting of literature's most famous recluse. Salinger went into hiding roughly 50 years ago, resurfacing fitfully to prevent others laying their hands on his small body of published work.

It's believed, however, that he has since amassed a vast body of unpublished manuscripts -- so vast, in fact, that he has even developed a system of colour coding for them. In a rare 1974 interview, he declared there was "marvellous peace in not publishing".

That peace may come from a fear that having penned what many consider the perfect novel, he could never equal it. Many critics now judge later works like Franny & Zooey to have aged better than his seminal work, but these weren't universally hailed at the time and he was stung.

Not that Catcher garnered plaudits at every turn. While the New York Times hailed it as "an unusually brilliant first novel", others expressed outrage at the coarse language and Holden's general "immorality and perversion".

The voices of condemnation were all grist to the publicity mill. In terms of timing and pitch, Catcher gave an authentic voice to a new breed, the alienated teenager, and the book became a phenomenon going to eight reprints in two months. To date, it has sold some 70 million copies and still shifts 250,000 a year. As if that wasn't enough to set the bar dauntingly high for future works, there was also the observation of one critic that Salinger had created "a literary genre all of its own".

When one of his many much- younger conquests, Joyce Maynard (aged 18), found celebrity as a journalist, the 53-year-old Salinger wrote sternly warning her about the perils of fame. He had not always shied away from the spotlight, courting Oona O'Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene, before she moved on to Charlie Chaplin.

He was not shy either about soliciting the patronage of Ernest Hemingway. He sought out the writer in Europe, getting there the hard way as part of the Utah Beach landing force on D-Day.

The older writer gushed: "Jesus, he has a helluva talent." On duty in Germany after the war, he met and married a woman called Sylvia in 1945. The marriage quickly crumbled. Years later, in 1972, Sylvia wrote to him. According to his daughter Margaret, he tore up the letter without opening it -- "because when he was finished with a person, he was through with them".

Salinger had a track record of finishing with people for good, and sometimes with good reason. In 1948, movie producer Sam Goldwin bought the rights to his story, Uncle Wiggily In Connecticut, and turned it into a dog's dinner which bore virtually no resemblance to the original. Salinger never tolerated another screen adaptation of his work. The control freak in him came out too when he dictated that publishers could not depict characters from Nine Stories (1953) on the book's cover, to prevent readers forming preconceived notions.

In 1953, he moved from New York to the seclusion of Cornish, a tiny hamlet in rural New Hampshire. Initially, Salinger mixed socially, striking a good relationship with the local high-school students whom he'd invite over to spin discs and shoot the breeze. The invites dried up after he gave an interview for the high-school page of the local paper, only to see it get a big splash up front. Following that perceived betrayal, he became ever more reclusive and has not published new work since Hapworth 16, 1924, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1965.

There has been persistent speculation that his retreat from the world was sparked by post traumatic stress disorder from his battlefield experiences, but that remains no more than speculation.

In retreating from public life, he experimented with a long list of belief systems, sending those close to him into retreat. In the 1950s, Salinger acquired a guru and took up the practice of Kriya Yoga, persuading his new wife Claire to share the vibe. He eventually gave it up for the sci-fi cult of Dianetics before moving on to Christian Science, macrobiotics, an Atlantis cult, vomiting therapy, urine therapy, speaking in tongues, and a fertility cult.

Admitting that she once ran away from their home, his wife Claire said that her husband would regularly leave Cornish for weeks at a time to write, "only to return with the piece he was supposed to be finishing all undone or destroyed, and some new 'ism' we had to follow". By the mid-60s, according to their daughter Margaret, Salinger had isolated Claire so much from family and friends she was "a virtual prisoner". She left him in 1966.

Over 40 years later, he still lives in splendid isolation; still a hero to millions, but perhaps a living endorsement of the maxim that you should never meet your heroes.

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