Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Books In Salinger's Safe

I did a little piece for The Times yesterday about JD Salinger that you can read here or in a slightly different form below:
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JD Salinger's death could be the beginning of a mini gold rush for the beleaguered American publishing industry. Although Salinger published nothing after 1961, in her memoir Dream Catcher, his daughter Margaret says that her father was extremely disciplined, writing every single morning, sometimes remaining in his study all day typing and editing. When she asked what he was doing he told her that he “was working on my books.” Occasionally he would even show her completed manuscripts, although he wouldn’t let her read them. What were these mysterious books about? It’s impossible to say but my guess is that they mostly concerned the Glass family, the heroes of his story collections: Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour and Introduction. Margaret Salinger says that there were dozens of notebooks all over the house about the fictional Glasses that traced their connections, noted their likes and dislikes, and detailed their habits. Salinger was always referring to the notebooks and may have been using them to plot full length novels about the Glass kids.
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The Glasses were a large, self obsessed group of children who grew up in New York in the 1930's and who, in Salinger’s universe, appeared on a radio quiz show called It’s A Wise Child which made them famous. Like Salinger they had a Jewish father, a Christian mother and were smart beyond their years. They’re an interesting bunch certainly but to me at least the Glass family short stories which appeared in the New Yorker are not as warm or as interesting as Salinger’s great novel The Catcher in the Rye about another precocious youth, Holden Caulfield. Still there are some beautiful Glass family tales and A Perfect Day for Bananafish about World War Two veteran Seymour Glass’s breakdown and suicide is a classic. Full length novels about Seymour or Zooey or Buddy or any of the Glasses would certainly be fascinating.
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The “manuscripts in a safe” story was given credence by The New York Times who claim in their Salinger obituary that there are at least two manuscripts sitting in a bank vault in Cornish, New Hampshire; but my guess is that there are many more. Salinger wrote relatively quickly and surely in fifty years he produced more than two books. And yes, Salinger became increasingly eccentric as the decades went on and there is a possibility that these manuscripts are stuffed with mad ramblings or like Jack Torrance in The Shining filled with the same line repeated over and over. I don’t think so. In Ian Hamilton’s biography In Search of JD Salinger, Salinger is lucid, canny and clever well into the 1980's and only last year his lawyers stopped the publication of a Swedish “sequel” to Catcher in the Rye on the instructions of their client.
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Salinger himself several times referred to his unpublished books and gave directions that they should be published unedited after his death. This will be exciting few weeks, for although the aloof Glasses are not everyone’s cup of tea there could be other stuff in there too. Before his half century long hermitage in New Hampshire Salinger had an intriguing life. A platoon sergeant who landed at Utah beach he fought with his troops throughout the Normandy theatre and took part in the capture of Paris, where he had a drink with Ernest Hemingway in the freshly liberated bar of the Ritz Hotel. Sergeant Salinger was at the rough end of the dreadful battle of Huertgen forest and he apparently was also present at the liberation of at least one concentration camp.
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After the war Salinger met all of New York's literary elite and was widely celebrated and well travelled. It was only following the publication of Catcher in the Rye that he began to be pestered by adoring fans and decided to withdraw from the world to the relative obscurity of a house in Cornish, New Hampshire. (I say ‘relative’ obscurity because everyone in Cornish knows where Salinger lived and it is very easy to find his house.) Salinger embraced Eastern religions, meditation, vegetarianism, and apart from writing did not appear thereafter to do much of anything. He had no comment when Mark David Chapman said that Catcher in the Rye inspired him to shoot John Lennon in 1980. He refused every plea to turn Catcher into a film, turning down Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and others.
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My guess is that the film will now happen and we are certainly going to see many authorised and unauthorised biographies too. I suppose in a few months information will start to leak out about the manuscripts in the safe, but since all of Salinger’s books have sold in the millions, one thing is clear: whether they are good or bad, about the Glasses or about Holden, or even the War, they are all going to be best sellers and the publishing house who prints them is going to make a fortune.
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My agent Bob saw the piece above in The Times and emailed me this little postscript: "Adrian, years ago I had a two-too-many drink lunch with his agent Phyllis Westberg and she said that they had had discussions with him about the rules of what he was leaving behnd--and that he'd told them there would be plenty for them to deal with."