Review: ‘J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High’

ImageAn interesting read that I’m in two minds about.

On one hand it gave me, a casual fan of Salinger (I’ve read everything he’s published – admittedly not much – but I’m no evangelist for his cause), a lot of food for thought.

I barely knew anything about his personal life or past, only that he became an infamous recluse and descended/ascended into a spiritual stupor. After reading a biography that clearly came from a Salinger devotee, I’m at once more appreciative of his works and methods and more aware of his neurotic shortcomings.

Salinger’s early years are a treat to read about, particularly his more documented army days. We’re given insight into his motivations, and these shed particular light on his early short stories. These pages were by far my favourite parts, and caused me to appreciate just how much of himself Salinger put into his stories.

His work ethic was relentless; I learnt that Salinger sometimes spent in excess of eight months polishing individual stories. He embodied the term ‘perfectionist’ as much as one writer can. This would later come at the cost of his personal life. We’re told that Salinger would estrange himself from those he cared about in service of his life’s work.

Depending on the reader’s perspective, this information could either solidify his position as one of the most dedicated writers of all time, or come as a horrifying lesson about excess. One thing’s for sure, though, I no longer believe J.D. Salinger to be an egotist. His slavery to his craft came from the purest of motivations: he believed that writing was a spiritual act, a form of meditation.

My qualms with this book were inevitable. Kenneth Slawenski’s appraisal of Salinger’s work is endearing, but the overall picture it paints is murky. Slawenski refuses to side with Salinger’s detractors, even in the author’s direst spirals. He presents the ‘facts’ as they are (or as best as one can writing from the outside in, with no personal connection to Salinger or those closest to him), but fails to acknowledge that Salinger was a pretty unlikeable guy.

For example: Salinger’s relationships with his publishers were well-documented and tumultuous. Early on in the biography, I respected the hell out of Salinger for standing up for his rights and fighting the various literary magazines that threatened to misrepresent or exploit him. At any cost, he wished to keep his vision intact, and was adamant to avoid exploitation.

As events unfold, though, Salinger’s iron grip on his own work becomes laughable. He burns bridges with everyone around him over the most trivial of matters, and this was painful to read about. Taking himself too seriously would be an understatement, and I was a little disappointed that Kenneth refused to even acknowledge this (lest it tarnish his idol’s reputation).

A pet peeve of mine was Kenneth’s unsavoury habit of throwing the phrases ‘Salinger was incensed’ (his favourite word, I’m convinced) and ‘Salinger thought Publisher X was “phony”’ – as if to patronise him for the way the word recurs in Catcher.

The sections where Slawenski attempts to slip into Salinger’s shoes and tell us how he may have hypothetically felt during certain situations are, for the most part, cringe-worthy. Knowing the author didn’t even know Salinger makes his assumptions trite and insulting, regardless of how otherwise well-researched this biography was.

To Kenneth’s credit, though, I did enjoy his mini-essays about Salinger’s work. Hearing his analysis of Franny and Zooey and Seymour – An Introduction was particularly insightful to me. It’s obvious he has great respect for his subject (heck, he even defends ‘Hapworth 16’ tooth and nail.)

Overall, I would say this biography is definitely worth reading, despite its lengthiness and repetition. For the uninformed, there is plenty of great information about the most enigmatic author of the twentieth century.

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