Tuesday 25 January 2011

The definition of sentimentality

I would like to say that it's a shame, a damned shame, a huge bloody shame that The Catcher in the Rye is so damned popular, and has been for so very long. It has unfairly pigeon-holed J. D. Salinger as an Earnest Writer of Novels about Earnest (read whiny) Teens Feeling Things, Deep Things, Intensely. People have forgotten, self included, that he wrote other books - other lovely and amazing books, such as Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction.

I was forced to read The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school, as many of you no doubt were as well. Even then, as an Earnest, Whiny Teen Feeling Deep Things of my own, I was irritated by the wankey Holden Caulfield. I wanted to punch him in the neck but couldn't articulate that then; "punch him/her in the neck" hadn't yet been incorporated into my special lexicon, and so I merely floundered about, silently hating this loser and nursing a resentment.

Now, the fact is, I read Franny and Zooey before reading TCITR, and absolutely loved it - as in stayed up all night to read it and then re-read it as soon as I woke up the next afternoon. I don't remember why I loved it though. I think it, or a large part of it, was just a lot of talking, and that Salinger's gift for fictional conversation had me at "howdy" - an experience reproduced in this latest reading venture. And because my memories of Holden and his Problems are almost as vague and fuzzy as the conversation of F & Z, I wonder if, in fact, TCITR doesn't suck at all - but that the way it was taught sucked, and that was the problem. And you know? That often was the problem in high school, so why should this one book have been an exception?

The point is, I picked up a Salinger book, in spite of this high school reading disaster, and it was gold. I love, love, love his writing. And I was so pleased to discover, much to my surprise, that he's hilarious! Here's the beginning of Boo Boo's letter to Buddy, about their brother Seymour's upcoming wedding (this is from the beginning of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters). The whole letter is ridiculously good, but I'll just get it started for you, to tempt you. I'd give my left arm to be able to write letters half so engaging as this (I must keep my right arm, however; otherwise there will be no letter-writing by me regardless of what I give away):
Dear Buddy,
     I'm in a terrible rush to pack, so this will be short but penetrating. Admiral Behind-Pincher has decided that he must fly to parts unknown for the war effort and has also decided to take his secretary with him if I behave myself. (p.8)
I may have squealed with delight when I began reading this epistolary bit. And yes, that's all I'm giving you. I demand that you go read this. Because it's not just that the writing is really, really good, or that it's funny as hell; it's also that Salinger is so damned nice to and about his characters. His narrative style is one of a very benevolent god looking down upon his sweet but confused creations. He pokes fun at them, yes, but so gently it seems like kindness itself.

And Seymour - the subject of both novellas, and the eldest of the Glass family children, all brought into show biz early on - is the reflection of this narrative voice. He's brilliant, strange, and absolutely beamingly in love with the world, but especially his family. He is sentimental according to the definition that makes sense to him: "we are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it" (p.67). This is what defines and motivates Seymour's actions throughout both pieces. Sentimentality, here, is not a disparagement; rather, it's something that only the doomed Seymour is capable of.

In Seymour: an Introduction, Buddy tries to describe his deceased brother. He circles about and about, discussing things not apparently to the point but slowly revealing more and more of the loveliness and brilliance of his elder sibling. He's incapable of the kind of uninhibited sentimentality that illuminated Seymour's life, so he tries to get at it from odd angles. And he manages it, in spite of himself. This is Salinger's power - to so perfectly show Buddy's struggle, at the same time that he shows us what we need to know about Seymour, without Buddy realizing he's succeeding brilliantly in his painful task.

If my memories of TCITR are close to accurate, I hope that it was a one-off of angst and gloom and lameness, because I'm going to be reading whatever Salinger there is left to read. And I'll be more disappointed than I can say if I have to punch any creation of Salinger's in the neck.

PS-I am reading China Mieville's The City & The City as per your voting, and I thank you for it. Please go vote in the NEW POLL!


Heidenkind said...

I was not forced to read Catcher in the Rye in high school... thank god.

White Castle, baby!!!

nicole said...

In the case of The Catcher in the Rye I seriously blame the book rather than the high school teaching. I had to read it for high school too, but read the whole thing before the teacher discussed a word of it and still wanted to punch Holden in the neck. I remember most of the people I knew who liked it were boys. Who still aren't very mature 12 years+ later.

Anything with the Glass family, on the other hand, whew. Pure love.

Trapunto said...

He was criticized for the benevolent god thing. Actually, I just looked up the "loves the Glasses more than God loves them" I was remembering, and it was John Updike who said it in a review of Franny and Zooey, and who wants to listen to him?--unless Sallinger did, and that's where he got his definition of sentimentality?

raych said...

Nine Stories? DOoO it. Teddy. For Esme - with Love and Squalor. A Perfect Day for a Bananafish.

Do it now.

nicole said...

Seconding raych!

Ellen said...

you do such a better job of describing this book and the characters than i did when i reviewed it. i have mixed feelings on salinger, not because of "the catcher in the rye" (read it twice before graduating high school; and the second time, i really, really liked it) but because...i don't know. all his characters sort of sound the same to me. i remember admiring his writing in this book from a kind of technical standpoint - especially in "seymour," the lines between salinger and his characters become very blurred.

i'm going to be reading "franny & zooey" soon...for some reason, with salinger more than most authors, i keep reading/rereading his stuff in the hopes of liking it more. a few weeks after finishing i forget what i read, but i keep trying. wonder what keeps bringing me back?

Michelle said...

I have no memory of Catcher in the Rye, none. It is possible I wiped it from my mind, because I know I've read it at least twice. But Franny and Zooey, which I read for the first time after I'd graduated from College, I absolutely loved. Excellent. Salinger has never been much on my radar, so I didn't even know this other book existed, thanks!

Meytal Radzinski said...

I didn't read The Catcher in the Rye for high school (though I did around that age) and absolutely hated it. I like that idea of punching Holden in the neck. What a lovely visual that makes.

This adds, though, to my Salinger guilt list. I know I ought to give the guy another shot (especially since everybody seems to agree that Franny and Zooey and the short stories are way way better) but I just keep putting it off...

Stefanie said...

I didn't have to read Catcher in the Rye in high school but there was so much swooning about it from my English teachers that I read it outside of school and did not like it at all. Had the same reaction to Holden as you did. I have never been interested in reading anything else by Salinger because of that unfortunate experience but I will now take it into reconsideration.

Jeanne said...

Just for the record, I do not want to listen to Updike about Salinger.

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: The White Castle isn't doing so well in the poll...but there's time.

nicole: Interesting. I don't think I actually know anyone who loved The Catcher in the Rye (well, personally know - lots of people online, of course).

Trapunto: I've never read Updike: I take it I shouldn't?

raych: Okay, will read Nine Stories soon (i.e., hopefully within 6 months).

Ellen: That's really interesting...you're either bowing to social pressure or you're on to something big that will become clear only through re-readings. I'm going to bet on the latter. :)

Michelle: You're welcome; I'll look forward to reading your review of F&Z.

Biblibio: No guilt! Books should never be read out of guilt. Life is short and the TBR pile is long...

Stefanie: I suggest eating some chocolate pumpkin pie while reading Franny and Zooey (recipe coming soon).

Jeanne: Fair!

Trapunto said...

The time to read John Updike is when you are in the mood to watch a Tom Cruise movie, only you want something smarter, and stylistically self-conscious, and New England pipe-smokey, and a book. -Basically, when you feel amused and indulgent toward mid-20th-century male egotism. I am almost never in that mood.