Salinger’s Big Appeal: The Life or the Work?

Francine Prose in The New York Times:

As a young person, I adored “The Catcher in the Rye.” I read it over and over. Holden Caulfield, c’est moi! But when I reread the novel some 15 years ago, because my sons were reading it for school and complaining, I understood their problem. I found Holden’s voice precious and vaguely grating, his character not so unlike that of the poseurs and phonies he perpetually rails against. Even so, I’m a passionate Salinger fan — thanks to “Nine Stories” and “Franny and Zooey.” The stories in the first are seductive, clever, almost unbearably sad. In fact, sadness is one of their subjects, along with the way melancholy can erupt into cruelty, indifference, even violence. “Franny and Zooey” may seem, on the surface, like a light comic novel about a college student who suffers a breakdown and retreats to her zany family of former vaudevillians. Yet it takes on the essential (and inarguably heavy) question of how it’s possible to live in a world in which suffering is a given. In both books, Salinger proves himself to be a technical wizard, a master of compression and the telling detail. Early in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” a woman named Muriel is talking on the phone to her mother, who is anxious about Muriel’s husband. When the mother asks, “Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?” it’s all we need to comprehend why Mother and Muriel are worried. I hope the recent “revelations” and the concurrent publicity will inspire people to read and reread “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and “Franny” without being distracted by the juicy gossip. What troubles me is the suspicion that behind the desire to dig up dirt is the wish to discover that the dirt not only explains the work but is the work. Everything is autobiographical! How much easier it will be to connect the life and the fiction, how much more challenging to give the writer’s imagination and craft the credit they deserve.

…For me, the last words — the last three words — on the subject are to be found in the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” a book I’ve been urging, begging, everyone to read. A friend asks Knausgaard why no one has written about the diaries of Olav H. Hauge, journals charting that gifted Norwegian poet’s descent into a particularly shaming form of madness. Knausgaard suggests there’s a reason for the general reticence, and for his own. “And that would be?” his friend inquires. “Decency,” Knausgaard answers. “Manners. Consideration.”

More here. (Note: Saw the biopic. Not special)