THE allure of a literary recluse is difficult to resist, particularly in a world where authors are falling over each other to be in the centre of the ever so transient spotlight and get themselves interviewed, photographed, awarded. The writer who ca n produce a masterpiece and then, instead of starting off on a multi-city book tour, just walk away from it all, sets himself apart from the pack and inevitably becomes a mysterious figure, the stuff of legends.
Quitting while ahead is easier said than done. And in recent times at least, nobody seems to have done it better than J. D. Salinger, the highly acclaimed and famously private author of the adolescent classic The Catcher in the Rye (1951). While the teenaged narrator of the The Catcher…, Holden Caulfield, became one of the most successful characters of modern literature, the book met with controversy, critical acclaim and then ultimately commercial success, finding its way on recommended reading lists of high schools and have-to-read lists of angst ridden teenagers. By some count it still sells a quarter million copies every year; troubled adolescence is a forever theme.
Obsessed with privacy
There were other quick books from Salinger — essentially anthologies of his stories first published in The New Yorker — Franny and Zoeey, Nine Stories, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. But he made a voluntary decision not to publish anything else after a story in The New Yorker in 1965. Legend, however, has it that he has continued to write in a disciplined fashion, a few hours eve ry morning, in his rural retreat in New Hampshire. The manuscripts reportedly pile up, with neatly labelled editing instructions, in floor to ceiling safes.
Nobody is to know the truth. Salinger has not been interviewed since 1980 and he has rarely been photographed or even seen. Moreover, he has proactively resisted, at times through legal means, all attempts of biographers and publishers to bring out anything which would throw light on his personal life.
So intense has been his obsession to keep away from the public eye that when The Catcher in the Rye was coming out in the U.S., he was hiding away in London. Nevertheless he could not stop Joan Maynard’s kiss-and-tell autobiog raphy At Home in the World in which she talks about her love affair with the famous writer when he was 53 and she barely 18. This has been followed up by Dream Catcher: A Memoir by Margaret Salinger, the writer’ ;s daughter from his second wife. Margaret explores several Salinger myths including his interest in macrobiotics, homeopathy, acupuncture, meditation, Christian Science and so on. Actually, it’s the song — Here’s to Life — that best sums it up:
Hey there Salinger, what did you do?/Just when the world was looking at you/To write anything, that meant anything/You told us you were through….
Other writers too have disappointed literary audiences after their first promise, either out of choice or otherwise. Ralph Ellison made a pioneering effort to explore black identity in 1952 with Invisible Man but could not complete his follow up book. Harper Lee, author of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, never brought out another book though she did mention the possibility in two brief interviews in the early 1960s. The intensely private Thomas Pynchon, who ha s never been interviewed, went silent for 17 years after his early novels before becoming prolific again in the nineties. In fact Pynchon’s fans began to think that he did not exist, that he was actually Salinger, that he was only a computer programme!
But the reclusive shadow that I am chasing is Henry Green (actually Henry Yorke). Yorke was an aristocrat and an industrialist producing beer bottling machines. At night, in long hand, he wrote nine books that were to be ranked among the best of his times, rich with the legacy of D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. Fearing that he would be killed in the Second World War, he even wrote an early memoir Pack My Bag at age 35. Though he survived the war, he could not handle the writer 217;s block that set in thereafter and quit writing when he was 47, well ahead in the game. He told an interviewer: “I find it so exhausting now I simply can’t do it anymore.” The man whom V.S. Pritchett has described as “the most gifted prose writer of his generation” took increasingly to drink. He lost the directorship in his company to his young son, retired to his house, changed into his carpet slippers and just stayed in. He read novels borrowed from a department store, drank gin, let his teeth rot and watched sports programmes on television. He did not do any writing and allowed people to photograph him only from the rear.
Making a mark
But his slim body of work had made its mark. The novels — Loving, Living, Blindness, Caught, Concluding, Party Going — each title as clear as a pistol shot on a winter night, slip in and out of print. Critics and publish ers may change their views about Green but fellow writers do not. If Somerset Maugham and the other Greene (Graham) are often called writer’s writers, then Henry Green is “a writer’s writer’s writer.” No wonder he has been acclaimed as a genius by the likes of John Updike, Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden and so on. I am halfway through Loving and it’s easy to understand why. Clearly he demands more of the reader’s attention than say, Greene.
Theme is a distant shadow, description is nominal and there is little by way of plot or overt action, though a lot still seems to go on. Gradually one discovers that the author has made himself invisible, letting the characters create themselves or fail in the process, refusing to sit on judgment upon them or setting up moral standards for them to reach.
Here one need not look for the story but for the rhythm of the prose, the quiet humour, unfailingly convincing dialogue, sensuous and fresh imagery.
His writing stands up easily to his own definition, a definition so true that I would like to pin it above my desk:
“Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself at night, and it is not quick as poetry, but rather a gathering web of insinuation…Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers…It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpre ssed, it should in the end draw tears out of stone.”