Sunday, October 06, 2002

From Ron Rosenbaum's 2000 New York Times review of Dream Catcher, Margaret Salinger's memoir of her father, J. D. Salinger, comes an excellent answer to the general anti-Salinger p.o.v., which is that there's no distance between author and subject:

... the real problem with her book, the real problem with literary biography in general, is that while in some cases it can expand our sense of an author's work (as Margaret's account of her father's wartime experience undoubtedly does) more often it can be reductive.

Reading ''The Catcher in the Rye'' in light of what she knows of her father's life, for example, Margaret seems to assume that the book is an uncritical endorsement of Holden Caulfield's point of view, of his adolescent romanticism and his embittered crusade against ''phonies.'' What in fact makes the novel transcend the fevered point of view of its unreliable narrator is its ambivalence, the implicit critique it counterpoises to Holden's sometimes cruel disdain for souls less pure than he. Similarly, Margaret Salinger construes ''A Perfect Day for Bananafish'' as purely an endorsement of Seymour's revulsion at the vulgarity of the material world, when in some crucial ways it can be read as a critique of the self-destructive nature of spiritual absolutism.

Her approach is something like that of those who read Tolstoy's late novella ''The Kreutzer Sonata'' (with its narrator's vicious diatribe against flesh and sexuality) as merely an advertisement for the author's late-life fanaticism on the subject -- a pamphlet rather than a work of art. But even though Tolstoy in his dotage was as desperate and gullible a spiritual seeker as Salinger seems in this memoir, he never stopped being an artist who produced a complex work whose bitter comic excesses undercut the credibility of its simple-minded, flesh-hating narrator.

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