by Peter Byrne
(Swans - May 31, 2010) We thought we buried J.D. Salinger. Wrong. Incredible though it may seem, he's still influencing us. But don't take my word for it. Read what J.M.G. Le Clézio said in a London Guardian interview of April 10th. Le Clézio, in 2008, was the first Frenchman in twenty-three years to win the Nobel prize in literature. English language readers and publishers are still scrambling to catch up to him.
I recall fairly well, nearly 50 years later, my state of mind when I began to write my first published novel. This was summer in Nice, a sultry summer when the town was shimmering and asphalt melting and the sky a thick, grey layer of haze. I had spent much of my time at the pebble beach, or sleeping in bed. In the afternoons I sheltered in a tourist café in the centre, listening to conversations. I decided to write something. I wanted it to resemble the beginning of The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger was my hero because he had written For Esme with Love and Squalor, which told the truth about war and the so-called heroism of Hemingway. France, my country, was waging a corrupt and ruthless war against Algeria. I can still feel the wrath and the venom, the urge to protest, the desire to flee very far, to the other side of the world, or maybe to Sweden.
The Algerian War lasted from 1954 to 1962. Mention of Sweden recalls that opposing war in France at the time could end in flight to less belligerent climes. In 1958, Le Clézio was allowed to finish his studies before being drafted. He determined not to go to Algeria and in 1959 went to England where refuge was possible because of his family history and British passport. Eventually he was permitted to do his obligatory French military service as a coopérant, a kind of Peace Corps variant, in Bangkok. But there he wrote an article in a French newspaper denouncing local child prostitution. This commerce was booming thanks to the Rest and Recreation camps the American military had set up in Thailand as their war in Vietnam intensified. Le Clézio's superiors punished him by sending him to finish his service in Mexico. It would be the turning point of his life.
Earlier in Nice he had felt imperial and colonial systems crashing around him. The city was full of Vietnamese and Algerians, some exiles actually dying of starvation. The cruelty of the city and Western bourgeois life repulsed him. He sought a way out of its complacency.
As a boy Le Clézio had already spent time in Nigeria where his father practiced medicine, but it was the revelation of pre-Columbian America that would leave him forever attached to societies untainted by modernity. He plunged into the Codex, the chronicles of ancient Mexico. From 1970 to 1974 he lived among the Emberas and Waunanas Indians in Panama. The experience freed him from the purely intellectual and nourished all his subsequent work. This included collaboration with his second wife, a Moroccan, writing about their life in the Sahara.
These glimpses into his biography make us wonder how Le Clézio's life as a writer could have taken off with J.D. Salinger as a model. The two men couldn't differ more. J.D. grew up on Park Avenue and frequented a prep school and a military academy. In the 1930s his father, a cheese baron, sent him to Vienna to learn the meat importing business. J.D. was drafted in 1942 and saw combat in Europe with an infantry regiment. He then joined a counterintelligence division and served in the de-Nazification program. His daughter Margaret in 2000 pooh-poohed rumors of him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Wikipedia says, "She painted a picture of her father as a man immensely proud of his service record, maintaining his military haircut, service jacket, and moving about his compound (and town) in an old jeep."
After "the good war," J.D.'s mobility ended abruptly. He would be sedentary as a writer, and as a blocked writer or, if you prefer, as a writer shy of publishing. His marriages didn't last but he had a taste for young women provided he didn't have to displace himself to entertain them. When he dabbled in Eastern religion it was also from the safe distance of his famed New Hampshire hermitage.
The surprise is that the coddled Manhattan son of well-heeled parents, J.D. Salinger, who looked so good in uniform for four years, managed to inspire antiwar militancy in a young reader like Le Clézio in the Europe of 1963. It's as if Hemingway became the patron of a save the lions and tigers crusade. It also makes us look again at what some of his sterner contemporaries thought of J.D. The most incisive of these was Mary McCarthy. She came from the left and never excluded politics entirely from her literary criticism. Her opposition to the war in Vietnam shamed the circumspection of much of the American literary establishment. McCarthy considered J.D. a posturing pussy and his characters succubae of pseudo-intellectual fashion. She couldn't stand the Glass tribe that splashed around in family anguish and sometimes exited in suicide.
All of which raises the question of whether J.D. wasn't some sort of full grab bag that in a time of scant rebellion held a tidbit for every taste. We have to keep in mind the conformity of 1950-65. A drop or two of the juice of revolt meant more to that parched generation than we can imagine today.
The recent burial service for J.D. Salinger conducted by Swans Commentary (Feb. 8, 2010) underlined how variously the writer was received by very different readers. For Charles Marowitz, J.D. struck a heroic stance against adulthood and will have a considerable future. Peter Byrne thought J.D. hit a timely vein and then dried up. Louis Proyect gagged on J.D.'s self-absorption but conceded him permanence. Art Shay found that J.D.'s juvenile jitters led to valuable insights and had no truck with critics who pigeonholed the writer. Gilles d'Aymery, reading J.D. in French, was moved to the point of abandoning France for the U.S.A. Walter Trkla found that J.D. "honored working people" and proceeded to twin his coffin with historian Howard Zinn's. Milo Clark summed up briefly but with the widest of sweeps: "He changed our world." And, though none of these pundits are satisfied with that world, if we listen to Le Clézio, Clark appears to be right.
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