Magazine article The Spectator

The Write Stuff

Magazine article The Spectator

The Write Stuff

Article excerpt

Is the opening sentence of a book, especially a novel, the most consequential, or is it just dressing for the feast to come?

I'd say the former judging from A Tale of Two Cities, Moby-Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and my favourite, The Death of Manolete, by Barnaby Conrad. 'In August, 1947, in Linares, Spain, a multimillionaire and a bull killed each other and plunged a nation into mourning.' But here's one that's bound to be the greatest of them all, Tan Lines, to be published by St Martin's Press on 8 July: 'There are 8,000 nerve endings in the clitoris, and this son of a bitch couldn't find any of them.' Nabokov, eat your heart out. The intellectual behemoth who wrote these immortal opening words is one J.J. Salem, perhaps unknown among the literati, but a giant to countless lonely onanists whose bedside tables are festooned with his works.

My God, the culture is improving by the minute. This is old hat, but did you know that The Catcher in the Rye was turned down by Harcourt Brace, the publishing house that solicited it, because editors thought the writing show-offy and were unsure whether Holden was a nutcase or not.

Mind you, don't confuse J.J. Salem with J.D. Salinger, although, education being what it is nowadays, I wouldn't be surprised if some did. Little, Brown finally took a chance on Catcher and it was published in July 1951, and has sold more than 65 million copies so far. If I had to choose one book that I would have given my soul to have written it would have to be Catcher. I have yet to meet a kid who did not respond to it, starting with my own. The greatest compliment I ever received was when I was introduced to the headmaster of Blair Academy by an older boy -- a friend of my family who later committed suicide -- as Holden Caulfield.

All the young recognise themselves in Holden's character because Holden knew what they know, which is that most successful people are phonies and success itself is a sham. Oh, yes, and there's something else.

Holden sounds like a teenager but doesn't think like one. His thought process is that of an adult, masked by adolescent talk. Holden will be 57 years old this summer, and is getting stronger by the minute. And if any of you are getting tired of him, there's always J.J. Salem.

American college professors have always insisted that Moby-Dick was the greatest single work produced by an American author in the 19th century. Perhaps, but Melville never did the trick for me. I always understood it to be an adventure story with a metaphysical soul. It is both humorous and serious, reflecting American tendencies to achieve material success, and their preoccupation with what's good and what's evil. …

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