Magazine article The Spectator

Indecent Exposure

Magazine article The Spectator

Indecent Exposure

Article excerpt

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno Simon & Schuster, £25, pp. 698, ISBN 9781471130373 This biography has somewhat more news value than most literary biographies. Its subject worked hard to ensure that. After 1965, J.D. Salinger, having published one novel, a volume of short stories and two pairs of novellas, withdrew permanently from public life. His last publication, a long story entitled 'Hapworth 16, 1924', was never printed in hard covers.

Subsequently, he went to some effort to control what was known, and could be written, about him. He retired to Cornish, New Hampshire, living comfortably on the immense, ongoing sales of his single novel, The Catcher in the Rye. From there, information occasionally leaked out. A fan might extract a couple of rebarbative sentences from his idol. A mistress wrote her memoirs, years after her relationship with Salinger, and his daughter a volume designed to serve her own ends in therapy. A number of witnesses suggested that he had gone on writing until his death in 2010, storing the finished books in a safe.

Thi s b i o g r a p h y app e a r s to con t a in something more than id le specu la t ion . I ts revelations about Salinger's life are mixed in nature, and include some genuinely intrusive discoveries. The first is that Salinger had only one testicle, out of which David Shields and Shane Salerno conjure rich speculation about shame and emotional difficulties.

They have also discovered Jean Miller - the g ir l Sa l inger s tar ted wooing when she was 14, finally seduced and then immediately abandoned - and persuaded her to talk. We are told in detail about Salinger's horrific war experiences: he was one of the first American soldiers to enter Dachau.

The authors have also tried to unearth the truth about a mysterious first marriage to a German woman at the end of the war, which lasted barely a year, and suggest that it may have foundered because she was discovered to be a Gestapo informant. In the absence of any corroboration in the German archives, we have to regard this one as bold.

Bold, too, is their final claim. They not only affirm that those unpublished manuscripts exist; they describe their nature and assure us that they are to be published between 2015 and 2020. It is not clear that this information comes from the Salinger estate, but it is certainly very detailed.

The major addition is a novel, based on Salinger's first marriage, in the setting of the war; and there is a novella in the form of a counter-intelligence agent's diary, set in the last days of the war. Did Salinger take decades to assimilate his wartime experiences and address them directly? There are also five previously unpublished stories about the Glass family, and several about Holden Caulfield and his family.

In addition, there is a 'manual of Vedanta', the Indian philosophy deriving from the Upanishads, that Salinger devoted much of his life practising, including some fables.

Whether there is anything more than this - and how accurate this account really is - will be discovered in a couple of years' time. If this is all, the work rate might well be consistent with the Salinger who, even in his fecund youth, took 20 years to publish one short novel and 14 pieces of short fiction.

And will it add up to much anyway?

Though the two wartime pieces sound intriguing, I doubt whether any of this will really be worth reading. …

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