Katy Guest: Love letters and other let-downs

Our writer laments the lingering loss of literary mystique
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As an impressionable schoolgirl with a social life that existed largely in books and my imagination, I knew a Byronic older man in a position of responsibility on whom I had a considerable and inexplicable teenage crush. He was a published poet and had a Thomas Hardy obsession second in intensity only to my own. I'd have done anything to play Tess to his moustache-twirling Alec D'Urberville, but fortunately I had a school uniform, a nose stud and braces on my teeth. He wouldn't have noticed me had I streaked through Casterbridge wearing only a noose and an air blue gown.

Years later we met, and inevitably he tried to have his way with me – in Ealing rather than the woods, which was one of the many wrong notes that made me run away. Within days I received his letter: "It's sunny outside," wrote this supposed poet, "but it's raining in my heart." There was not a hint of irony in his limp and clichéd prose. I was devastated.

I was not, I trust, the only young woman ever to fall hook, line, spondee and dactyl for the first plausible charmer who could string together a pretty sentence. The primary sexual organ in women is the brain, after all, and over the years I exchanged epistles with a number of men who could talk a good talk. I'm over all that now (I've found physicists a much better bet: heart-stoppingly clever and more into the truth than fine words). But I still felt a wrench when I read last week's disappointing news about literary heroes.

For instance, which of the most brilliant polemicists in the history of English letters turns out to have written the following, sub-Hallmark doggerel? "I am sorry for poo poo ppt, prey walk hen oo can." And how about: "I expect a Rettie vely soon; & that MD is vely well, and so Nite dee MD"?

Fortunately, a scholar of 18th-century English has translated this nauseating baby talk. It means "I am sorry for poor, poor poppet, pray walk when you can", and "I expect a letter very soon, and that my dears are very well...", and it was written by Jonathan Swift, formerly thought of as the primary satirist of his and most other generations.

He wrote the letters between 1710 and 1713 to his two girlfriends, Stella and Rebecca. And here is another thing that we can learn about super-articulate men of letters: often you find that they're fancy-talking to every other girl in town.

The same cannot be said of JD Salinger; and yet last week's revelations about him are equally disappointing. In this case, it is not Salinger I blame. Until his death last year, the man better known as "the reclusive Catcher in the Rye author J D Salinger" had done an admirable job of maintaining his writerly mystique, turning down all interviews and fiercely protecting his work and reputation. Now, thanks to a cache of letters written by Salinger to his friend Donald Hartog and published by Hartog's children, we realise that this was because he was actually really boring.

I suppose that I always pictured Salinger angrily bashing out great, unpublished works in a huge rotting house, isolated in the middle of acres of rye. Instead, he was going on pensioners' coach trips, eating at Burger King, watching Upstairs Downstairs and admiring (oh, the tragic littleness of life) Tim Henman. Salinger was supposed to be a Great Writer. He turned out to be just like anyone else.

I'm grateful to the modern author Jenny Colgan (great writer; fun in real life), then, for her tweet: "Obsessed with the idea that J D Salinger wrote enormous Tim Henman-centred opus and publishers suppressed it." Colgan has managed to preserve her own literary fantasy, and I admire her for that. But my imagination is not as good as hers, and it's raining in my heart.