Howard Jacobson: There is nobility in opting out, in refusing what the world is offering

It’s why I admire J D Salinger from whom nobody’s heard aword for decades

Saturday 06 June 2009 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Walked out of Waiting For Godot at the Theatre Royal last week. Nothing to do with the production. Simply my way of responding to the play's evocation of the tedium of existence. If anything, the better it's done, the more obliged you are not to return after the interval.

Seeing me leave, a wonderfully polite Indian gentleman who was waiting on the pavement asked if he could have my ticket. Presumably, he does this every night. It crossed my mind that he might have only ever seen the second act of Waiting For Godot. Perhaps fifty, perhaps a hundred times. And I have only ever made it through Act One. This reflects our different natures. He doesn't want to know how things begin, I don't want to know how things end. Either way, we are two halves of a Beckettian whole, he Estragon, I Vladimir – unless it's the other way around – divided by futility but neither making much sense without the other.

I don't understand why more people don't walk out of things. There are times when you just don't want to be a part. Don't want to join in, sing along, watch, be entertained, applaud, cast your vote, or in any other way admit you are of humanity. "Only connect," E M Forster advised. A good enough precept in season, but E M Forster didn't have to live through Britain's Got Talent, bankers' bonuses, celebrity novelists and Hazel Blears. Considering that we are not strictly speaking at war, not suffering plague or famine, and it is still hard to get a table at the best restaurants, credit crunch or no credit crunch, these are particularly horrible times in which to be a member of the human race.

Maybe it's our very freedom from war and famine that's the problem. Angst, after all, is a child of peace. Existentialism is a luxury, bred of idleness. Waiting For Godot was written after the war, not during it. You don't think about hanging yourself from a leafless willow tree when you've got a Hun with a bayonet coming at you. And maybe when you're at war you need the perky plucky little condescending tone-deaf, self-satisfied self-righteous and self-deluded impertinent busy-bodying of a Hazel Blears to pull you through.

Imagine her in full nurse's rig at your bedside, reader, setting you an example of fortitude under fire, getting you to say "ah" while she pops in a thermometer, bandaging your wounds, inserting a catheter – all right, don't.

If I had the cojones I'd be a hermit; there is nobility in opting out. In simply refusing what the world is offering. Saying no to the fame thing for which people will degrade themselves to the bottom of their humanity, while we, half in envy, half in loathing, connive in degrading them still further. The simultaneous sanctification and satirising of Susan Boyle has been a low moment in our culture, morally, aesthetically, person to person, you name it. May the 19 million who turned on their televisions have bad dreams. Myself, I want the desert or the arctic waste, wherever there's not a television to be found.

It's why I admire J D Salinger, from whom nobody's heard a word – except occasionally from his solicitors – for decades. In all probability he's now an unpleasant old man. Querulous, full of crazy food fads, a believer in conspiracy theories, and without a sense of humour. I don't know this for sure. But you can't live that long in isolation, deprived of the consolations of making jokes and love, and not turn strange. It's one of the sad contradictions of existence: stay with the human race and you become a cretin who knows who Simon Cowell is, leave it and you become a nutter.

I was never particularly a fan of Salinger's writing. I think I was a little young for The Catcher In The Rye when it came out and I associate it with my mother embarrassing me by using swear words of which she didn't know the meaning. Our's was a house in which no one swore. We had neither instinct nor taste for it. Swearing, we believed, demeaned us. Even out of the house my father would berate anyone who used the mildest obscenity in my hearing. And now suddenly there was my mother reading The Catcher In The Rye, roaring with laughter, and saying "crap" all the time. "All that David Copperfield kind of crap" – I couldn't grasp why she found that line so amusing, not least as I knew she loved David Copperfield and had encouraged me to read it. "Why is 'All that David Copperfield kind of crap' so funny?" I asked.

Whereupon she burst out laughing again, the tears streaming down her face. It's possible I was jealous of J D Salinger. I saw it as my job to make my mother laugh. I never warmed to him, anyway, and then came some brief and rather precious stabs at shorter fiction – Franny And Zooey, Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters. All a bit finely and fragiley wrought, I thought, and I took against Franny and Zooey simply because of their names, or rather because of the authorial intentionality of their names. Franny and Zooey – no, I didn't want to be drawn in so close. Too cute for me. If Franny and Zooey were going to be at the party, I'd stay home.

But from the moment Salinger locked himself away, granting no interviews, refusing all offers from Hollywood, having nothing further to say on his work or on any other subject, he assumed a grandeur in my eyes. This week his lawyers are suing someone who has written a sequel to The Catcher In The Rye. I understand his ire: this is my book and these are my characters, and no one else's. Write your own novel. And stay out of my face.

Wonderful, in my view, not to seek the world's interest or covet its rewards. You could say he did well enough when he was the world's darling to be able to afford to turn his back on it now. But doing well enough hasn't stopped others from wanting to do better. Interviews become their own narcotic. Film deals are seductive – more money, more fame, and the slinky if illusory promise of a world-wide readership. Most writers never tire of notice and acclaim. We preach writerly austerity but don't practise it. The gravitational pull of the trivial is too great for us to resist.

So three cheers for J D Salinger. In a debased and greedy world we should revere those who want none of all our smash-and-grab celebrity crap.

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