Philip Hensher: Salinger's legacy may lie in ashes

Monday 01 February 2010 01:00

The last time J D Salinger made a considered, edited literary statement was in 1965. It was a long and bizarre short story, called "Hapworth 16, 1924". It came out in The New Yorker, but has never been published in permanent form. Since then, until his death the other day, as all the world knows, he stopped publishing altogether.

But what was he doing? The writers of memoirs about him penetrated his legendary secrecy, and occasionally there was some suggestion that "not publishing" did not mean "not writing". Joyce Maynard, a lover of his from the early Seventies, said in a memoir that he continued to write every morning – something that other intimates confirmed. By 1972, she said, he had finished two more novels. His daughter, Margaret, in another memoir, even described the filing system he had for his unfinished work. A neighbour, Jerry Burt, claimed that Salinger had told him that he had the barely credible total of "15 or 16" unfinished novels in his famous safe.

Of course, a writer who works in so unusual a way is perfectly likely to have destroyed every one of the books. Or he may not. Speculation about Salinger's unpublished work has, until this point, been an easy, vulgar sort of critical wondering, like guessing what Keats's poetry of the 1860s would have been like, or Keith Douglas's late period.

We'll never know, so it doesn't really matter what we say. But we may, in due course, find out what Salinger's post-publication period was like. Was the weird and unreadable fantasy monologue of "Hapworth 16, 1924" a one-off blip before he returned to the classical, heartbreaking lucidities of "Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters"? Could there be a novel of the quality of The Catcher in The Rye waiting there? But I doubt it, somehow. Writers are forged in the exchanges between their minds and their audience, what people say about them, what readers thought of their last book – not a book they wrote 50 years ago. Writers may be independent-minded people, but few of them could turn inwards to that extent, for that length of time, and not run into the sands.

Writing isn't just made up of the exchange between a writer and the page. It's to do with the reader, too, and the act of publication, and that's something that must take place book by book, not at the publication of a "Collected Works".

To take the most extravagant of the reported scenarios, Jerry Burt's report of 16 unpublished works, plus another three for the 11 years since: how is a publisher going to deal with that? It would take years, decades for readers to come to terms with posthumous work on that scale, and the likelihood is that few readers would ever bother.

The judgement of posterity starts with the first – keen or bored – responses of single readers to single books, on the first day of publication. If Salinger really left manuscripts to be published after his death, he may have been attempting to leap over the initial rough and tumble, to appeal to the sage judgements of the literary afterlife. I don't think it really works like that.

It would honestly break my heart if all this speculation is baseless, and there is no more Salinger to come. I would love a late-period masterpiece or two to emerge; I would even read 15 novels of entranced subjective meditation, I suppose. But I'm not optimistic.

Maybe Salinger was, after all, just writing for himself and made a bonfire before he died. Salinger was a sphinx, and the products of 45 years of writing in the morning may be destined for almost any conceivable fate. May already have met it, in fact.

A beggar's opera for the Pop Idol era

The ITV show Pop Star To Opera Star had passed me by till the other night. It's a celebrity phone-in talent show in which various some-time chart-botherers attempt to sing in an "operatic" style. The music varies from the respectable to some gussied-up old pop numbers like "Volare".

The performances range from the merely dismal to, frankly, Florence Foster Jenkins. Imagine that legendarily crap figure given a sex-change, a microphone and a bad haircut, and you have Danny out of McFly assaulting "La Donna e Mobile".

Anyway, now that ITV has gone to such lengths to whet our appetite for opera with these celebrity titbits, I'm sure they're going to schedule a whole opera with people who actually can sing. Or maybe not. The whole thing is presided over by the extraordinary phenomenon of Katherine Jenkins, a woman routinely described as an "opera singer". The other night, after Bernie Nolan had massacred a Mozart aria, Ms Jenkins referred to it as "voyky sapetty" and told us that it was sung to "a room full of ladies". Now, it would appear Ms Jenkins has never appeared on the operatic stage. Is it too cruel to wonder whether, with her vagueness about "Voi che sapete", she has ever actually seen an opera? And now that "opera" means Little Jimmy Osmond singing "Volare", could we think of a new name for the real thing?

Fine English words to butter up parsnips

The other night, at a party, a French woman said to me, "You know, there's one English expression I've never really understood." I wondered – her English was impeccable. What could it be? "Tell it to the marines"? John Major's favourite: "Fine words butter no parsnips"? Or that enchanting business idiom, "I'm coming into this with an open kimono"?

No, none of these. "I've never understood 'Good for you,'" she confessed. "I just don't see how you use it." I saw her point. It gets used in an anti-authority way – "It was a lovely day, so I called in sick and went to the pub." "Good for you, har har." Or in a frankly insulting way. "Tarquin got 6 A stars at A level and we inherited a chateau in Provence." "Well, good for you, you smug bastard." Does anyone ever use it just to say, "I'm pleased for you"? Actually, can you say, "I'm pleased for you" in a sincere way, either?

After a few moments' discussion, I started to wonder whether the problem was with the idiom. Maybe it's just a problem with the English, who are frankly disinclined to praise anyone over the age of 10 years old for anything at all, preferring to say "Good for you", accompanied by eye-rolling and quiet being-sick noises.

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