Thursday 28th January was an extraordinary cold day. The snow, intermittent throughout the morning, started to fall rapidly around mid-day and immediately settled onto the wet road. The playing field of the elementary school opposite my first floor residence, revived by another cloak of snow, distracted me from the radio and drifted me into a moment of reverie. There is something redemptive and mesmerising about looking out onto a freshly blanketed snow-scape. The snowstorm’s heavy presence mollified and cocooned the senses; the large snowflakes whirled and meandered in the sky assimilating a magical quality to the day. I was brought out of this state of suspension by an announcement on the radio – The author of The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger, died yesterday, aged 91. The words, barely audible, hit me as if they had been blasted into my eardrums with an unbearable force of decibels. I looked out of the window at the snow falling on my neighbourhood, searching for an appropriate scene weighted in poignant simplicity. There was no such moment – no dab of Van Gogh red against the white canvas, no Davega bicycle and no flamed-haired kid in the snowy outfield reading poems etched into his baseball mitt. I smiled content with the snow falling and continued to gaze out of the window for what appeared like an eternity, digesting the news and waiting for that proverbial dial-tone.
J D Salinger is every young reader’s secret. His four volumes of stories have been read, re-read and claimed by consecutive generations since their publication. His writing has transcended shifts and changes in times and the gravitas of his voice (despite being firmly entrenched in the vernacular of 1950s New York) has remained vibrant and fresh throughout the fifty or so years that his books have been around. His works have helped guide many a reader into discovering the profound joy of reading. The figures for The Catcher in the Rye are phenomenal – over 65 million copies sold and it is currently selling around 250,000 each year. This kind of success is bound to encourage lazy clichés when Salinger’s books are critiqued and reviewed, and most of the articles that have been written about his legacy this past week have been disappointing in the lack of any original heart-felt opinion. Yes The Catcher in the Rye is the classic rite of passage novel, yes Holden is too sullen and sometimes annoying, yes the Glass family are pretentious and a little preachy and yes some of the short stories seem to be much ado about nothing. Yes, yes and yes to all that, but what of the eternal freshness that ensures the longevity of his work? Why do I constantly revisit his books? Why do so many others feel the same way about his stories? I am reminded of a story that Laurence Freeman tells in Jesus the Teacher Within about the rabbi who discusses a difficult passage of the Torah with his students. When the rabbi is asked of its meaning, he tells them that the words you see on the page contain only half of the meaning; the other half is in the white spaces between the words. This is what it is like with a Salinger story. There is something in those spaces around his words.
On reading the procession of eulogies, tributes and testimonies that have followed his passing, it seems that Mr Salingercaused quite a stir in producing his small volume of work before turning his back on the world. Over the years, has I have gotten older; I continue to prayerfully read his stories. I never tire of the poetics in the small gestures and details or the lofty contrivances and pretentious posturing of his characters. It’s all been realised out of a deep authentic desire to quench the thirst of spiritual yearning. John Updike rightly criticised Salinger for creating a hermitage for himself in the love he has for his characters. This may be true and it may be detrimental to the form, but it is priceless to the authenticity of his writing. When I read the stories I often think of Salinger’s retreat, it is hard not to given the intense longing for answers in his stories. J D Salinger’s hermitic life in his rural citadel was an affirmation of the search for spiritual authenticity that oozes from the pages of his stories. His retreat was glorious in its enduring stoicism. It was a necessary declaration of his authenticity – Thank you Mr Salinger for blessing my journey.