Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Archive for February, 2008

The Catcher in the Rye — J.D.Salinger — A Book Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 21, 2008

Among the long list of interesting aspects that writers address while writing a novel, two things always held a curious interest for me 1. The author’s choice of a theme for her novel 2. The opening of the novel. The creative process behind a choice of the theme and the subsequent spinning of a yarn with all its complex warps and wefts while driving towards fulfilling the theme remains an enigma. My own limited search for credible explanation for what goes behind the scenes is yet to yield an answer. If one were to scan world literature, the massive diversity of themes of novels seem to indicate that as a domain the world of letters has the highest flexibility and scope for creativity probably only matched by music. The second but interesting aspect is that of opening sentences of a novel. Some of the greatest novels appear to have equally memorable openings: Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Rebecca are some of the examples that I can think of. Into that league of novels with a complex theme of ‘adoloscent angst, driving to a fall and then its redemption through love leading to hopeful beginning’ and a fantastically brilliant opening, I would introduce J.D.Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”.

I have had a strange turn in my liking to this novel. I read this novel almost 15 years ago as a student and my immature reaction was that it is a depressing and meaningless book. I happened to re-read this book again over the weekend and it dawned on me that for all its depressing nature the book has an extremely sanguine and a truly heart warming message. I think I have begin to understand why this book is revered as a modern day classic.

Consider the opening  sentences “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing that you will probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap…..”. It is difficult to miss their force, the strength and the potential pace they set for the subsequent pages.

“The Catcher in the Rye” is about the feelings and life of Holden Caulfield – a cigarette smoking, alcohol liking, angst ridden, expelled adoloscent of Pencey academy, spread over three days — his mild fall and a redemption partly driven by a young and caring teacher and tender love of his sister Phoebe. Holden Caulfield comes from a wealthy family with a rich lawyer as his father, an anxious mother, Allie — his dead brother, D.B Caulfield — his elder brother – a writer in Hollywood and his sister Phoebe — who is nine years old. Holden loves his sister dearly : “She is all right. You’d like her. The only trouble is she is little affectionate some times. She is very emotional for a child.  She really is.” Holden has a high regard for his former teacher where he says :” He was the best teacher I ever had, Mr.Antolini. He was a pretty  young guy, not much older than my brother D.B., and you could kid around with him without losing your respect for him“. For his young age Mr.Antolini gives advice which is sagely, practical and insightful.. It is the advise of Mr. Antolini and the love of Phoebe that save Holden in the end from the uncertain path he wishes to embark — that of running away from home

Holden views a majority of things through a mind that is a cauldron of frustration and hopelessness. Consider his views on his school: “They don’t do any damn more molding at Pencey than they do at any other school. And I did’nt know anybody there that was splendid and clear-thinking and all. Maybe two guys. If that many. And they probably they came to Pencey that way..” and it is from a set up that like this that Holden gets expelled and decides to while away his time in the city of New York for three days prior to the commencement of his vacation. Incidentally, his home base is New York.

Holden does not like many of his classmates and their attitude to life which he finds drab and conventional. On his way back to New York Holden meets the mother of a friend on the train and this what he has to say  ” I gave her a good look. She did’nt look like any dope to me. She looked like she might have pretty damn good idea what a bastard she was mother of. But you can’t always tell – with somebody’s mother, I mean. Mothers are all slightly insane. The thing is, though, I liked old Morrow’s mother. She was all right. ….. You take somebody’s mother, all they want to hear about is what a hot-shot guy their son is.”

For all his percieved failings Holden is very well read in his own way and his view of a good book is — “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you are all done reading it, you wish that the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it”.—- As we read through the book what emerges is a complex personality of Holden in which there are some noble and childlike sides too. For example he meets a couple of nuns who actually are teachers and exchanges some conversation about books and wonders how nuns would deal with amorous and libidinous themes in literature which goes against their lives. For at one stage he says the following: “Take old Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. She wasn’t too sexy or anything, but even so you can’t help wondering what a nun maybe thinks about when she reads about old Eustacia. I did’nt say anything, though, naturally. All I said was English was my best subject.” He admires the nuns for their selflessness, simplicity and charitable nature and contrasts it with others where he says “My aunt’s pretty charitable — she does a lot of Red Cross work and all — but she is very well dressed and all, and has lipstick on and all that crap. I could’nt picture her doing anything for charity if she had to wear black clothes and no lipstick while she was doing it. And Old Sally Hayes mother. Jesus Christ. The only way she could go around with a basket collecting dough would be if everybody kissed her ass for her when they made a contribution.”

Holdens views on his religion are off the beaten track. He appears to like the essence but not the details which is very evident when he says: ” I like Jesus and all, but I dont’ care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me , if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down. I like almost anybody in the Bible than the Disciples. If you want to know the truth, the guy I like the best in the Bible, next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him ten times as much as the Disciples, that poor bastard”        or…. — ” thousands of them — singing “Come all ye faithful” like mad. Big deal. It’s supposed to be religious as hell, I know and very pretty and all, but I can’t see anything pretty and religious, for God’s sake about a bunch of actors carrying the crucifixes all over the stage. When they were all finished and started going out the boxes again, you could tell they could hardly wait to get a cigarette or something. I saw it with old Sally hayes the year before, and she kept saying how beautiful it was, the costumes and all. I said old Jesus would have puked if He could see it — all those fancy costumes and all. Sally said I was a sacriligeous atheist.  I probably am.  The thing Jesus really would have liked would be the guy that plays the kettle drums in the orchestra.”

Among the other brighter sides of Holden is his love for children. Holden meets a friend of Phoebe in the New york central park and this is what he has to say “She thanked me and all when I had it tightened for her. She was a very nice, polite little kid. God, I loved when a kid’s nice and polite when you tighten their skate for them or something. Most kids are. They really are. I asked her if she’d care to have a hot chocolate or something with me, but she said no, thank you. She said she had to meet her friend. Kids always have to meet their friend. That kills me”.  …………………..Or………………………”It’s funny. You take adults ,they look lousy when they are asleep and they have their mouths way open but kids dont. Kids look all right. They can even have spit all over the pillow and they still look all right”

Contrast this with his views on grown up girls: ” It’s a funny thing about girls. Every time you mention some guy that’s striclty a bastard — very mean, or very conceited and all and when you mention it to the girl, she’ll tell you he has an inferiority complex

Somewhere Holden is also vaguely aware and ruffled by the natural fact of growing up. At a museum in New York, Holden keeps ruminating as follows: “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and pretty, skinny legs and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you would be much older or anything. It would’nt be that, exactly. You’d be just different, that’s all …”

One has to reach the last few chapters in the novel to understand what really frustrates an otherwise sensitive and intelligent boy like Holden. My own view is that an extremely industrialised society which places an undue emphasis on success, material well being and one upmanship that appear to lie at the root of Holden’s angst. This becomes evident when Holden says: ‘Well, I hate it. Boy, do I hate it,’ I said. ‘But it isn’t just that. It’s everything. I hate living in New York and all. Taxicabs and madison Avenue buses, with the drivers and all always yelling at you to get out at the rear door, and being introduced to phony guys that call the Lunts angels, and going up and down in elevators when you just want to go outside, and guys fitting your pants all the time at Brooks, and people always —‘ or

‘Take cars,’ I said. I said it in this very quiet voice. ‘Take most people, they’re crazy about cars. They worry if they get a little scratch on them, and they’re always talking about how many miles they get to a gallon, and if they get a brand-new car already they start thinking they start thinking about trading it in for one that’s even newer. I don’t even like old cars. I mean they don’t even interest me. I’d rather have a goddam horse. A horse is atleast human for God’s sake. A horse you can atleast -” Or

‘You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime. Try it sometime,’  I said. It’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam cadillac someday, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls, liquor and sex all day and everybody sticks in these dirty little goddam cliques………. ” I don’t hardly get anything out of anything. I’m in a bad shape. I’m in a lousy shape.’

This frame of mind also makes Holden think about death and gets him a little indifferent to it. For at one point Holden says the following: “….Any way, I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I am going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.” ……………..or… ” Boy when you’r dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flower when you are dead? Nobody.”

Does that mean that Holden does not have an notion of what he wants? He does but it is too idyllic it is: ” Anyway I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of same crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody – if they start to go over the cliff. I mean if they are running and they don’t look where they are going, I have to come out from somewhere and catch (i) them . That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

It is in this confused and frustrated frame of mind that Holden reaches out to his beloved teacher Mr.Antolini who not only understands his state of mind but also articulates it for him when he says: “I have a feeling that you are riding for some kind of a terrible fall. But I don’t honestly know what kind……. This fall I think you are riding for — it’s a special kind of a fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement’s designed for men who at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their own environmentcouldn’t supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they really even got started. You follow me??“. To Holden’s view that he is unique in what he is going through Mr.Antolini has the following to say: …..”Among other things, you will find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behaviour. You are no means alone by that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them — if you want to .Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It is beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry” — superb words of wisdom and it is these words that have missed during my initial read of the novel 15 years ago.

Also one of the most practical advises that any teacher can give his pupil on education comes from Mr.Antolini: “…… Something else an academic education will do for you. if you go along with it any considerable distance , it’ll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What it’ll fit and, maybe, what it wont. After a while, you will have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that don’t suit you, aren’t becoming to you. You will know your true  measurements and dress your mind accordingly“. Towards the end Mr.Antolini writes an advice from the great psychologist Wilhelm Stekel on a piece of paper forHolden to keep which is: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of themature man is that he wants to live humbly for one” — Truly wonderful words of wisdom

Even after listening to all this Holden still plans to run away from home and Phoebe insists on joining him. Holden does not think it is right for him to pull Phoebe into his journey but seeing the happiness of his sister on a spinning wheel he too starts feeling happy and it appeared to me that this feeling of love for a sibling and the impact of advise from Mr.Antolini pull Holden back to home.

In that sense The Catcher in the Rye is a very hopeful book. On a personal note it has a lesson for me as someone who is going to be a parent of two potential adoloscents and the lesson is simple: It is only love, patience, empathy and understanding that will make one a successful father of children who will cross the potentially troubled waters of adoloscence and it is in this lie my own growth and redemption.

Afterthought: I kept thinking about the narrative style of the book and was stuck by the use of a lot of what are normally considered as words of profanity. Can the angst be depicted in any other way? Possibly it could have been. But the way Salinger does is really beautiful and on rethink I have no complaints about it.

The second is more of a trivia: The title “The Catcher in the Rye” has its inspirational roots in scottish poet Robert Burns poem named “Comin’ Thro the Rye” .

Posted in Book Reviews | Leave a Comment »