Alan Taylor – 30th January 2010
Recently, while researching a long piece on Bob Dylan, I read that in the 1960s Dylan was offered the part of Holden Caufield in a never-realised film version of The Catcher In The Rye. Anyone who has seen the young Dylan at his most brattish in DA Pennebaker’s rockumentary Dont Look Back will know he had a Caufieldesque hauteur, a lipcurling disdain for showbiz phonies; ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ could Holden’s philosophy set to music (“Because something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?”). The film never happened, and Salinger’s great interface with rock came not by way of the movies but a murder: infamously, John Lennon’s assassin was obsessed with The Catcher In The Rye.
Re-reading Chronicles, Dylan’s memoir, before Christmas, I couldn’t help but hear an echo of Holden in the book’s first chapter. Here, Dylan details arriving in New York in 1961, a teenager alone, much as Holden did a decade earlier. There is one last link if you allow it. Last year, admittedly as part of a record retailer’s promotional campaign, Dylan was asked what his greatest influence was: he answered Burns’ ‘My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose’. Salinger too admired Burns: the title of The Catcher In The Rye comes from Holden’s mishearing of ‘Comin’ Through The Rye’.
That arguably rounds up Scotland’s influence upon Salinger. What about Salinger’s influence upon Scotland? Harder to say. His great contribution to world literature was to create the definitive alienated adolescent voice and just at the moment ‘the teenager’ was becoming a new and recognised social grouping. Whenever we hear a smart-yet-brittle young male character unwilling to compromise with society no matter the cost to himself, we can trace his lineage back to Salinger. In which case, might Alasdair Gray’s Duncan Thaw or Irvine Welsh’s Mark Renton owe something to Holden?
One writer, not Scottish, who acknowledges his debt is Jay McInerney, who appeared on The Today Show, today, logically, to talk about Salinger. Rightly, I think, he urged caution on those who are expecting a flood of new Salinger novels. There may or may not be a heap of manuscripts locked in his safe in Cornish, ready to go. Equally, a close friend might be burning what literary scraps remain this morning, doing for Salinger what Max Brod couldn’t do for Kafka. Time, as it has a habit of doing, will tell. Who knows? If new volumes are published, perhaps in ten years, once we’ve had a chance to digest and assess their worth, we might look back on Salinger’s life as a fascinating and unique moment in literary history, one where a talented writer escaped the jail of celebrity that keeps so many of his occupation from what they should do best: writing.
Or not. As McInerney said, Salinger appeared to lose interest in entertaining his readers at the close of his (public?) career. His last published long piece of fiction, ‘Seymour: An Introduction’, is a bore, an interminable piece that circles round and round the painful truthful the narrator cannot discuss with ease: the suicide of his brother, Seymour. One suspects – though, really, who knows? – that whatever Salinger wrote during his years of seclusion, it will be closer to ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ than to The Catcher In The Rye. Whatever the case, let us be grateful at least for that miraculous first book.