Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Catcher, the Stranger, and Creative Genius

It's Sunday and I have been reading several obituaries over the last couple days about dead Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger, most of which resemble each other. Here is one such obituary.

The author, who wrote one seminal book (published in 1951, still sells 250,000 copies a year!), gathers a lot of admiration in the articles for his reclusion, his refusal to be interviewed, photographed, give opinions, publish, or allow any adaptations of his work. The only time his name ever surfaced was because of litigation he brought against adaptation attempts. He probably could have made a lot more money without necessarily producing anything good. And the funniest thing was, like myself, my partner had the initial reaction of being surprised he was still alive. See what happens when recognizable names disappear from public view?

There is something selfish about writing, I will say it and I do believe it, in its attempt to concretize human life in words and "leave one's mark" on humanity after one is gone. But there is also something noble about not being one of the unknown, inconsequential names of the 6.7 billion humans in the world, about attempting to join the hundred or so you can mention and invoke images, ideas, and opinions in a large number of people's minds, about having your stories and ideas read and become known for something. It is by no means restricted to writing. Many have the pretension of wanting to contribute to culture and civilization in some capacity, rap videos, atom research or whatever. I don't claim to have any answers, nor do I claim to have made or be making any sort of significant contribution. I do believe with time one has a chance of doing so if they are dedicated to their art and find something really interesting to say.

What do I remember about Catcher in the 10th grade? I don't remember particularly enjoying it, but I do give Salinger credit where credit is due for creating the most frustrating protagonist I've ever encountered. I remember just being so exasperated with Holden, craving some sort of redemption for him as a character or catharsis for me as a reader, but all I kept saying, page after page was "WHY is this guy such a FUCKING loser?!" Keep in mind that I was by no means a cool guy or popular or anything. And I knew he was going to remain frustratingly hopeless till the end, but I stuck with it anyway. The book is original and unparalleled, and that is where it draws its notoriety and merit.

I suppose my prejudice or reproach of Salinger comes from what John Gardiner, author of On Becoming a Novelist, calls his "consistent mean streak." A guy capable of producing such a work and then shunning the world outright seems to be playing some kind of twisted game with humanity, just as he played a twisted game with my head with his pathetic Holden. But I recognize the right and validity of authors to protect their space and their privacy and also the additional mystery and resulting irreproachable reputation that this affords them. Patrick Suskind and Cormac McCarthy are two examples of such authors, neither of them particularly predisposed to make sunny, cheery observations about mankind in their work. Conversely, an author will cheapen or deaden his work with celebrity or a ubiquitous public image. And I do wish artists would know when to either stop or take the time to work on producing quality, especially when they can afford to. Musicians careers tend to rise and fall while they chug out album after album into old age (too many examples to cite here), and Danielle Steel, John Grisham, and Dead koontz have so many formulaic titles that they have not distinguished themselves at all. Even John Updike, who I really respect from the one book of his I read, you have to think would not be able to maintain the same consistency across forty plus titles .

Then on the other side of books and music, you have the people whose seemingly unlimited genius is cut short by untimely deaths. Sometimes the death can have an immortalizing effect and add artistic merit to work that otherwise might just be average. Albert Camus was not in this category. The Algerian-born French author, master of showing the absurdity of existance in L'√Čtranger (the stranger) and La Peste (the plague), died absurdly enough 50 years ago Jan 4 in a car accident with a train ticket in his pocket. I have been learning about his life through a bunch of interviews and materials and articles Radio-Canada has put up for the occasion. It is rare that I read more than two books by the same author and even rarer that I reread them (too much to discover) but with Camus both have happened. Unlike Salinger, he was a prominent and highly respected public figure in his country until his death and remains so today, because of his role in WWII resistance publishing and his unique perspective on the situation in his homeland with which France was engaged in a bitter colonial struggle, among other things. Mostly I think a country felt proud of a guy who wrote such kickass, unpretentious yet brilliant prose. I don't think it is realistic to hope to accomplish as much as he did in his 47 years or somebody like, say, 2pac in his 25 years; what I do know is that if I were Salinger, I would have cracked in 91 and crashed a hollywood party at least once.

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