Friday, 29 January 2010


Well there's no rule that says that every post in this gardening blog has to be about gardening, is there? So this one isn't –

– Despite the picture which is of Hacquetia epipactis, a delectable little umbellifer which will be flowering here in a few weeks time and often tricks people into thinking it's some kind of aconite, or even a dwarf euphorbia –

No, I just wanted to say farewell, J. D. Salinger who died yesterday.

There, I've said it. Sorry you've gone and great respects.

Am I the only one among possibly hundreds of millions of its readers to think that his one big work, The Catcher in the Rye was somewhat overrated?

Everyone at my school read it, in the 50s. Indeed, if you hadn't yet read the thing, you had to pretend that you had, in case of appearing to be a 'square.' When my turn came, to borrow the battered paperback copy, I recall being underwhelmed. Not a book one would illicitly read after dormitory 'lights out' with a torch (flashlight) under the bedclothes. (Lady Chatterley's Lover was more like it, and our housemaster threatened instant beating for anyone caught with it - an added frisson indeed!)

But the Rye? Hm. The whining of a spoilt teenage brat, I thought, which said little that we didn't know already, being ourselves, whining teenage brats.

In older age, about three years ago, I rebelled against the inexorable tide of mediocre 'Lit Fic' which currently spews out of most publishers. So many dreary novels, set in North London, written with style but saying sod all! The last one I read involved fat brothers and stolen penguins, I think. But anyway, that was it. I hurled the thing across the room, when I'd finished it, and vowed to read nothing published later than the 1960s for a while.

And ever since, with the odd exception, I've stuck to re-reading classics - or reading them for the first time - and to revisiting writers I read when young.

Naturally, the The Catcher in the Rye was on the list. Also, work by Hemingway, Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Lawrence, Anthony Burgess, John Updike, John Masters, Conan Doyle, Wodehouse etc. etc. And, after a lifetime of nursing a wicked anti-Dickens prejudice, promulgated by a close blood relative who hates him, I'm currently reading his entire output and loving it, warts and all. And boy, are there some warts!

I enjoyed the Salinger this time round, far more than I had at school. Through the eyes of a man in his sixties, there is a little more sympathy for whining adolescents. But I still felt it slight, compared with, say, Updike's Rabbit novels, or with the wonderful Steinbeck's masterworks. The Grapes of Wrath towers above most American literature of the first half of the 20th Century, but I think his smaller works, particularly Cannery Row have enormous stature, compared with Salinger.

Updike came later than Salinger, but another 1960s writer who I hugely admire - James Baldwin - was almost a contemporary. His novel Another Country and his essays Notes of a Native Son should be read and compared with Salinger. I think you'd be impressed by him, if you haven't tried his work. Like the modern American novelist Toni Morrison, he creates a picture of black America that makes you realise how little you really understand about that world, unless you are actually part of it.

I suppose the big thing about The Catcher in the Rye was that it came so early - 1951, compared with the welter of rebellious literature that followed. Is that what makes it great - just good timing?

I'm currently reading Dickens - The Old Curiosity Shop - oh, dear, the mawkish sentimentality!

I'm listening to Feeling Good sung by Nine Simone, very kindly gifted me by James Le Chapeau

This week's film was Run, Lola Run! A breathless story told in three frenzied movements, in three parallel universes. Not brilliant, but certainly compelling.

This time in an hour, I'll be at my local surgery discussing the results of a hip x-ray. Growing old isn't all a bed of roses, you know!

Good reading - and bye bye!


  1. I entirely agree with you. I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time a few years ago and found it dreary and irritating in the extreme. I thought at the time it was just because I was getting old and had lost my teenage mojo but it may just have been a rubbish book.

    I think as you suggest the timing was all - the fact is it came out before the angry young men thing and before the Sixties were even a twinkle in a Teddyboy's eye so it rocked everyone's world. It gave a voice to teenagers who at the time weren't even known as such, I believe. But that's all changed now, so much so that it no longer speaks to us: and surely the definition of a classic is something that speaks across the ages and is relevant today as well as in the day it was written. I think it's actually one of the few "classics" which hasn't stayed the course.

    Now Toni Morrison.... she's one of my all-time favourite authors. I don't think I've read a single book of hers which hasn't completely rocked my world and made me have to go and sit down in a quiet room for a week. Amazing.

  2. 'Fraid I haven't read Catcher in the Rye. Cannery Row - parts of it have stuck delightfully in my mind . . . I'll have to re-read it and fill in the gaps. Dickens - springs to life when read out loud - really worth the experiment. Find John Updike boring; have never understood his appeal. Like P.G. Wodehouse when acted out but not to read. Some people seem to be hoping Salinger spent his years of apparent hibernation writing and writing and writing. Whether you like him or not - prepare for a Salinger fest.


  3. Oh! Tend to think Lady Chatterley's Lover is political rather than pornographic.


  4. havent read Salinger or Updike, though I keep thinking I should. Having spent 7 yrs studying literature on an OU degree I have shied away from 'classics' and am afraid that I loath Dickens.
    If you want to give your brain a work out you should try the Life of Pi

  5. Oh, I hope the Xray doesn't mean bad news! I haven't read Salinger in many years, but liked Catcher in the Rye. I just think that it's not nearly as good as works done by Faulkner, Hemingway, Kingsolver, Lively, any number of Canadian fiction writers...but I think some still assign it out of sheer laziness, because they've had the info and Coles notes for donkey's years. I'm sorry Salinger is gone, but I was infinitely sadder when Vonnegut passed. So it goes.

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  7. Thanks, all for your kind comments.

    PG - I read the Life of Pi and, sorry, but hated it. Impressive style, but I felt cheated, having rumbled the . . . but I don't want to spoil it for anyone else.

    Jodi - X-ray fine. It's probably bursitis, so no skeletal collapse just yet. Gosh, I'd forgotten how fab Faulkner is, despite those HUGE sentences. And what about the Canadian Mordecai Richler?

    Lucy - Updike boring? Tut tut!!! I agree that Lady C is largely political, but when you're about 14 years old and there's nuclear reactor occupying your pants, it's pretty porny, too.

  8. Nigel - I read it in my early twenties and loathed it. It just seemed too self-absorbed for my taste. I nearly threw the book out the window in disgust. But Steinbeck - now you're talking.

    Will you be at Malvern this year? Helen (Patient Gardener) and I are arranging a bloggers get together - have a look here for more info if you're interested.

  9. I plan to be at Malvern - but not sure what days, yet. I'd love to get together with bloggers.

    I'll have RHS Judging and moderating duties, probably. One of the bad things about doing scads of RHS work at Malvern is that it means less time watching The Hat in action on stage. Malvern's one of his big things.

  10. I now feel less guilty for not reading Salinger - I have enough whining to deal with, I need something else from my reaing material.

    I love Dickens - mawkish sentimentality and all but I agree with you on Toni Morrison - evocative and thought-provoking, always.

  11. Have emailed you - hope you don't mind...