The Salinger Affair

Julian Barnes

  • In Search of J.D. Salinger by Ian Hamilton
    Heinemann, 222 pp, £12.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 434 31331 9

Listen to Jeffrey Robinson, American biographer of figures such as Sheikh Yamani, describing how he goes to work:

What I usually do is get two or three months’ research under my belt before I go to see the guy. He may say: ‘I don’t want this biography.’ I say to him: ‘That is not one of your options. This book is going to be written, I have a publisher and I’m getting near being able to write something. Your two options are you co-operate with me or you don’t.’ The next thing is to make him see it’s in his interest to co-operate.

Most of us will probably have no difficulty in finding this crude, pushy and – let’s use the word for a change – wrong.

Now consider a more sophisticated version of the Robinson technique. Ian Hamilton, noted biographer of Robert Lowell, writes to J.D. Salinger and informs him that he has become Hamilton’s latest subject: would the notoriously reclusive novelist mind answering some questions, could he take a visit? Hamilton doesn’t expect an answer; nor does he want one, since he plans ‘a kind of Quest for Corvo, with Salinger as quarry’. Amazingly, and unhelpfully, Salinger replies. He recognises that he can’t stop Hamilton, but asks him not to write the book as he can’t endure any more intrusions on his privacy. Hamilton writes the book nonetheless.

We may not feel too strongly about Sheikh Yamani’s right to privacy (though of course he does, and took Robinson to court), but what about the case of a writer nearing seventy who withdrew altogether from literary life nearly a quarter of a century ago? Before becoming mired in sentimentality and Zen, Salinger wrote the impeccable Catcher in the Rye and several excellent stories. Does our gratitude and pleasure mean that we should respect his desire to be left alone, or the exact opposite? Has Salinger forfeited his rights because the unpredicted success of Catcher brought him fame (which he shows no sign of enjoying) and money (which he shows no sign of wanting)? And if so, at what exact level of success are the biographers – like the VAT-men – allowed to become interested?

Hamilton argues his way round Salinger’s letter with a sort of unedifying honesty. He shows it to ‘one or two of my more sardonic literary friends’, one of whom points out that ‘I can’t stop you’ really means ‘Please go ahead’ (perhaps this particular friend missed a career as a rape-trial judge). What convinces him mostly, though, is the tone of the letter, ‘touching in a way, but also a shade repellent’; it was ‘somewhat too composed ... for me to accept it as a direct cry from the heart’. This self-legitimising complaint sits rather oddly in Hamilton’s mouth, since he admits that his own letter to Salinger had been ‘completely disingenuous’, and that he’d deliberately phrased it in a way which he imagined his subject would ‘heartily despise’. Isn’t there something ‘a shade repellent’ in this? And might not Salinger have spotted something less than ‘a direct cry from the heart’ in Hamilton’s approach?

Having decided to go ahead, Hamilton establishes some ground rules designed ‘to make myself sound decent – not just to Salinger, but to myself’. No personal hassling of the writer, his ex-wife, children or sister; no enquiries about the life after 1965; no nagging of correspondents who choose not to answer; no sudden phone calls; no questing after friends Salinger made since he stopped writing. It is a very curious display of integrity, this. Salinger likens investigation into his life to burglary. Hamilton comes on as that rare thing, an ethically-aware thief (unsurprisingly rare, when you come to think about it), the sort who knocks at your door and says: ‘Look, I think you ought to know I’m going to break into your house, but it’s all right, because I’m only going to steal the things you can see through the window.’ This is equally unsatisfactory for the householder, the burglar and those to whom he subsequently has to fence the swag.

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