Sunday, February 7, 2010

Catching the catcher(s)

It took the death of JD Saliger last week to make me realise that two of my all-time favourite books deal with catchers and catching. Actually three, if I count Don DeLilo's Underworld, which starts with an interminable baseball game, and in which a ball from this game plays a major role. So once again catching is of the essence - rather ironic for a reader like me who has never had any ball sense.

But in Underworld there are no catches or catchers in the title, as there are in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Another difference is that I read the last two books when I was very young and impressionable. Who is it who said that it is perhaps only in our youth that books can truly influence us? Before the age of twenty we are like blank pages. Even a single sentence can make a huge difference to a previously empty page. Now that my page is all messy with decades of scribblings, books don't influence me as easily or as profoundly as when I was young. Sad but true.

Or maybe it's not so sad. Maybe I should rejoice that as a young and naive reader I was influenced by books as great as Catch-22 and The Catcher in the Rye. These novels gave me an emotional compass which I used to steer the rest of my reading life. They showed me that 'good' doesn't have to mean 'difficult', and that a serious story about a serious subject can be really entertaining and - sometimes - also really funny.

The only consolation, when a beloved author dies, is that he lives on through his books, often even acquiring a whole new readership immediately after his death. There are apparently two great career moves for a writer who wants to sell more books: one is to give in to Hollywood, the other is to give in to death. During the past week my adolescent son and his friends were frequently confronted with JD Salinger's name - not on the arts pages of newspapers, but on the front page. Or, more appropiately for their age group, on internet and on their mobile phones, as hard news. Some of these young people even started wondering about the meaning of a title as catchy as The Catcher in the Rye. What is 'a rye', one of my son's friends wanted to know. Honestly.

Which sent me back to my pale yellow Penguin version of this classic coming of age novel published nearly 60 years ago. In Chapter 22 Holden Caulfield, one of the most unforgettable adolescent characters ever created in fiction, talks to his sister Phoebe about what he wants to do in life.

'You know that song "If a body catch a body comin' through the rye"? I'd like - '
'It's "If a body meet a body coming through the rye"!' old Phoebe said. 'It's a poem. By Robert Burns.'
'I know it's a poem by Robert Burns.'
She was right, though. It is 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye'. I didn't know it then, though.
'I thought it was "If a body catch a body",' I said. '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 some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch 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.'

There you are, I said to my son's friend. 'Do yourself a favour and read the rest.' This single passage was enough to remind me why I had loved the book when I'd been my son's age - and why I still loved it when I reread it fifteen years later. (Now another fifteen years have passed, so I guess I'm ready to read it again.) Salinger had an ear for dialogue that simply jumped off the page. The amazing thing is, it still does, half a century later.

Im memory of Salinger I also looked up Robert Burns' poem, Comin Thro' the Rye. The Scottish farmer Burns, known as 'the ploughman's poet', wrote this in 1782, and it remains an enchanting ballad of sensual liberty.

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warl' ken?

Do yourself a favour and read the rest at:

Salinger was in the unique position, among important post-World War 2 writers, of 'dying' fifty years before his actual death at the age of 91 last week. Ever since he went into hiding in Cornish, New Hampshire, he was as good as dead to the literary world. His last book was published in 1963 and his last work to appear in print was a story (Hapworth 16,1924)in the June 19 1965 issue of The New Yorker. But his few books never stopped selling; The Catcher in the Rye alone has sold more than sixty-five million copies, at an annual rate of about 250 000 copies. These are the kind of sales figures most living writers can only dream of achieving, perhaps for a year or two. To sell like this, consistently, for half a century, is truly extraordinary. And now that the author is officially dead, the sales will no doubt increase.

There is also the possibility of posthumous publication. In a rare press interview in 1974 he told The New York Times, 'There is a marvelous peace in not publishing... I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.'

The burning question, of course, is what the writer did with whatever he wrote during the last fifty years. Maybe he destroyed everything. Maybe he wrote the same phrase over and over. But maybe, just maybe, we'll soon be able to read another great story from The Catcher.

No phony goddam crap - to use three of Holden Caulfield's favourite words.

Now that would really be something, wouldn't it?


  1. I, too, am rereading all of Salinger's books starting with the Catcher. It is my small tribute to the author as one who was an influential force in my intellectual development. I very much enjoyed your comments.

  2. Meanwhile I also reread the Fran and Zoey stories - but the Catcher is still my favourite!