He is not my favourite writer of all time. He is even close to the league of the Ernest Hemingway’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, those guys who I cannot go a month through without at least desultorily reading a page. A writer who has written some lines, like Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich that make some scenes indelible that they keep recurring in my mind from time to time and I puzzle over them like some people puzzle over some passages in their favourite book in the Holy Bible or Quran. He is not that kind of writer.
But he is a writer, for a brief while, I loved passionately. Some mad months of intoxication when I could not get over the ‘banging’ stylishness of his solitary novel and read it, mused on the title and read it again, totally enthralled. I read his book in adulthood so he was no teenage infatuation like his one novel is often defined as a teen classic, favoured book of teenagers at an age before they learn that you cannot live with your ideals intact as you advance further and get entangled with the messy thing called life.
He became 90 this January 1, and though in December 2008 I had long planned a quick pleasure jaunt through The Catcher in the Rye, my copy remains on my shelf unread almost two years now since our last encounter. I still cannot understand how I used to love this author’s work so much. I have been wondering too about the writers we love, read everything they have penned and the interest becomes so much so you want to know what they were like in real life.
I know Mark Twain liked to write with a fountain pen. I know the brand of cigarettes Fitzgerald used to smoke. Honore Balzac was a coffee addict and his manuscripts have the round bases of the cups he used to drink his intensely black coffee in. I know things like that about so many of the writers I have read and loved and then gone as far as trying to own an omnibus edition of their work. I own quite a few of those. The first I owned being James Joyce’s, capping a dream ending to my secondary school education, I bought it the very day I wrote my last exam on Kampala road, walking a friend somewhere I have no memory of now.
A friend once told me that he did not want to know anything about an author apart from the work the author deemed worth publishing. He was not interested in what is his favourite designer label, is there a mini series he looks forward to each season the TV companies unleash the latest seasons and he damn well did not want to know what his favourite author looks like. I suspect the cringe factor emanated from a fear of being let down once he met an author he had idolized and put high up on some pedestal.
Salinger is 90 and there is little chance I will ever meet him. I would have loved to meet him and even if I do not think The Catcher in the Rye is as great a book as I once held it, I still would have liked to commend him on excelling in the difficult art of writing catchy titles. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters remains up there with some of my favourite titles be it a song, movie, painting or short story title.
Happy birthday, Salinger! You may never read this but for some months a few years back, you were tops with me!