It’s been a busy couple of weeks for legendary, “lost” works. First PKD’s Exegesis, and now Smile by the Beach Boys. It set me thinking.
It’s now nearly two years since J. D. Salinger died. I cannot think of another case where an artist has died leaving numerous unpublished works. Not unfinished, merely unpublished; according to his daughter, there were so many that he filed them with colour-coding – red means publish as is, blue means needs editing, etcetera. I have a fascination with artists who produce something magical and then struggle to follow it up. Some, like Brian Wilson, go mad in the attempt. Joseph Heller is unusually noble in his acceptance that he’d probably never manage to top Catch 22. A very few, James Joyce or Scott Walker, perhaps, manage to equal or even top their masterpiece, though generally after a decade or more of work. But none, to my knowledge, have simply withdrawn their work from public consumption, except Salinger.
The Catcher in the Rye, his first novel, is a remarkable work, and what Salinger will be remembered for. It is a succinct, mythical evocation of what it feels like to be a teenage outsider, and as a result, finds a ready audience. Personally, I was always more drawn to the books that followed, Nine Stories, a collection of previously published short stories, and two collections of novellas, Franny and Zooey, and the awkwardly titled Seymour: An Introduction and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters. Both of these concern the Glass family, former TV quiz show alumni and all-round disfunctional siblings. The former is very good, ad works well as a collection; the latter less so, as it is rather rambling and uneventful.
Despite the declining critical response, Salinger continued to write about the Glass family, and in particular Seymour, a prodigy who committed suicide in A Perfect Day for Bananafish in 9 Stories. Salinger’s last published story, Hapworth 16, 1924, in the New Yorker, took the form of a rambling letter from the seven year-old Seymour Glass to his parents whilst at summer camp. It was particularly poorly received, and Salinger never published again. He didn’t stop writing, however, and between Hapworth in 1965 and his death in January 2010, is alleged to have written some 16 novel-length works. That is, at least four times his published works. So where are they?
Given that Salinger published only one novel in his lifetime, it may be that what is left in the vaults doesn’t measure up. Even so, that doesn’t mean it’s without merit. I want to pursue Salinger’s madness wherever it might roam, regardless of quality. Imagine: several millions of words, possibly all concerning the Glass family, from the pen of one of the most important novelists of the 20th century. Surely it’s of interest whether or not it’s well-written. Or sane.
We can only assume there is some dispute between the children. But Catcher will still sell in its millions; I don’t know what they have to lose.