ESSAY- For Salinger: With love and squalor

An author who wrote 'a key book of the present decade.'
man: Lotte Jacobi. book: Flickr/Andy Field (Hubmedia)

At times, it seemed like he was long dead; and the news that he had in fact passed away on January 28, just past his 91st birthday, does not dispel the strange sensation of being but not living (or living and not being) that this man generated. Because for almost half a century J.D. Salinger may have been dead the way writers usually die: they stop writing. And yet no one can deny that thanks to what he had written, this death was impossible, because Salinger was, is, and will always be terribly (to use one of his favorite adverbs) immortal.

His last breath (or the step necessary to reach a new Buddhist reincarnation) he took exactly as he had decided: far from the world, in total silence, in that distant corner of New Hampshire called Cornish, where he had voluntarily, and unwaveringly, exiled himself to live in peace and meditation.

He died, as he had lived, in a Salingerian way. Because no writer had ever resembled his characters so viscerally: until the end, Salinger was a mixture of the adolescent Holden Caulfiend of The Catcher in the Rye and the Glass brothers who frequent various of his novels and stories, a tormented man who never finds– or found– a home on the physical earth and who sought his place in the sunya (emptiness) of Zen Buddhism when he adopted this philosophy.

A writer who considered himself the most important figure in American letters since Herman Melville, who knew war and literary failure in his 20s, who won fame and fortune at thirty, who at forty turned his back on the trappings of celebrity and all social activity, and at 45 cut the last tie with the publishing world when he sent the New Yorker the story "Hapworth 16, 1924," Salinger is, without a doubt, more a literary character than a real man.

With the existential weariness that led him to the practice of Zen and the terribly (yes, terribly) dramatic decision to live in isolation and publish nothing more when he was considered a classic author in universal literature and the icon of an entire generation and the traumas of a country, he came to resemble more a work of fiction than a flesh-and-blood life. But the fact is that for Salinger everything was literature and everything that was bequeathed to us was literature too. Perhaps– and regrettably– not as much as it should be.

Because the true mystery of his existence, which is now being transformed into expectation, is whether his silence was only in publishing or was creative as well. The assurances of certain people that they heard him say he was still writing, but only for pleasure, not for publishing (similar to the case of Juan Rulfo and his non-existent next novel, which has been announced for decades) glitter like a light at the back of a cave. What would he have written, if indeed he was writing? More stories of the Glass brothers? Thoughts from his Buddhist meditation and contemplation?

Like many people today who have read Salinger, my first exposure to his work occurred after he had broken with the world of publishing. It was a brutal encounter: after the commotion unleashed in me by The Catcher in the Rye (the work that made him famous in 1951), I moved on to Nine Stories (published in 1953) which made me almost die with envy, then the dazzling Franny and Zooey (my favorite of Salinger, from 1961), and finally the apocalypse of Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (his last work, almost agonizing, published in 1963).

Since then, I have been a militant Salingerian and read these books again and again. I have slipped into the lives of his characters and even borrowed from one of his stories ("For Esmé– with Love and Squalor") to try and write "moving and squalid works" like those the adolescent Esmé preferred.

Since then, for many years, a dream has pursued me: that Salinger, in his northern refuge, dedicated himself not only to meditation but also to writing (like some said). Because a man capable of creating such beauty, and provoking such unease through his work, of attaining a level of perfection the rest of us would never even dream of, creating beings capable of changing our perception of the world, does not have the right to close up shop and leave us thirsty. Salinger had to keep on writing. And if he didn't, he is guilty of one of the most unpardonable crimes in the history of literature.

But since I know– of course I do– that he had to write during these years of silence, I hope that someone will put his manuscripts in circulation; and, on this side of the world where we look forward to the moment of our next incarnation, I wish J.D. Salinger a pleasant transition to his new state. I wish him this "with love and squalor."


Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into ten languages. His most recent work, La Nieblina de Ayer, won the Hammett Prize for the best crime novel written in Spanish for 2005.