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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Greatness on the Rebound: reflections on rereading Franny and Zooey

No doubt it heralds a narrowing in the life of the mind, but I seem to have reached a stage in late middle age where I find equal or greater pleasure in rereading books I'm already familiar with as I find in books newly discovered.  The pleasure of rereading is really altogether unique, as you dive into the familiar text you are reading on two planes simultaneously -- the book unfolds before you synchronically as the author intended for it to be read and it unfolds for you asynchronously, as you relive the experience of your prior reading alongside your current reading.  You both read the book and read yourself reading the book, then and now.  The multiple levels of the experience can be quite enriching -- truly making reading a matter of self-discovery, as well as a matter of trying to better decipher an author's original intent.

Last night I stayed in my old bedroom in the city and had the pleasure of rereading Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, which I found on a bookshelf by the bedside, no longer quite my own.  It's been more than 45 years since I last read the book and I was curious to see how it stood up over the intervening years. What surprised me is how dramatically my response to it has changed over time - what had originally impressed me as most brilliant about Salinger back then strikes me as fairly pedestrian today whereas what was most perplexing to me about both Franny and Zooey upon first reading today strikes me as the repository of the book's greatest value.  Such are the paradoxical effects of the passage of time.  Please bear with me as I explain this at greater length.


Growing up in New York City in the 1960s and 70s, Salinger enjoyed a demigod status as one of the great Jewish scribblers of the post-War years.  Not just Catcher but all his books were required reading, and over the course of one's adolescence, as you progressed from Catcher to Nine Stories to the Glass family saga, it marked the various stages of passage in your own literary coming of age.  And the Glass family in particular seemed to capture and idealize the sensibility of the milieu in which I was raised -- mixing the high and low culture of New York City (the Glass parents were vaudevillians after all), all polished off with such fine literary flair.  Salinger's deft touch and the witty banter of the Glass siblings was the epitome of what passed for high literature, at least as enshrined in the pages of The New Yorker during the Wallace Shawn era.  In our puerile fantasies we were all potential stars on the radio show “It’s a Wise Child.”  Salinger was a demigod indeed and we read and reread his stories reverentially, hoping to catch glimmers of ourselves in the pages.

But compelling as I found the saga of the Glass family back then, I must admit to having been perplexed by the nature of the personal crisis Franny was undergoing.  To my boyish thinking she was in the midst of an emotional breakdown -- a diagnosis similar enough to that voiced by her family and boyfriend -- the causes of which seemed largely inexplicable.  I was inclined to read the story in psychological terms, which left me groping for some way to make sense of why exactly she seemed so fixated on reciting the Jesus prayer.  It was if the poor girl had been whisked away by a cult and was now in need of a good deprogramming.  Not that it's ever easy for an adolescent to make sense of such things, particularly for those with limited spiritual inclinations of their own; yet even though the wellsprings of Franny’s angst left me more or less befuddled, it did little to diminish my regard for the book as a minor masterpiece, nor my estimation of Salinger as a stylist who seemed peerless. 

Fast forward 45 years.  I've just put Franny and Zooey aside and find myself completely underwhelmed by the quality of the writing, at least to the extent the book is to be judged as a work of realistic storytelling.  The three main characters seem quite poorly drawn, verging on caricature, certainly when compared to the level of realism Salinger was capable of and in fact achieved in his great portrayal of Holden Caulfield.  The whole set up of the Glass family comes across to me now as contrived and ham-handed – those adorably precocious children, chain-smoking, name dropping and besotted with spiritual ennui.  It’s a cultural mash up of the first order - a dash of Flaubert, with a daub of the Buddha together with a heavy sprinkling of Eloise at the Plaza, something that seems to have been custom tailored to appeal to sensibility of The New Yorker and its readers but falls woefully short in terms of creating a plausible family dynamic or half-way believable character driven drama.  Far from the glitter and glamor that so appealed to me in my youth, the Glass family today strikes me as utterly transparent as a writer’s artifice – merely an expedient means of cramming as much high-brow speechifying as possible, which reflects the author’s own world-view, into the limited space of a short story or novella -- a way to show and tell at the same time, through the overly clever dialog of his garrulous Wise Child characters.

But what is now most interesting to me about the book is the spiritual crisis that lies at the center of both stories.  Setting aside the Glass family as an obvious contrivance, this is clearly Salinger’s crisis and he’s hiding in plain sight behind each of his straw man characters.  In the mouths of Franny and Zooey the dialog may sound far from credible, but in the mouth of Salinger the words resound as frightful truth.  And this is a crisis of the highest order, a spiritual crisis and artistic crisis rolled into one, as Salinger at this point in his career is on the verge of self-banishment, from the spritely world of Gotham City to the dark recesses the New Hampshire woods.  In fact, you can see or read each of the Glass siblings as a stand-in for a different aspect of Salinger’s troubled soul – the despondent and suicidal Seymour, the reclusive and elusive Buddy, the precocious and glib Zooey and naïf ingénue Franny – all battling and babbling for their chance to be heard.  Fortunately Seymour didn’t prevail, at least in real life terms, but Buddy's reclusive impulses were soon to overtake all others, with decidedly negative results for Salinger’s published output for the remainder of his lifetime.

“An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s”, as Zooey counsels his sister in one of the book’s final passages.  Written in the late 1950’s, there’s a wonderful prescience in those words, anticipating how Salinger himself was destined to spend the next few decades, writing and rewriting his novels for an audience of one.  As he told the New York Times in one of his final interviews:  “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.” 

More and more it seems to me we do writers a disservice when we judge their work strictly in terms of genre and traditional notions of literary merit. Literature be damned – it belongs in the classroom and nowhere else.  Franny and Zooey may be decidedly second rate in terms of the quality of the story telling but there is a greatness in its pages all the same, that at least is the conclusion I’ve come to on rereading. Even a story that's served up under the label of realistic fiction need not be the least bit credible in order to be deeply compelling, as a testament to the author's struggle to fully engage with his or her version of spiritual truth.


Friday, July 6, 2018

In Reply to Magistrate Zhang (by Wang Wei)

Peace is the only reward
In our later years
When we can be untroubled
By all ten thousand things
Abiding without
Long range plans
Knowing emptiness
We return to our
Native woods

The wind in the pines
Loosens my sash and
The mountain moon
Shines upon my lute
If you ask what’s the point
Of possessing so little
I’ll just sing along
With the fisherman
On the distant shore






Friday, June 29, 2018

Thoughts from a High Tower (by Wang Wei)

Wang Wei is most often heralded as a great nature poet, one of the most important early contributors to the tradition of Mountain and Stream poetry (山水詩) in Chinese literature.  But Wang had great range in his life and poetry, and covered a lot of ground in the subjects he addressed, writing not only about the countryside but also about the metropolitan centers of Chang'An and Luoyang, which were the twin capital cities of the Tang empire.

This is a landscape poem Wang wrote that addresses a distinctly human theme.  Written from high atop a tower that overlooked a river valley, dotted with villages and well-tended farmland, this poem resonates with a kind of anomie and almost sounds as if could have been written standing atop the observation deck of a modern skyscraper gazing out over the urban sprawl below.


With Minister Wu Lang in the West Tower Pondering the Distant Vista


Gazing from this high tower
Thoughts come and go
Eyes reach for the extremity
Yet still it eludes their grasp

A thousand mile vista
A snug pillow for rest 
A window from which to survey
Ten thousand rooms in a glance

Down through the ages
All these strangers passing by
Hurrying deep into the obscurity
Of some distant time and place   

Deep sorrow resides there
Along the riverbank
In a remote farmstead where
A solitary column of smoke rises

You can see the order of it
Everything neatly arranged
Thoughts proceed below
Following a well-trod path

But of my native place
It is nowhere to be seen
Just clouds and rain and emptiness
As if it were all one thing 


高楼望所思     目极情未
枕上千里     窗中万室
悠悠路人     暧暧远郊日
极浦外     孤烟出
属上才     同下秩
不可     云水空如一