|Apr/May 2004 spotlight|
I read The Catcher three times. Once in '66, because my older brother was reading it. He was 16 and a perfect Holden, I was 11 and totally Phoebe. Only, our relationship was not as wonderful.
I loved and was amazed by the book then, not as much by the story but by the language. I read it in translation, and the translator was a close and dear friend of the family, one extraordinary woman, Catinca Ralea. While translating the book, she used to say my brother and I reminded her of Holden and Phoebe. At that first reading, what impressed me in culturally traditional Romania was the language. I was fascinated with the way language was used and printed.
At that age it was an extremely personal reading. I totally identified with Phoebe, even acted the part sometimes in dialog and moods. The book was the second American book I read, after The Wizard of Oz. My reading list at that age contained Maupassant, David Copperfield, Tom Jones, and the Bronte sisters, and I had already decided I was going to be a writer, had filled up a notebook with poetry and theatre sketches.
Reading the book so early while still under the Maupassant, Hugo and Balzac shadow, made for a strange influence on my writings. I started writing love stories in Holden's voice, using his vocabulary. My heroines, secret princesses, dressed in lavishly Victorian dresses but swore and spoke in the most "horrifying" slang.
The second time I read Catcher, I was 16, and this time I was Holden. Failing at all and everything, except writing. By then I had already published a few poems in the school paper. It was the same translation, and I used to call Catinca and discuss with her the book, the author J.D. Salinger (whom she had met), and the way she had used one language—so distant from English—to translate a text that is actually highly idiomatic, considering the slang Salinger uses in his book.
The second time was a very different reading. I faked sickness to stay home from school and finish it, but I did that with many other books. My entire high school was a long stay-home-to-finish-reading case of tonsillitis, which helped me to devour the many books I loved but that were not on the school's reading list. This time Catcher was in the company of Jary's Roi Ubu, which was one of the most phenomenal books I ever read, and Dostoievsky's The Idiot. I remember thinking Kolea Rogojin could be a Russian, dark, tragic, adult-like Holden. All three books remain ones I go back to, time and time again.
Beneath the Iron Curtain like many of my friends, I identified with Holden. We lived in a communist society where everything turned out to be phony; everything was an imposed and perpetual lie. All the ideals were turned on their tails, and everything seemed to be a painfully bad tragi-comedy.
Holden was not only a symbol of adolescence for us, but in a strange way he became some sort of a revolutionary spirit to whom we all felt close, and we wished in our hearts we could have been as free, as courageous, as wild as he. I am still amazed that the book was allowed.
That Salinger never intended any of what we beneath the Iron Curtain read into The Catcher in the Rye didn't mean a thing to us. We needed him the way we read him, and living in a communist country we took all his words as a metaphor and applied our own decoder, making his book a symbol for our lives and yearnings.
The fact that we took Catcher as a lot more than just an adolescent book, and that we read it more like a manifesto, was not strange, given the context. Everything was politicized in our lives, books more so than other "things." Somewhere in his notebooks on Marx, Lenin, exiled in Paris, considering a possible revolution, writes, "Everything is politics." That was the frame of mind with which we grew up. We were taught to interpret and discover the political aspects of everyday life, and so we did. We learned to recognize the power structure and the rules of the game behind the decorative ideology, we felt how oppressive and dysfunctional our world was, and just like Holden we were powerless and doomed.
But Holden was not desperate, and so we learned not to be desperate. He taught us that even when one was not built according to one's predetermined pigeonhole, even if one was of a strange mold, a perpetual outcast, one could still keep and use one's mind and humor, and when no other freedom was left, there still remained the freedom of thought, which no one but oneself could limit.
If you think about it, Holden's world was not much different than ours. In both his and ours, rules applied haphazardly, and no one seemed to have any control over them—"That David Copperfield kind of crap." You certainly "didn't feel like going into it," because that world would have sucked you in, especially after you "left all the foils and (fencing) equipment in the goddam subway."
To "us" this very occurrence—leaving the fencing equipment while being the team manager—was extremely significant. Fencing is an old game with strict rules. A fight dressed up in dance steps, a killing that masqueraded in aristocratic costume, and he left the equipment. He never says he forgot it. He was supposed to be the keeper of the goddam old game, old fight, but he leaves it and prefers to become something that exists only in a song, in a childhood dream, a catcher of fallen children (angels). This is how we read it; every word, every sentence was a symbol, an encoded metaphor.
I remember talking with friends who were reading the book at the same time that I was, at 16, and they, too, felt as I did. They, too, thought we were all living in Holden's world. Those whom we trusted had cheated and turned against us (Stradlater—a friend informing on you to the power structure). Those whom we had turned to for refuge could only offer a sermon and disgust us (Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini—our own teachers and parents). There was always an Ackley around to make us puke. Those who were supposed to watch over us were absent, removed and self-absorbed with their own depression (his parents and older brother—our parents). Those we loved were either dead or uncooperative (his dead brother and Phoebe—our heroes and the "free world" who were supposed to stand against the very tyranny under which we lived). Those who were supposed to be like minded soul-mates sold out their soul to fit in (Sally and Carl Luce—friends and brothers becoming party members). Those for whom we felt compassion exploited us (the prostitute Sunny). The only way to survive was to become Ossenburger, and "work in the undertaking business." Undertaking! Taking from under, what an invitation to revolution! No wonder in such a world, your own opinion about yourself is that you are "the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life."
Ours was a world where even purity and innocence was stubborn, unpredictable, and wanted to run away from home. And we had to convince her to go back? In our world no one could run away from home. After all, this was a world we had to learn to love because it was the only one we had. A museum-like world, our own museum where we became part of it while observing it. Holden taught us to see how "in that museum... everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds will still be on their way south, the deer would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be waving that same blanket. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that, exactly. You'd just be different, that's all."
But he also taught us to change in a way our world did not intend us to. He taught us that as long as we remained lucid and watchful, as long as we thought and observed how the parts were played (the interpretation of Romeo and Juliet), as long as we kept the monologue going within us, the interior life rich and open and questioning, we were going to remain sane even in a world where nothing made sense.
And if we were lucky, one day we were going to meet some old nuns in a café, awkward and out of place, not collecting for the Salvation Army, with whom we would be able to share our own view of the world and be understood.
Surely Salinger never meant it to be a political manifesto for kids in communist countries, but his book took on a life and meanings of its own in the eye of its readers. It is the old story: what is written is not what ends up being read.
The third time I read Catcher, I read it in English. It was such fun. I continued to love the language of the book and found it incredible to discover that it was the same language my kids used. This time I felt maternal, sorry for Holden, proud of him. I loved him and wished to hold and hug him, to tell him that all this awkwardness, and anger, and uneasiness, and feeling rejected, all that loneliness, and the lack of sense and purpose, and the lack of direction, and not knowing who he was and what he was "supposed" to do or be, and the pain, and the feeling that all is phony and futile, all of it, would pass or get to be manageable, or he would be able to make a difference, to change the world. Just as I used to tell my older son, the new Holden, when he was 14 and living out almost every single page of the book. Not as sad, but just as rebellious.
There is also a different Holden I see now, yet one more face of the old Holden I knew. Mothering American teenagers, I see now what I didn't see when I was a kid in a communist country; I see the rich, spoiled kid ready to waste himself and his life for some unclear and untested "major." I see inalienable, real human truth that is never spelled out or thought out completely. But I still understand and still hate the phoniness of the world Holden was trying to escape, just as we all did and still do at one time or another.