Sunday, 15 December 2013

J. D. Salinger& Jane Austen; or I now see Jane Austen with different eyes
J. D. Salinger:
"A writer, when he's asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves. I love Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Proust, O'Casey, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Brontë, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge. I won't name any living writers. I don't think it's right."
I noticed it a while ago, but long before this I had read most of his books and at the time didn't pay much attention to the mention of Jane Austen in "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut". Only today was I reminded of it:
"Oh, God! I don't know. He told me he loved Jane Austen. He told me her books meant a great deal to him. That's exactly what he said. I found out after we were married that he hadn't even read one of her books."
That is, my memory stored this part: "He told me he loved [some writer]. He told me her books meant a great deal to him. That's exactly what he said. I found out after we were married that he hadn't even read one of her books." That how it was. Which is why now I am amazed to realise that the name that totally disappeared from my memory was Jane Austen.
(Eloise's words echo these lines in "Sense and sensibility" about Marianne and Willoughby: "Encouraged by this to a further examination of his opinions, she proceeded to question him on the subject of books; her favourite authors were brought forward and dwelt upon with so rapturous a delight, that any young man of five-and-twenty must have been insensible indeed, not to become an immediate convert to the excellence of such works, however disregarded before. Their taste was strikingly alike. The same books, the same passages were idolized by each -- or, if any difference appeared, any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed. He acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm, and long before his visit concluded, they conversed with the familiarity of a long-established acquaintance.")
The connection and influence are discussed here:
As it turns out, in "Hapworth 16, 1924", which I haven't read, Salinger lets Seymour Glass say:
"Jane Austen, in entirety or in any shape or form, discounting 'Pride and Prejudice,' which is already in possession. I will not disturb this incomparable girl’s genius with dubious remarks; I have already hurt Miss Overman’s feelings inexcusably by refusing to discuss this girl, but I lack even the slight decency to regret it very much. Quite in a pinch, I would be willing to meet somebody at Rosings, but I cannot enter into a discussion of a womanly genius this humorous, magnificent, and personal to me; I have made some feeble, human attempts, but nothing at all meritorious."


As Arnie Perlstein of "Sharp elves society" has pointed out, both J. D. Salinger and Jane Austen share an acute eye for and an intense dislike of phonies (also shared by F. Scott Fitzgerald, another favourite writer of Salinger): Mr Spencer, Stradlater, Ackley, the crying mother at the cinema, the roommate with cheap suitcases... in "The catcher in the rye", Muriel Glass and her mother in "A perfect day for bananafish"; John and Fanny Dashwood, John Willoughby, Lucy Steele, Lady Middleton... in "Sense and sensibility", Philip and Augusta Elton in "Emma", Mrs Norris, Maria and July Bertram, Henry and Mary Crawford... in "Mansfield park".
That's not the only thing they have in common, however.
The clearest influence of Jane Austen on Salinger is the depiction of characters through the use of dialogue, by creating a different voice for each character, especially in Salinger's short fiction (though his ear for dialogue can also be said to be inherited from Fitzgerald and Hemingway). Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gustave Flaubert... are, in contrast, not particularly fond of this technique. And though these 2 writers sound cynical and sometimes seem not to like people very much, they both have humour, mostly in "The catcher in the rye" for Salinger and in everything by Jane Austen, who always makes fun of something, laughs at something.


Anyone who knows me must find it shocking and incomprehensible that 4 months after declaring it would be fine if the whole world adored Jane Austen and I was the only one who abhorred her, now I'm seeing her in an entirely different light.
I acknowledge that before touching her works I had certain prejudices that recently have been proven to be wrong. For example, like V. S. Naipaul I thought she was sentimental, romantic, naively hopeful and unrealistic. That's terribly wrong. I don't think her books really have a light-hearted tone either. Apparently popularity has done her reputation more harm than good.   
Now, reading "Mansfield park", I sometimes find Jane Austen unbearably tedious but sometimes particularly enjoyable, sharp and thought-provoking; in a way conservative, unimaginative, indifferent to the outside world and too content in her little world, boring one to death with the tendency to confine herself in her comfort zone but on the other hand admirably proud, independent, daring and courageous in her insistence on realism, disdain for the genres and methods and devices of her predecessors and contemporaries, determination to go her own way in a patriarchal society with no regard for male authors' grander topics, and the way she pokes fun at everything and everybody- the sentimental novel, the gothic novel, and "such novelistic clichés as love at first sight, the primacy of passion over all other emotions and/or duties, the chivalric exploits of the hero, the vulnerable sensitivity of the heroine, the lovers' proclaimed indifference to financial considerations, and the cruel crudity of parents". (It should be noted too that Jane Austen never bothered to conceal her gender, albeit hiding her name, she published as "a lady"). 
From about chapter 14 (I'm currently in the middle of chapter 17), "Mansfield park" is astonishingly well-written. Astonishing, because it becomes much better. The greatness is, most of the time, in the tiny details, some gestures, a few words, very subtle. Jane Austen's characters are not unique like those created by Emily Bronte, Dostoyevsky..., what makes them valuable and memorable is that they're like ordinary people- I can see myself in them or recognise in them somebody I know. Her world is a little, limited one and standing alone each of her characters, especially the supporting ones, may be quite flat now and then, but put them together one sees all humanity. That's the appeal of Jane Austen. That's the reason 200 years later she's still widely read and studied and discussed- society has changed, customs and traditions have changed, but human faults are still there, from prejudice, self-delusion, inquisitiveness, garrulousness, flattery, self-importance, insincerity, impulsiveness, vanity, officiousness, egotism, vulgarity, insipidity, pretentiousness... to hypocrisy, deceit, disloyalty, mercenariness, self-indulgence, stinginess... Her characters embody these faults, as she makes fun of people and herself and critiques social hypocrisy, without becoming caricatures like Dickens's.
Her limitations, mentioned on my blog 4 months ago, I still see clearly. I can never call her the best writer of all time. But her strengths and values, as it turns out, are much more than just a pretty writing style, the well-constructed sentences and that gentle laugh behind the lines. 
Will discuss more later.

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