Bookmarks: On your Marquis, get set ... for relentless sex
A fortnightly look at books and writers
Big fiction news is that a significant amount of The Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger’s unseen work is being prepared for publication. In an interview with the Guardian, the writer’s son, Matt Salinger, said that he and his father’s widow, Colleen O’Neill, “are going as fast as we freaking can” with the project. They have joint control over Salinger’s literary estate, and have been working with the unpublished material since 2011, the year after the reclusive author’s death.
Fans should however not expect any new work to appear any time soon: Salinger told the Guardian it would still take years before anything was published – but hopefully less than a decade.
His father’s last published work was a novella, Hapworth 16, 1924, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965 but he never stopped writing over the ensuing decades he spent in the New Hampshire village of Cornish, far from public view. He gave his last interview in 1980.
“He just decided that the best thing for his writing was not to have a lot of interactions with people, literary types in particular,” his son said. “He didn’t want to be playing in those poker games; he wanted to, as he would encourage every would-be writer to do, you know, stew in your own juices.”
According to Salinger, there is a significant body of unseen work and it was going to take a “long time” to pull it all together, a job his father had wanted him to complete.
“This was somebody who was writing for 50 years without publishing, so that’s a lot of material. So there’s not a reluctance [to publish] or protectiveness: when it’s ready, we’re going to share it … I don’t owe an apology, I don’t think, but your readers should know that we’re going as fast as we freaking can … I feel the pressure to get this done, more than he did.”
Salinger’s son added that the new work “will definitely disappoint people that he wouldn’t care about, but for real readers … I think it will be tremendously well received by those people and they will be affected in the way every reader hopes to be affected when they open a book. Not changed, necessarily, but something rubs off that can lead to change.”
This was more or less the effect of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s first and only novel. Published in July 1951, its deceptively simple plot detailed the experiences of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, a protagonist Salinger first introduced in an early short story, Slight Rebellion off Madison, following his expulsion and departure from an elite New York school. It is celebrated for the unique, if unreliable testimony of its first-person narrator, Holden, as he expounds on the importance of loyalty, the “phoniness” of adulthood, and his own duplicity. Catcher remains a best-selling phenomenon, with some reports claiming more than 65 million copies have been sold around the world. By the late 1950s, according to critic and author Ian Hamilton, Catcher had “become the book all brooding adolescents had to buy, the indispensable manual from which cool styles of disaffectation could be borrowed”. Newspapers began reporting on the “Catcher Cult”, prompting a backlash: the novel was banned in several countries and remains one of the most “challenged” books in US libraries and schools, according to anti-censorship campaigners. One angry parent, for example, went through the novel to detail its failings: 273 instances of “goddam”, 58 uses of “bastard”, 31 “Chrissakes”, and one incident of flatulence.
A 1979 study revealed that the novel had the dubious distinction of being the most frequently censored book across the the US and, after John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the second-most frequently taught book in US state high schools.
After Catcher, Salinger only published short works, including 1961’s Franny and Zooey, a combination of short story and novella.
In other fiction news, the big buzz is over French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani’s debut novel, Dans le jardin de l’ogre (2014), which has just appeared in English this month as Adèle (Faber & Faber). It tells the story of a woman so addicted to sex that she loses all control over her life.
Oddly, it was Slimani’s second novel, Chanson douce (2016), the story of the double murder of two young siblings by their carer, which were first translated into English, published last year as Lullaby (Faber & Faber) in the UK and The Perfect Nanny (Penguin Random House) in the US. While Chanson established Slimani as a major new literary figure in France, it was the award-winning debut that boldly shook up the establishment, inspired as it was by the sexual scandals surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund director.
Adèle has been praised for its “extraordinary” ability to shock, and is a “tough read”, according to one critic, “but a bracing one; little concerned with reader-pleasing narrative treats, but provocatively enigmatic”. Being a novel about a sex-addicted French journalist there is, unsurprisingly, a lot of sex in these 220-odd pages, and it has been described as a bold rewrite of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary but with parameters set by De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.
The sex is relentless, but don’t look for Shades of Grey titillation or anything vaguely erotic here. It’s slap-on-slap monotony. Which is the point. The sex, which Adèle, married to a dull surgeon, has with all sorts of people (colleagues, total strangers, her husband’s best friend), grinds on and on, and while it’s unfulfilling and destructive, its danger is strangely liberating. (Oh, patriarchy, up yours, and all that …)
And, naturally, amid all the humping and frenetic coupling there is some tension: while Adèle fears that her husband will discover her countless casual infidelities, she also dreads his plan to move the family to the countryside, which will cut her off from the sexual freedom she finds in the city – and a fate, quelle horreur, much like Emma Bovary’s.
There’s more bad, self-involved behaviour in Kristen Roupenian’s debut short story collection, You Know You Want This (Jonathan Cape), which explores the messiness of desire. The New York Times called it “needy”, but other critics have been kinder.
Roupenian burst into the limelight with her December 2017 New Yorker short story, Cat Person, a tale of modern dating at its most destructive that went viral and became a cultural phenomenon. That story, which is included in this collection, dovetailed neatly with the #MeToo movement and threw up a tsunami of online debate about consent, male entitlement and unwanted if not necessarily abusive sexual encounters.
Most of her other stories in You Know You Want This appear just as determined to upset and disturb readers. In Sardines, for example, a woman considers replacing the lube that her husband’s new girlfriend uses with superglue. But, away from the shock tactics, Roupenian displays a considerable flair for satire and comedic timing, as in Biter, a wry take-down of sexual politics in the workplace.
An Iranian Kurdish writer, Behrouz Boochani, has won the A$100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature (about R965,000) and, in the process, profoundly embarrassed the Australian government. Thanks to the country’s draconian anti-migrant policies, the 35-year-old journalist and filmmaker has been held in an Australian migration detention centre on the remote Manus Island, off Papua New Guinea, since 2013.
Boochani is practically stateless. In terms of Australian law, anyone trying to reach the country by small boat can never be allowed to settle in the country and is banished to detention centres on islands in the Pacific. His poetic memoir, No Friend But The Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison, is to be published by Anansi International later this year. According to The Times of London, he wrote most of the book on an old iPhone.
A graduate form Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran with a master’s in political geography, Boochani fled Iran in May 2013 after the magazine he founded was raided by the Revolutionary Guard. He was arrested by Australian authorities on his second attempt at crossing the perilous seas between Indonesia and Australia. His book was initially deemed ineligible for other Australian literary awards as he was neither an Australian citizen nor a permanent resident. But he was granted special exemption by the Victorian prize directors. One of the judges, Gig Ryan, conceded that Boochani was not Australian, but added that “he, and his statelessness, are Australia’s responsibility”.
Boochani was reportedly conflicted about winning. “I don’t want to celebrate this achievement while I see many innocent people suffering around me,” he told The Times. “This is why it’s a paradoxical feeling … We have committed no crime, we are only seeking asylum.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it … And those who receive it know it, or should.” – Alan Bennett, addressing a sermon in King’s College Chapel in 2014; quoted in Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem by David Kynaston and Francis Green (Bloomsbury).