A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I seldom say yes to review copies nowadays, simply because of the guilt I felt at seldom reading them, but I couldn’t resist the lure when Laura at Bloomsbury offered me a copy of the memoir My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff. It sat on a shelf for too long, but when my Shiny New Books co-editor Victoria told me it was superlatively wonderful, I could hold myself back no longer – I dipped into it, and then dived right in. It’s going to be one of my favourite reads of 2014, guaranteed.
First things first – I’m not a J.D. Salinger fan. That element put me off, if anything. I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was about 18, but – not being disaffected – it didn’t chime with me at all. I rolled my eyes at Holden Caulfield that I may have caused permanent damage. (Of course, there is the line of argument that Salinger knew how ridiculous Caulfield is, and it was a portrait of a delusional privileged kid, but… well, I don’t know.)
When Rakoff started working for the literacy agency which represented Salinger, she wasn’t a fan of his either. Indeed, she hadn’t read anything by him at all. She rather brilliantly conveys the bewilderment, fear, and eagerness of the young person entering an exciting career – and plenty of the bewilderment is caused by her boss. This unnamed boss is well-meaning but autocratic, living in a world of literary meetings, dashing from office to office in passionate excitement, somehow both vague and sharply business-minded.
Although this is the 1990s, her boss fears any form of technology. One of the few questions Rakoff is asked in her interview is ‘can you type?’ – meaning ‘on a typewriter’. Rakoff half-lies that she can, and the position is hers. Since one of her main roles is responding to letters using a standard reply, the absence of a computer must have stung. Indeed, the office eventually got one computer, which sat alone at the side, and on which the boss expressly and repeatedly forbade personal email. The letters continued to be typed.
These letters Rakoff writes are often to fans of Salinger. Famously reclusive (not to mention unpredictable), Salinger refused to have any letters forwarded to him – and so piles and piles of fan mail accumulated; mail from war veterans, aspiring writers, impressionable teenagers etc. I don’t know whether Rakoff has an exceptional memory or stole some of them, but she quotes a few (and how interesting a book of those might be!)
I think about Holden a lot. He just pops into my mind’s eye and I get to thinking about him dancing with old Phoebe or horsing around in front of the bathroom mirror at Pencey. When I first think about him I usually get a big stupid grin on my face. You know, thinking about what a funny guy he is and all. But then I usually get depressed as hell. I guess I get depressed because I only think about Holden when I’m feeling emotional. I can quiet emotional… Most people don’t give a flying hoot about what you think and feel most of the time, I guess. And if they see a weakness, why for God’s sake showing emotion is a weakness, boy, do they jump all over you!
The words of someone clearly immersed in Catcher in the Rye. And I deliberately wrote ‘quiet emotional’, rather than ‘quite emotional’; this typo (or was it?) appears in the original, and Rakoff notes what an apt phrasing it actually is. I particularly liked sections dealing with correspondence, since that’s something I do myself at work (and I empathised, and laughed!) – but also because it’s an insight to a corner of the literary world which is closed to most.
Then there is Salinger himself. Despite being told that she would probably never speak to him, Rakoff does, often. He is deaf, dramatic, and – surprisingly – friendly. He gives advice on her writing, and seems to trust her. She writes their telephone encounters with a sot of mesmerism that they happened – but also from the perspective of someone who knew his fame, but (having not read his books) was not a stunned fan.
She deals with him more and more as he considers letting a tiny publisher print an edition of one of his short stories. It was very fortunate that this happened during Rakoff’s year there; it is an excellent way of pulling the narrative forward, and brings its own dramas, tensions, and conclusion.
Alongside documenting her time in the agency, and her colleagues there, Rakoff writes a lot about her boyfriend Don (not his real name). He is depicted with the hindsight of someone who regrets a relationship – it is one of the few portrayals in the memoir which is perhaps unduly affected by the reflections of Rakoff-the-writer, rather than showing the experiences of Rakoff-the-23-year-old. He is monumentally self-obsessed and has a stunning self-belief. Don is also a writer, and is feverishly working on his debut novel – which he keeps hidden from Rakoff until he thinks it finished, although he does let her read one story he’s written. Rakoff doesn’t pull her punches.
Also on the scene is ‘college boyfriend’ (who doesn’t appear to have been officially broken-up-with before Don appeared). He is not so neatly disposed of; it seems that her feelings and compartmentalising about him are not quite resolved, even at the time of writing.
It’s difficult to highlight why My Salinger Year is such a brilliant, brilliant book. Perhaps the most important quality is Rakoff’s writing talent. Every sentence is measured and precise, neither bland nor overwritten. She has a natural storyteller’s gift, as well as the equally rare gift of depicting people closely and unsparingly without seeming unkind or intrusive – even if, when one steps back from the book, one realises how many private matters have been addressed. Tie in with this the fascination connected with an iconic and mysterious literary figure, the behind-the-scenes world of publishing, and the eternally rich story of ingenue-meets-world, then perhaps you have an inventory of the ingredients which make for a good memoir. But what ties it together is undoubtedly the unanalysable quality of Rakoff herself; as a Salinger-cynic myself, I know which of the two I would rather read again.
Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year, (Bloomsbury, June 2014) 978-1408830178, 272 pages, hardback.
Simon blogs at Stuck-in-a-Book.