But every time I wrote about Salinger I used to get into nervous discussions with my old friend Jonathan Schwartz, a writer and radio man, who was convinced Salinger was writing but worried that he might decide to destroy it all out of pique. We both fantasized about someone breaking in and saving the manuscripts. And in fact I just learned that a Kindle book has just been published called J.D.: The Plot To Steal J.D. Salinger's Manuscripts. I want to make clear I don't approve, but clearly the cult is getting antsy.
How is Salinger's silence different from Nabokov's burn notice? For one thing Nabokov is dead but his wish was unequivocal. Salinger is alive and equivocal. Or if not equivocal, certainly withholding, uncommunicative. But at least we have a chance to communicate with him.
There is also a critical difference between the two finicky writers: Nabokov was a finisher. Look how many dozens of books he wrote in two languages in his life. True, he tried to burn Lolita. (It was saved only by his wife.) True, he was a perfectionist, but, I'd argue, one who came to recognize that there was a time finally to publish. That a work was, at a certain point, as perfect—as perfectly Nabokovian—as it would ever get. Salinger seems—in his parentheses-choked later works, at least—to believe he could never get as Salingerian as he wanted. And that his work had to be not as good as he could make it but as good as God could make it. Which suggests nothing can ever be truly finished. Maybe that's his problem.
You might ask why it will be important to read whatever Salinger leaves behind. I think it will certainly be more important to our understanding of Salinger than Laura's note cards will be to our understanding of Nabokov.
Forty-odd years of work in silence! It feels like a tragedy or, at least, a mystery: Was he inscribing more and more on less and less like biblical angels-on-pinhead types? Or did he take off and grow and soar in some way beyond our expectations?
I don't think Salinger was anywhere near what novelist Nabokov was at his best, but he published only one novel. Who knows what he was capable of?
So here's my plea: Mr. Salinger, forgive me my genuinely earnest and well-meaning if intrusive-sounding request, but could you reassure us that—if you have been writing all this time—we'll get to see some of it before … we die?
Must I drive up to New Hampshire and put another letter in his mailbox? Anyway, I started reading Catcher again. It's still good. If you don't misread it.
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