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the pathology of seclusion

February 8, 2010

[New Statesman] So why the “seclusion”? I could never get beyond the first few pages of Catcher, being uninterested in the ruminations of a 17-year-old boy. But, belatedly, I can now see why the novel has sold 60 million copies and remains as compulsively fresh and engrossing to today’s teenagers as it was when first published six decades ago – precisely because of that ordinariness, the authentic, rarely heard voice of frustrated, aimless youth struggling to be heard with which the young (and sometimes not so young) can readily identify.

I had no such doubts, however, when I first checked out Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations from Luton public library a decade or more after it had come out (does any public library in the UK offer such material from its shelves these days, I wonder?) and was astonished, almost overjoyed, by the pulsating verve and energy Gould brought to a work of Bach that I had only heard before in leaden harpsichord interpretations.

Each man produced his work of a lifetime young – Gould at 22, Salinger at 31. Gould had endured a cosseted childhood, his precocious brilliance driven by a domineering mother who dressed him in frilly clothes and thrust him in front of adoring audiences in parochial Toronto. Emotionally distanced from his contemporaries, the 22-year-old who arrived at the Columbia recording studios in New York to record the Goldberg Variations was already manifesting unresolved neuroses: a terror of germs, an insistence on wearing far too many layers of clothing even on hot summer days, compulsive rituals such as soaking his hands in hot water for long periods before playing, and so on.

Salinger, for his part, had suffered a nervous breakdown after landing at Normandy on D-Day in the Second World War, taking part in the liberation of Dachau and using his linguistic skills to work in wartime counter-intelligence. What you read in Catcher, I suspect, is not so much the moody self-indulgence of 17-year-old Holden Caulfield, but shrieks of desperation from a 31-year-old man, damaged and robbed of his late adolescence and early manhood by the traumas of war. (read)

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