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Holden Back the Years

I’m reading The Catcher in the Rye for the fifth time – following on from a week dipping into Borges’ short story collection Labyrinths, The contrast between these two experiences has been instructive.

One of the themes of Labyrinths is the structuralist idea of reader as author. Borges parodies the notion, belittles and criticises it by making it a joke. In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, a cod-academic narrator unearths a transliteration of Cervantes’ Don Quixote by a contemporary author. He describes Menard’s desire to make the text his own – to create his own Quixote. But, we see that Menard has done nothing to the text at all; he has merely transcribed it.

In a key section, the narrator describes the difference between two identical paragraphs of text:

“The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard—quite foreign, after all—suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.”

While this is clearly a stone lobbed in the direction of New Criticism – the “intentional fallacy’ of Wimsatt and Beardsley that dictates the irrelevance of authorial intention– I find that I can describe, anecdotally, a similar experience when re-reading The Catcher in the Rye. The text is the same, but the meaning of the novel has changed for me over time, in the new contexts I’ve found myself in and with new experience to compare it with.

I first read it in the 1980s, when I was 16 – the same age as Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist. The cliché is that when you read Catcher as a teenager, you become Holden. That is, of course, what happened to me. The first person narration, the post-pubescent angst, the easy colloquial style all contribute to the sense that your thoughts are Holden’s thoughts. You are disconnected and cynical and you know everything – just like Holden. He speaks with your voice and you, like Holden, are in that limbo between child and adulthood.

I read Catcher again at 21 and, if anything, I was in even more agreement with Holden’s rebellious take on the institutions of adulthood. Curiously though, where I once felt that I was like Holden, this time I felt that he was like me. I had by then a firmer grasp of who I was, what my thoughts and feelings were. They had been shaped by Holden and Rebel without a Cause and John Lennon. Of course, I wasn’t the first person to think like that. Fortunately for me, my relationship with the popular culture I loved didn’t make me want to kill my idols.

I had another go at Catcher at 27. At this point I had been teaching at University level for three years – a job I enjoyed and was good at, but that was rife with political infighting at the institution I worked in. The first cracks in my love affair with Caulfield began to show. I felt ambivalent. I felt accused of selling out. My Girlfriend of the time read Catcher too. She found Holden “annoying”. I didn’t finish the read through.

At 35 my dissatisfaction with Holden had come full circle. I saw him as ungrateful and privileged during that reading; middle class and whiny. His military school scholarship and New York brownstone lifestyle. His artistic siblings and mistrust of the popular. I wanted to slap him. It was, as reactions to made-up people go, a little extreme.

Which brings me to my current reading. Again, I’m enjoying the novel – but for different reasons. I’m detached from Caulfield entirely and Salinger is foremost in my mind. It’s the writing I see now; the narrative and its execution. Holden is a brilliant creation; a flawed and authentic anti-hero. At 40, I can finally read that, see that, rather than looking for points of identification and reflections of self. I see, ironically, that Holden is a construction. He is a fiction. In his own words, he’s phony. I’m the one who’s real.

Take that, Holden Caulfield. You little shit.

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