Thursday, June 16, 2016

Franny and ZooeyFranny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Franny suddenly tried with one hand alone to get a light for her cigarette. She opened the matchbox compartment successfully, but one inept scratch of a match sent the box to the floor. She bent quickly and picked up the box, and let the spilled matches lie."

I have a recollection of buying the English edition of J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey (1955, 1961) at the International Book Fair in Warsaw, Poland, in 1968. I bought it along with the author's famous The Catcher in the Rye. (Remember the iconic red cover with yellow title?) I read the latter almost instantaneously as it is a great book for a teenage boy eager to lap up the wisdom of the world packaged and portioned for easy consumption. Alas, I could never get into Franny and Zooey although I tried several times during the intervening forty-eight years. Finally, last week - aided by the patience of old age - I succeeded in conquering the book, still the same copy that I brought from my Old Country.

Franny and Zooey are two separate works: the former is a 40-page short story while the latter is a novella of about 150 pages, which to me is the ideal size of a book. Franny is the youngest of seven siblings of the Glass family - with Zooey being the next youngest - who used to have their own TV show for children. Franny is a college student undergoing a sort of intellectual breakdown. She loses faith in her education, despises the snobbery of college, and quits the theatre department at her university; instead she is captivated by a book about a Russian mendicant pilgrim and the power of "praying without ceasing", meaning the non-stop invocation of the Jesus Prayer. Franny is basically a detailed account of a single conversation between the title character and her boyfriend, Lane, held when she comes to visit him in his college. Most of the conversation happens during their lunch, and they talk at (rather than to) each other so that not much communication takes place.

The plot of Zooey, the novella, happens some time later, when Franny comes to her parents' home. Her mother, Bessie, is concerned about Franny's breakdown and asks Zooey to talk to her, help her shake the funk and recover from the "Jesus Prayer phase". The novella covers a few hours of conversations between Zooey, Bessie, and Franny.

Both stories are, basically, protocols of the protagonists' minute psychological and emotional states, precise micro-observations of second-by-second behaviors of individual people and interplays between them. Here's another representative example, in addition to the epigraph quote:
"Lane sat up a bit in his chair and adjusted his expression from that of all-around apprehension and discontent to that of a man whose date has merely gone to the john, leaving him, as dates do, with nothing to do in the meantime but smoke and look bored, preferably attractively bored."

Both works are extremely well written: the prose is compelling, the psychological observations convincing, situations plausible and characters realistic. Mr. Salinger offers an insightful analysis of human attitudes, pretenses and affectations, motives, and behaviors. In addition to analysis, though, I would love to have some - for lack of a better word - synthesis, that would transcend the observations.

So, while I certainly recommend the book, the recommendation is not exactly full-hearted. Some passages seem a little pretentious: for instance - unless my irony detector is not calibrated properly - I think that Mr. Salinger offers the following passage full of turgid and empty phrases in all seriousness:
"However innumerable beings are, I vow to save them: however inexhaustible the passions are, I vow to extinguish them; however immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to master them; however incomparable the Budda-truth is, I vow to attain it."

Ouch! Anyway, I definitely have to re-read The Catcher in the Rye; maybe my stellar rating needs revision.

Three and a quarter stars.

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