Salinger’s Overlooked Masterpiece: Franny and Zooey

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Salinger had a gift for placing his protagonists in certain, very specific places from which the rest of the world is held at arm’s length. In the case of the Glass family, to which Franny and Zooey belong, he went a step further and created an existence from which the rest of the world is barred from admission. No one is seen as quite good enough, interesting enough, self-aware enough, insightful enough or honest enough to be permitted into this singularly insular family. Except, of course, for the reader.

In Franny, the short story that opens Franny and Zooey, Salinger takes us to a vantage point from which we are permitted to observe and eavesdrop on a small table in a small restaurant where on a weekend break from college the protagonist is studying her date’s attempt to coax his frogs’ legs into position so he can have a proper go at them. She, meanwhile, barely touches the sandwich that has been set before her, preferring to chain-smoke while the two of them engage in distracted, fragmented but revealing conversation.

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The precision characteristic of much of Salinger’s writing could be distracting – if not downright annoying – in the hands of a less skilled author. The temptation would be to skim past much of the descriptive detail. But we don’t. Like detectives, we’re glued to every gesture, every phrase, searching for clues, knowing that even one passage carelessly glossed over might mean missing a vital element to the story unfolding before us. We sense almost immediately upon meeting Franny that something is wrong with her – or if “wrong” is too strong, then at least unbalanced. 

This installment of the Glass family saga was first published in The New Yorker in 1955. The novella-length Zooey, set almost entirely in the bathroom(!) and living room of the Glass’ apartment, was published in the same magazine a year later. In Zooey, it is almost as though the precisely detailed descriptive passages become the plot itself as every nuance reveals a lead.

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The two stories were bound together in book form in 1961. Although Franny and Zooey spent 25 weeks atop the New York Times Best Seller List, a number of reviews gave it harsh treatment. These rather peevish lines in 1961 from John Updike in the New York Times capture a general feeling expressed by others: “The author never rests from circling his creations, patting them fondly, slyly applauding. He robs the reader of the initiative upon which love must be given.”

Joan Didion crankily called the stories “spurious,” and slammed the pedantic nature of Salinger’s writing, likening Franny and Zooey to “self-help copy… for Sarah Lawrence girls.” (Ouch.) Alfred Kazin dismissed the writing as “cute.” Maxwell Geismar opined that the writing in Zooey was “appallingly bad,” and George Steiner dismissed the novella as “shapeless self-indulgence.”

Barbra and I had both, independently, read Franny and Zooey many years before we met each other. The book stayed with us (as did It’s a Perfect Day for Bananafish for me, the first installment of Salinger’s Glass family stories). Neither of us had any idea that the book had met with such disfavor when we added it our list of books to read together.

We found the work to be a quick, riveting read (and were amazed to later discover that some critics had groused that it was too long). I found myself comparing it with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for the very specific sense of place and character it portrays while remaining artistically fresh and thematically timeless. Zooey in particular is a masterpiece, and by that I mean that if writing were displayed in museums in the manner in which paintings are displayed, it would occupy a hallowed place beside a handful of other great post-modern works of fiction.

Searching the internet for positive reviews, we were gratified to find that forty years after the book came out, Janet Malcolm had come to the conclusions similar to those we’d come to. In Justice to J. D. Salinger, (The New York Review of Books, June 2001) she identified Zooey as “arguably Salinger’s masterpiece” and went on to write:

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Our view is that Franny and Zooey belongs in the canon of great American post-modern literature. Going beyond American shores in the genre, this is an excellent book to pair with a reading of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

Writing for Readers who Love Reading – Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler”

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‘The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: The continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” From Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, quoted in the film Stranger than Fiction.

I first encountered If on a winter’s night a traveler when I was stationed in Japan onboard USS Blue Ridge, reading voraciously during my free time at sea in an effort to prepare myself for college once my hitch was up. Published in Italian in 1979, Calvino’s masterpiece had just been translated into English. Did I come across it on a visit to the foreign literature section of Maruzen bookstore in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district? Did my sister who was working on a master’s degree in literature send a copy to me? I don’t recall. But by the time I was a few chapters into it, I sensed that I was reading a book that would endure among the important works of postmodern literature. An “anti-novel,” some have called it, for the rules of narrative it challenged and broke. When writers and literature professors caution that readers should avoid asking the question, “What is this piece of writing about?” this is the kind of writing they have in mind.

As such, the fragmented journey Calvino takes readers on is not everyone’s cup of tea. An otherwise positive 1981 New York Times review concluded by pouting that the book contains “…a sadness of its central subject, the absence of the artist, Dickens, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky…” whom the reviewer appreciated for the more linear plots they crafted.

Nevertheless, notice the names on the list Calvino’s work was being compared to: Giants.

Some years ago Barbra and I came across the film Stranger than Fiction, the story of one Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who comes to realize that he has become trapped in a novel as the protagonist and that his life is being whimsically determined by the novel’s author. In his attempt to extricate himself from this predicament, Harold ends up in the office of literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who, swinging on the pivotal phrase “Little did he know…,” offers Calvino’s observation that ‘The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: The continuity of life, the inevitability of death'” and observes that Harold’s first task is to figure out whether the novel in which he is entangled is a comedy or a tragedy. This is one of our favorite films, and I suspected that Barbra would love Calvino.

And so we finally got around to reading If on a winter’s night a traveler, taking turns chapter by chapter against a Chignik Lake background of darkening fall nights, hot cups of tea and a little chocolate.

If on a winter’s night is packed with quirky juxtapositions, startlingly inventive metaphors, precise language, a metaphysical examination of the act of reading and light romance. These elements are masterfully woven together, if not by a plot, exactly, then by threads that pull the reader ever deeper into a literary mystery about a literary mystery. There, I used the word “about.” That’s enough. This is a book that will delight and fascinate readers who love to read.

A Cookbook for the Ages: Pumpkin and Pecan Pies from Craig Claiborne

Stained and well-worn, a favorite cookbook is like an old friend. 

I bought my copy of Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook in 1984, just after finishing an enlistment in the navy. At the time, I couldn’t do much in the kitchen beyond heating up a can of soup or frying eggs and bacon and the trout I caught. Even these modest attempts at cooking typically ended in less than satisfactory meals: eggs crusty and rubbery on one side and undercooked on the other, hit and miss bacon, and the trout… well, those noble fish deserved a more able chef.

I was rapidly growing tired of a rotation of dinners centered around hotdogs, frozen this or that, and canned glop. I loved good food, but the kind of well-executed cooking I occasionally treated myself to at fine restaurants seemed a million miles away.

My problem, as I look back on those days, is clear: I had no theory. And so, even when I did get something right – a hamburger reasonably well-seared and juicy, perfect bacon, or even an especially good fried egg, I didn’t know why it came out better than other efforts.

When I bought Claiborne’s book, the first thing I did was to pour over the first 44 pages, the chapter titled De Gustibus (regarding taste). The next thing I did was tackle his recipe for Chili con Carne with Cubed Meat. To my surprise and joy, it came out great; I was on my way to becoming a self-taught chef.

These days, my cookbook collection includes volumes on everything from Japanese fusion to regional American cooking, and of course now there’s the Internet as well. By modern standards, Claiborne’s 751-page tome – without a single photograph – is antiquated. But he offers something that has proved far more valuable than photos: from cover to cover The New York Times Cookbook is seasoned with anecdotes, insights, observations and theory that expand and deepen one’s appreciation of selecting, preparing, presenting and enjoying food.

A caveat regarding his approach to food is that Claiborne cooked with generous amounts of fat and sugar, and, comparatively speaking, not a great variety of spices. Recipes are suggestions, and most readily lend themselves to modification.  So it is with Claiborne’s. In our kitchen, olive oil has largely replaced the copious amounts of butter he calls for, I drain off most of the fat from bacon and other meat rather than cook with it, and I typically cut the sugar by a third or more. Influenced by French cooking, there’s a lot of cream in many of Claiborne’s dishes. Sometimes I go with the full-on amount he calls for; other times I skirt around the cream with substitutions that emphasize other flavors.

The New York Times Cookbook has been the one constant in my kitchen for the past 28 years. It has survived numerous moves, a fair share of food spills and, recently, received a much deserved rebinding.

The following two pie recipes, part of Thanksgiving tradition for many years in my kitchen, are based on those in Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook with my own modifications. By the way, both pies are excellent served with whipped cream that has been sweetened with a little sugar and flavored with a dollop of the rum, Grand Marnier or bourbon that went into the pie.

Mississippi Pecan Pie

Ingredients:

  • pastry for a 10-inch pie. Keep chilled till ready to use.
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
  • 1 cup dark corn syrup
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 5 whole eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp dark rum, Grand Marnier,  or quality bourbon

Directions:

  1. Place a baking sheet in oven and preheat to 350 degrees F.
  2. Combine the corn syrup and sugar in a saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved. Let cool a little, but don’t let it crystalize. You want it warm rather than piping hot so it doesn’t cook the eggs when you add it to the egg mixture.
  3. Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl. Gradually add the sugar mixture. Continue beating and add the other ingredients.
  4. Pour the mixture into the pie shell. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour, or until the pie is set. You may need to use a pie ring or aluminum foil to keep the edge of the crust from burning.
  5. Let cool. Serve with whipped cream.

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Pumpkin Cream Pie

Ingredients:

  • pastry for a 10-inch pie. Keep chilled till ready to use.
  • 3 cups fresh pumpkin purée (Small “sugar” pumpkins are the best, but the big pumpkins work well, too.)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp grated cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger (or use 1 tsp freshly grated ginger)
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tbsp good bourbon

Directions:

  1. Place a baking pan in oven and preheat to 425 degrees F.
  2. Combine the remaining ingredients in a bowl. Blend thoroughly and pour into pie shell.
  3. Bake for 15 minutes.
  4. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F. and bake for an additional 40 minutes, or until the filling is set.
  5. Let cool and serve with whipped cream. (Without whipped cream, pumpkin pie makes for a wonderful breakfast. Try a slice with a fried egg on the side.)