J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010 / Holden and I and All the Rest

It was some time in the 1960s, when I was about the same age as Holden Caulfield. The librarian at the lending library next door, who usually reserved the latest translations of Agatha Christie or Erle Stanley Gardner for me, offered me a book with an interesting name, "I, New York, and all the rest" by an author whose name said nothing to me: J.D. Salinger.

When I opened the book, I discovered the "I." Not only because Holden Caulfield wrote in the first person. But because he wrote in a unique voice that read as if it were my own. He was thrown out of a boarding school in America, and spent three days in a fleabag hotel in New York.

I was not in boarding school; I moved between high school and home in Tel Aviv. But the feeling that adults are phoneys, the sense of alienation between us, the direct and simple way he wrote about what and how he felt, were absolutely me. Quite a few years later, as a student in the department of general literature at Tel Aviv University, I learned that this was American literature at its modern best.

I read "A perfect day for bananafish" and "For Esme - with love and squalor" and "Franny and Zooey" and "Raise high the roof beam, carpenters" and I wrote term papers on Salinger.

But I never managed to recreate even one iota of the wonder and total identification with Holden Caulfield's voice - a voice that spoke to me, in Hebrew, in my voice, as he spoke in English to a whole generation of Americans who would grow up to be flower children less than a decade after the book came out.

In 1975, the original translators Avraham Yavin and Daniel Doron, who had published the 1954 version under a pseudonym - perhaps because of Caulfield's "foul language" - wrote a new translation under their own names, published by Am Oved, whose legendary editor Yavin was.

Yavin wanted to keep the original title, arguing in a letter to Salinger's literary agent that the name "Catcher in the rye" meant nothing in Hebrew. The agent answered that it had no meaning in English either.

Since the late 1960s, the literary world had been waiting for Salinger to publish again. A short story in the New Yorker was to have become a book, but it did not. When he still spoke to reporters, he said he wrote every day, but for his own pleasure. He intimated that he had a filing system in case of his death: texts marked in red were to be published as is; blue meant they needed editing.

If those texts are published now - who knows, he may have ordered them burned - I will very much want to read them. But I will know that I can never recreate that first meeting with Holden Caulfield, in Hebrew, of all things. And not because of the "I" - his or mine. Mainly because of all the rest.