January 31, 2018

Schubert and Salinger — The Sound of Two Hands Clapping

Man is like a ball, the plaything of Chance and Passion. —Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

God, how I hate it when somebody yells “Good luck!” at me when I’m leaving somewhere. It’s depressing. — J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)

By Stuart Mitchner

Schubert, whose remarks about “Chance and Passion” are from a journal he kept at 19, was born on the last day of January in Vienna. Salinger, who was born on the first day of January in New York City, is speaking in the voice of his creation Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, which came out in 1951. When his collection Nine Stories was published in 1953, Salinger prefaced it with a Zen Koan: “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Salinger’s second most famous character, Seymour Glass, was born in the pages of the January 31, 1948, issue of The New Yorker. The story was “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Salinger’s literary breakthrough and Seymour’s bizarre debut, which ended a mere five pages later when he fired a bullet through his right temple.

Two Cities

Schubert’s Winterreise or Winter Journey, in his words “a cycle of terrifying songs,” was published on January 14, 1828, a little less than two months after he died in Vienna. He spent his last days working on the proofs and reading the novels of James Fenimore Cooper.

While the closest Schubert ever came to Manhattan was the Westchester County setting of Cooper’s The Spy, Salinger spent ten formative months in Vienna. There, at 18, he apparently formed an attachment to the Jewish girl who inspired his 1947 story “Wien, Wien,” a title changed by Good Housekeeping’s editors to “A Girl I Knew,” one betrayal among many that eventually turned Salinger against publishers and publishing. A reading of Schubert’s letters shows that he had his share of problems with publishers, “these miserable money-grubbers” under which “the artist shall remain the eternal slave.”

Writing and Playing

As far as I’ve been able to tell, Schubert’s only appearance in Salinger’s work is in “Seymour: An Introduction” when a music critic complains that his daughter’s school Glee Club is rehearsing a medley of Berlin, Kern, and Arlen songs when they should be singing “simple little Schubert Lieder instead of that ‘trash’.” Afterward, as the puffed-up music critic strolls jauntily down the street he’s whistling “K-K-K Katy.” The piano in Schubert’s far from simple song of spring “Im Frühling” takes a stroll after the second verse and closes with a coda that would make Scott Joplin smile.

In a letter from 1825, Schubert writes, “The Variations from my new sonata for two hands met with a special enthusiasm. These I played alone, and not usuccessfully, for several people assured me that under my fingers the keys were transformed into singing voices.”

The girl in Salinger’s Vienna story is overheard by the narrator singing Connie Boswell’s “Where Are You” with a German accent (“Where have you gone wissout me? I sought you cared about me”). Going to the window, the narrator sees the girl “completely submerged in the pool of autumn twilight” on the balcony below, “leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.”

Like Schubert playing, like Salinger writing.

Beauty by Chance

Another one of Salinger’s buried stories, “The Stranger,” describes the familiar postwar situation of a soldier coming home with a message for the girlfriend of a fallen comrade, in this case Holden Caulfield’s brother, Vincent. The story’s ultimate revelation that there’s no way that a man can “condition himself against the lethal size and shape and melody of beauty by chance” resonates throughout the work of Schubert and Salinger. Among the examples that come to mind are Schubert’s B-flat piano sonata with its “trill of doom,” pianist Andreas Schiff’s term for what happens when “a spacious major-key theme gives way to an ominous tremolando.” While it’s “beauty by chance” that moves Holden almost to tears at the end of The Catcher in the Rye as he watches his little sister Phoebe riding round and round on the Central Park carousel, the “lethal size and shape and melody of beauty” is sounded at length in the Glass stories. For Seymour Glass, beauty can leave a wound. In the journal quoted in “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters,” he writes, “I have scars on my hands from touching certain people.” He calls himself “a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.”

Seymour’s Touch

While there’s nothing in the biographical or anecdotal record that says Salinger ever performed Schubert’s piano duets with his sister or anyone else, Seymour Glass plays piano two nights running in the Ocean Room of the Florida beachfront hotel in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” The story opens with a longdistance phone call between Seymour’s wife and his mother-in-law, whose concerns about his behavior (the “funny business with the trees,” the “horrible things he said to Granny about her passing away”) lend an uneasy undercurrent to the scene on the beach between Seymour and a three-year-old named Sybil. The dialogue is charming, a duet of sorts played by an adult and a child who wants to be given a ride on his rubber float. Things take a darker turn when Seymour spins his tale of the bananafish and their “very tragic life” wherein they swim into a hole and gorge themselves on so many bananas that they can’t get out of the hole and die of “banana fever,” a “terrible disease.” As a wave comes along, Seymour pushes the float and the girl over the top of it, she’s soaked but her screams are “full of pleasure.” Delighted when she continues the storyline on her own, claiming she just saw a bananafish, Seymour “suddenly picked up one of Sybil’s wet feet, which were drooping over the end of the float, and kissed it.” At which he gives up the game, though she says she wants to keep playing. It’s not clear what happened to Seymour in that moment, perhaps another scar inflicted in the plot to make him happy, but now everything’s sliding out of alignment, he’s in “trill of doom” territory. As he pushes the float toward the shore, she gets off and runs “without regret in the direction of the hotel,” where shortly thereafter Seymour initiates a paranoid exchange about his feet with a woman on the elevator. In room 507, with his wife asleep in one of the twin beds, he fires what became the shot heard ’round the literary world in the winter of 1948.

Let the Devil Play It

Listening tonight to Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, the pianistic version of a hundred bullet-to-the-brain endings, I remembered reading my four-year-old son M.B. Goffstein’s children’s book A Little Schubert (1972). A small shiny paper-thin disc came with the book, introduced on the last page as “a record of five of the twelve dances called ‘Noble Waltzes’ that Franz Schubert wrote down in his little room in Vienna.” The battered, smudged, fingerprinted, and chewed-on black disc we played half to death is still in its sleeve. In case my son assumed the joyful waltzes and Goffstein’s charming drawings of the fat, elfin, bespectacled composer were the whole story, I played him a recording of the Wanderer Fantasy and told him of the time Schubert was playing it at a recital and encountered a passage so difficult he threw up his hands and shouted “Let the devil play it!” For the next few years, especially around the last day of January, those five words became a rallying cry, “Happy Birthday” with an edge.


The bookend to Salinger’s published work is buried between pages 32-113 of the June 19, 1965 New Yorker, hemmed in on all sides by a veritable labyrinth of products, page after page of liquor, travel, perfume, and automobile ads. It’s fitting that the Seymour who makes his first appearance in that magazine playing with a child would end his New Yorker run as a five-year-old writing a monumental letter home from camp.

Young Seymour’s free-wheeling exclamatory style in “Hapworth 16, 1924” is the closest thing to a new strain of prose music to be found in Salinger, with the possible exception of the as yet unpublished chapters of the Glass saga he composed during his 40-year exile from the book world. At one point, Salinger offers a glimpse of himself at work “on a very large, jet-black, very moving, gorgeous typewriter,” smoking a cigarette and “occasionally clasping his hands and placing then on top of his head in a thoughtful, exhausted manner.”

The epic letter also has Seymour cheerfully announcing the time of his departure from life: “I personally will live at least as long as a well-preserved telephone pole, a generous matter of thirty (30) years or more, which is surely nothing to snicker at.”

Seymour was 31 when he departed. So was Schubert.

I wrote previously about Goffstein’s Schubert in “A Little Book Leads the Way: Celebrating Schubert’s Birthday” (Feb. 7, 2007) and on the failed liberation of “Hapworth 16, 1924”  in “J.D. Salinger’s Letter From Camp Returned to Sender” (Sept. 13, 2006).