Sunday, June 5, 2011

How I met Salinger in Romania

Professors Lounge at BCU

When I was a pharmacy student in Bucharest, Romania, I used to spend my life in libraries. Among my favorites was Biblioteca Centrala Universitara, known as BCU, originally sponsored and inaugurated by King Carol I of Romania in 1895.  I loved its architecture (designed by the French architect Paul Gottereau), I loved the openness of its spaces; what I dreaded was getting in and out of it because of my poor relationship with the clerk who checked library cards, a sadistic St. Peter who enjoyed harassing students by examining your card with painful attention and pointing to an improper photograph, some impending expiration date or simply looking at you as if you had done something bad.  But once you got inside the library, you were in the middle of a treasure.  Many times I would bring my pharmacy books with me;  but they stood little chance when a meter away, on the shelf, Freud, Nietzsche, Schrödinger, Dali, and a hundred others, were staring at me.   And that's kind of how I met Salinger.

That day, I was allowed to the Professor's Lounge because all other rooms were full.  This lounge (more luxurious than others), had lamps on each study station and, since was populated with very old readers, was dead silent except for the occasional flip of a page. 
I took my place, pulled out the Physical Chemistry books from my bag, turned on the lamp for extralight and started to study.  When I raised my eyes for a second, I noticed a small book, aparently misplaced, among the massive textbooks on the shelf nearby.  I pulled it out.  It had a strange name: De veghe in lanul de secara.  Catcher in the rye.    I had never heard of a writer named Salinger.  I opened it up and started reading, and didn't stop till the last page.  The properties of supramolecular complexes, salt crystal dissolution or the fact that water with impurities boils at higher temperature than pure water mattered less that afternoon.  I thought I knew most of the big names, dead and alive, in universal literature.  I had had my share of Balzac, Flaubert, Grass, Caragiale, Faulkner, Maupassant, Camil Petrescu, Cehov, Dostoievski, and so many others.  But none of them came even close to the electricity Salinger was able to pack in a  skinny book.  I do remember that it was 5 PM when I finished it.  I can precisley map in my mind the golden light coming from the window, its richness and plenitude and its satisfying quality that so well described what the book had given me.  I recall holding the book in my hand amazed that such a flimsy creature can pop fireworks in your brains.  Many years later, after coming to US and  learning about the cult this book generated, I was not surprised.  What I was surprised about was how much fuss people made out of the fact that Salinger was a recluse and did not want to meet others or give interviews.  Why does it matter?  What do you learn by noticing that the writer is wearing corduroy or has three cats?

Which makes me think that, in the end, Holden Caulfield was right: "People always clap for the wrong things."