This article titled “Catcher in the Rye sequel might just be a good idea” was written by David Barnett, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 13th January 2011 13.07 UTC
If you’ve ever wondered what happened next to the young Holden Caulfield, wonder no longer: you’ll shortly be able to find out – unless you’re American, of course. Swedish author Frederick Colting’s highly unofficial sequel to JD Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye has been blocked from release in the US and Canada, though rights to 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye have apparently already been sold in six countries.
It’s a curious thing when contemporary authors take classic or much-loved books and write a sequel, authorised or not. But it’s a brave, foolhardy – perhaps money-grubbing – author who takes on characters with a huge global following, and tries to craft a sequel to another writer’s great work.
Yet unofficial sequels abound. We probably don’t need to do anything more than mention in passing the recent fad for inserting zombies, sea monsters and vampires into Jane Austen and Brontë works. But the Janeite website pemberley.com lists dozens of less-fantastical novels written as continuations of Emma, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility.
Why would any novelist worth their salt choose to pick up where someone else left off? On the one hand, of course, there’ll be a lot of interest from aficionados of the source material. On the other, isn’t it part of a novelist’s job to create characters? And isn’t using someone else’s characters and situations for your own novels ultimately little more than fan fiction given the legitimising sheen of publication?
Maybe. But it is the case that some sequels have achieved literary success on their own merit. The best-known example is Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which acts as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre – although Rhys’s success is perhaps down to her not simply continuing a main character’s story, but delving instead into the “unknown life” of a secondary character – in this case, Brontë’s famous “madwoman in the attic”. Another good example might be Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which spawned two well-received follow-ups. Mrs De Winter, by Woman In Black author Susan Hill came out in 1993 while Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale – featuring efforts to unpick the circumstances of the character’s death many years before – was published in 2001.
Sometimes an author’s creation, be it a character or a concept, so far transcends its origins that it almost becomes fair game. Take, for example, HG Wells’s The Time Machine. Because the “big idea” that it put forward was so new and exciting, subsequent authors writing on time travel felt it only right that their own work in the sub-genre should give a nod to Wells, either by using his characters or riffing on his visions of the future.
And then there are the characters who become bigger than their books. Those who have made the crossover into movies, especially, become well-known even to people who have never so much as glanced at the source material. People who might not know, for example, that James Bond was a literary creation years before he became a star of bank holiday telly. Since Ian Fleming wrote his last Bond novel in 1966, the 007 myth has been continued in print by writers as diverse as Kingsley Amis, Charlie Higson and Sebastian Faulks – and, coming up in May this year, thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver.
Which brings me to Shibumi – a 1979 novel by Rodney William Whitaker, who wrote under the pseudonym Trevanian and also penned The Eiger Sanction. An old paperback of Shibumi was given to me by a friend who many years ago made it his mission to disseminate esoteric books. I was immediately hooked. Shibumi’s one of those odd books, a work of beautiful zen genius masquerading as a lurid, cheap-looking thriller.
Shibumi is about Nicholai Hel – an international jet-set assassin with an incisive mind, a master of the ancient strategy game Go, a lover and a fighter, who could out-spy Bond and Jason Bourne together. I wanted to be Nicholai Hel when I grew up – still do, in fact. Hel was ripe for a series, a movie franchise, action figures, the works. But Shibumi never really achieved more than cult status, and Trevanian died in 2005. Nicholai Hel never came back.
Until now. A few weeks ago I received an advance copy of a book by a thriller writer called Don Winslow. I’d heard the name, but never read anything of his before – I don’t really do conventional thrillers. Then I picked up the press release. Winslow’s book, Satori, is a sequel to Shibumi.
I didn’t know whether to be ecstatic or horrified. I read it carefully at first, hyper-critically. I read it not wanting to like it, which is a strange way to approach a book, I know. But as I read on, I realised I loved it. The spirit of the original was there, the characters were bang on, the novels flowed almost seamlessly into each other. And, by the end, I found that I no longer considered that I was reading a Don Winslow follow-up to a Trevanian novel. I was reading a Nicholai Hel novel.
And that, pretty much, is as good as any writer who takes on another author’s babies needs to be. Maybe America should give a septuagenarian Holden Caulfield a chance.
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