Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the sixth story ‘For EsmÃ© with Love and Squalor’
God, I love this story. It is perfection. It was one of Salinger’s most successful short stories, in terms of the fan response to it – and actually Nine Stories was published under the title For Esme with Love and Squalor, and you can still find copies of it with that name. The story has a poignancy to it that makes the heart swell up like the Grinch’s. And it delivers on the promise – not just in the title, but in the promise the army sergeant made to the young girl Esme – who wanted a story that involved “squalor” because she adored squalor. He puts the love into it. Because in the middle of war, he found love for her. And it is love that will save us all. There will always be squalor – but without love, you will never make it through with (to quote the last line of the story) your f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact. Beautiful story.
There is some speculation that the unnamed narrator in the story is Buddy Glass. Some people have said he is Seymour, but that makes no sense because there is mention of an “older brother in Albany” and Seymour was the oldest of the Glass children. I suppose it doesn’t matter – and there is no definitive proof either way. What matters is the story – and it’s one of the most delicate moving stories in the whole collection.
The story opens with a man receiving a wedding invitation. He’s in America, the invitation comes from England. He would love to be there, but his wife convinces him that now is not a good time for such and such obligations, etc. But he remembers the girl who is getting married … and, on a personal note, it just makes me so happy that these two souls would stay in touch. Now that is beautiful.
He met her when he was stationed in England during WWII. He leaves the barracks one night, and wanders around the town, stopping off in a church to watch the local choir practice. He is taken with one of the girls singing. She is about 13 years old, and has the most beautiful clear voice in the bunch, and there is something about her that strikes the narrator. Afterwards, he goes off and sits in a coffee house, to get out of the rain. Eventually, the girl he saw at choir practice comes in – and she is with her younger brother (one of Salinger’s most wonderful child creations – I LOVE this kid – his name is Charles) and an older woman who seems to be a governess. The girl ends up walking over to the narrator’s table and asking if she can sit and talk. They chat. It’s a casual conversation, although deep themes are touched – the girl was orphaned by the war, she obviously has taken on the raising of her brother Charles (who is 4 years old, and quite a handful), and she wears on her wrist an enormous watch that obviously has come from someone else. A big man’s watch. The war is not over yet. Esme asks him what he does, he says he is a short story writer. She asks if one day he would write a story, just for her – and would he please put a lot of “squalor” in it?
The encounter ends. She leaves the coffee house, waving good bye – and Salinger writes, in that simple way he has that can clutch at your throat: “It was a strangely emotional moment for me.”
Perhaps he knows. Perhaps he knows that once his training is over, he will be plunged into the war, and all its horror … and he will need the vision of innocence that he got through talking with Esme. Perhaps he knows what is ahead of him. The next time we meet him, it is after D Day. He sits in his barracks in Germany – and suddenly the narration is no longer first person – he is now referred to as “X”. A strange distancing technique – incredibly moving because you get the sense of how bad it got for him, psychologically. He’s had a nervous breakdown. He has the shakes, he can barely hold his cigarette. He can’t sleep. He’s unraveled.
Another soldier comes in – kind of a dumb-bum – X writes his letters to his wife for him, interspersing German words into it – so that he will sound smarter. You know, he’s a moron. He means well, but there’s a callousness to him. X is all alone in the world. The other soldier brings him a letter and when he’s alone, X reads it. It is from Esme. They had exchanged addresses. She has finally written to him – very excited the war is over, and all that – and she has enclosed a gift for him, something he might get more use out of than she would. It is the wristwatch.
After reading the letter, poor X – who is psychologically in torment – suddenly is overwhelmed by exhaustion. The best kind. He lies down. He will be able to sleep now. In a way, her letter saved him. Reminded him, perhaps, of what he had been fighting for … to preserve innocence like that, to protect it … or maybe just a reminder of all of the good things in life, even amidst the horror of war. Who knows. But she saved him.
And so 6 years later, when she invites him to her wedding …
Well. It’s killer. He’s an American in his early 20s. She’s an English girl in her early teens. But they are kindred spirits.
Beautiful story. Here’s an excerpt.
EXCERPT FROM Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the sixth story ‘For EsmÃ© with Love and Squalor’
The next thing I knew, the young lady was standing, with enviable poise, beside my table. She was wearing a tartan dress – a Campbell tartan, I believe. It seemed to me to be a wonderful dress for a very young girl to be wearing on a rainy, rainy day. “I thought Americans despised tea,” she said.
It wasn’t the observation of a smart aleck but that of a truth-lover or a statistics-lover. I replied that some of us never drank anything but tea. I asked her if she’d care to join me.
“Thank you,” she said. “Perhaps for just a fraction of a moment.”
I got up and drew a chair for her, the one opposite me, and she sat down on the forward quarter of it, keeping her spine easily and beautifully straight. I went back – almost hurried back – to my own chair, more than willing to hold up my end of a conversation. When I was seated, I couldn’t think of anything to say, though. I smiled again, still keeping my coal-black filling under concealment. I remarked that it was certainly a terrible day out.
“Yes; quite,” said my guest, in the clear, unmistakable voice of a small-talk detester. She placed her fingers flat on the table edge, like someone at a seance, and then, almost instantly, closed her hands – her nails were bitten down to the quick. She was wearing a wristwatch, a military-looking one that looked rather like a navigator’s chronograph. Its face was much too large for her slender wrist. “You were at choir practice,” she said matter-of-factly. “I saw you.”
I said I certainly had been, and that I had heard her voice singing separately from the others. I said I thought she had a very fine voice.
She nodded. “I know. I’m going to be a professional singer.”
“Heavens, no. I’m going to sing jazz on the radio and make heaps of money. Then, when I’m thirty, I shall retire and live on a ranch in Ohio.” She touched the top of her soaking-wet head with the flat of her hand. “Do you know Ohio?” she asked.
I said I’d been through it on the train a few times but that I didn’t really know it. I offered her a piece of cinnamon toast.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I eat like a bird, actually.”
I bit into a piece of toast myself, and commented that there’s some mighty rough country around Ohio.
“I know. An American I met told me. You’re the eleventh American I’ve met.”
Her governess was now urgently signalling her to return to her own table – in effect, to stop bothering the man. My guest, however, calmly moved her chair an inch or two so that her back broke all possible further communication with the home table. “You go to that secret Intelligence school on the hill, don’t you?” she inquired coolly.
As security-minded as the next one, I replied that I was visiting Devonshire for my health.
“Really,” she said. “I wasn’t quite born yesterday, you know.”
I said I’d bet she hadn’t been, at that. I drank my tea for a moment. I was getting a trifle posture-conscious and I sat up somewhat straighter in my seat.
“You seem quite intelligent for an American,” my guest mused.
I told her that was a pretty snobbish thing to say, if you thought about it at all, and that I hoped it was unworthy of her.
She blushed – automatically conferring on me the social poise I’d been missing. “Well. Most of the Americans I’ve seen act like animals. They’re forever punching one another about, and insulting everyone, and – You know what one of them did?”
I shook my head.
“One of them threw an empty whiskey bottle through my aunt’s window. Fortunately, the window was open. But does that sound very intelligent to you?”
It didn’t especially, but I didn’t say so. I said that many soldiers, all over the world, were a long way from home, and that few of them had had many real advantages in life. I said I’d thought that most people could figure that out for themselves.
“Possibly,” said my guest, without conviction. She raised her hand to her wet head again, picked at a few limp filaments of blond hair, trying to cover her exposed ear rims. “My hair is soaking wet,” she said. “I look a fright.” She looked over at me. “I have quite wavy hair when it’s dry.”
“I can see that. I can see you have.”
“Not actually curly, but quite wavy,” she said. “Are you married?”
I said I was.
She nodded. “Are you very deeply in love with your wife? Or am I being too personal?”
I said that when she was, I’d speak up.
She put her hands and wrists farther forward on the table, and I remember wanting to do something about that enormous-faced wristwatch she was wearing – perhaps suggest that she try wearing it around her waist.
“Usually, I’m not terribly gregarious,” she said, and looked over at me to see if I knew the meaning of the word. I didn’t give her a sign, though, one way or the other. “I purely came over because I thought you looked extremely lonely. You have an extremely sensitive face.”
I said she was right, that I had been feeling lonely, and that I was very glad she’d come over.
“I’m training myself to be more compassionate. My aunt says I’m a terribly cold person,” she said and felt the top of her head again. “I live with my aunt. She’s an extremely kind person. Since the death of my mother, she’s done everything within her power to make Charles and me feel adjusted.”
“Mother was an extremely intelligent person. Quite sensuous, in many ways.” She looked at me with a kind of fresh acuteness. “Do you find me terribly cold?”
I told her absolutely not – very much to the contrary, in fact. I told her my name and asked for hers.
She hesitated. “My first name is EsmÃ©. I don’t think I shall tell you my full name, for the moment. I have a title and you may just be impressed by titles. Americans are, you know.”
I said I didn’t think I would be, but that it might be a good idea, at that, to hold on to the title for a while.