Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the eighth story ‘De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period’
God, I love this story. The structure of it has now become a cliche: young person has a life-changing revelation brought about by the tiniest of moments … But Salinger really shows you how it’s done. It’s hard to do. I’ve tried to do it in stories I’ve written, not because I want to participate in a cliche – but because often it IS the smallest of moments in life that give us the greatest vision … and there ARE moments in life where you can point, and say, “Before that moment, I was one way … and afterwards, I was another …” At least I have experienced it. But to write it down, and to make it clear and not hokey to a reader … that’s another thing entirely. Salinger approaches it with the most moving mixture of unselfconsciousness and terrible self-consciousness – which is his trademark. The narrator is supremely unaware, on some level – he’s a liar, he’s living in a delusional world … and yet at the same time, he IS aware … that there is an emptiness at the heart of his experience, that there is a loneliness inside him that causes him to act the way he does … and yet he can’t stop himself. He lost his mother. He’s totally lost. His only way to survive is to create a whole other personality and try to live inside THAT world, as opposed to his own. The “voice” of the narrator is key here – and there is nobody like Salinger who can get “voice”. The narrator here is very witty (there are times I laughed out loud), dry and cynical – and writing from the perspective of years having past. He is a grown man looking back on his “blue period”, so he is writing with a bit of distance – which gives the story much of its humor. He can be kind to his younger self, forgiving – but mainly this is the case because of the life-changing revelation he had, staring into the shop-window of an orthopedic supply store … It was in that moment that he truly joined the human race. It’s not Gabriel Conroy staring out at the falling snow but it’s pretty damn close. Human beings are self-involved. We only see as far as our own egos allow. We can’t get “out” of ourselves … we are in relation to other people only insomuchas they reflect US. But there are moments, moments, when we transcend … when we feel connected to all people … and perhaps such a perspective cannot last, perhaps it is not meant to last … but we cannot experience such a moment and go back to the way we were before. We will never again be quite so isolated. That’s what happens in ‘De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period’ – and I love how Salinger writes about it too. He makes no bones about it – and yet there is also a bit of embarrassment and self-consciousness – which I totally relate to:
Something extremely out of the way happened to me some fifteen minutes later. A statement, I’m aware, that has all the unpleasant earmarks of a build-up, but quite the contrary is true. I’m about to touch on an extraordinary experience, one that still strikes me as having been quite transcendent, and I’d like, if possible, to avoid seeming to pass it off as a case, or even a borderline case, of genuine mysticism.
I feel like you could have shown me a blind copy of that excerpt and I would be able to guess it was by Salinger. It has all the defining characteristics of his stuff (much of which his detractors find totally annoying – but which I find deeply true and resonant. )
If you haven’t read the story, then I certainly won’t ruin the ending for you – all I can say is, it’s a beautiful story, one that is comedic as well as human and serious. Sometimes we are lost souls. De Daumier-Smith (and that’s not even his real name!) is a lost soul. He tries to find himself by making up stories about his background, he was a personal friend of Picasso’s, he has homes all over the world, he has a mustache – guy is only 19, but he is trying, trying desperately, to not fit into the world – he doesn’t WANT to fit in to such a world … but trying to create some kind of persona that would be armor enough so that the world would no longer hurt him. The story begins with him moving back to New York after his childhood in France – and being completely disgusted with people’s rude behavior on the subway, and other things – which grate. He yearns for solitude, aloneness. His mother has died. He lives with his stepfather who has started to date another woman. He feels that that other woman also wants to sleep with him. You know the guy’s a virgin – he exudes it … and he wants to devote himself to art, French, and quiet. But as the story goes along, you get the sense that he wants those things only because they will ‘protect’ him from ever being hurt again. It’s a pose – but not because he’s obnoxious and pretentious. Quite the contrary. It’s a pose because he needs it, for survival.
The narrator reads in the paper that an art school in Montreal is looking for an instructor. The narrator, out of desperation, applies. But he makes up an entire life-story in his application – he is a man of the world, he knew Picasso, he is in demand in the art world, and his name is Jean De Daumier-Smith. That is not his name. We never learn his real name but that is NOT his name. It’s all a lie. But he gets the job. He goes off to Montreal only to find that the art school is run by a Japanese couple, out of their apartment – and it is strictly a correspondence course. “Artists” send in their work for evaluation and they mark up the work with tracing paper comments and send them back. Mr. De Daumier-Smith is bored, angry, and feels useless. He continues to make up stories about Picasso, hoping to impress, but the Japanese couple don’t seem to care. It is also apparent that they have sex every night – our narrator can hear the moans through the walls … but, and this is key, he doesn’t recognize the sounds, and thinks that they are actually bad sounds. He wonders what the problem is in the relationship. He looks at their faces at the dinner table, and wonders why they spend so much time moaning behind closed doors. So our narrator feels superior, like a true man of the world because he has lived in Paris … but when it comes to basic reality, he is a babe in the woods. Salinger manages to suggest all of that in the writing.
De Daumier-Smith becomes obsessed with one of the correspondence students – a nun named Sister Irma. I don’t know if she has talent, or what – but he becomes engrossed in her art and starts off on an extensive one-way correspondence with her. He is totally in the dream-space. He dreams of visiting her in the convent, talking to her about art. He wonders what her goals are. (But it’s so hysterical – because you read her application for the art school … and you can see that he has totally made her up as this fascinating person in his head … It’s all a fantasy for him!) He writes her 10 page letters … it borders on stalking, although he certainly doesn’t mean it that way.
And then, one night, staring through the window of an orthopedic supply store – he has his transcendent experience – which only lasts about 3 seconds.
It changes everything.
MARVELOUS story. One of my favorites in the collection.
Here’s an excerpt. This is where he describes his students.
EXCERPT FROM Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the eighth story ‘De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period’
The first was a twenty-three-year-old Toronto housewife, who said her professional name was Bambi Kramer, and advised the school to address her mail accordingly. All new students at Les Amis Des Vieux Maitres were requested to fill out questionnaire forms and to enclose photographs of themselves. Miss Kramer had enclosed a glossy, eight by ten print of herself wearing an anklet, a strapless bathing suit, and a white-duck sailor’s cap. On her questionnaire form she stated that her favorite artist were Rembrandt and Walt Disney. She said she only hoped that she could some day emulate them. Her sample drawings were clipped, rather subordinately, to her photograph. All of them were arresting. One of them was unforgettable. The unforgettable one was done in florid wash colors, with a caption that read: “Forgive Them Their Trespasses.” It showed three small boys fishing in an odd-looking body of water, one of their jackets draped over a “No Fishing!” sign. The tallest boy, in the foreground of the picture, appeared to have rickets in one leg and elephantitasis in the other – an effect, it was clear, that Miss Kramer had deliberately used to show that the boy was standing with his feet slightly apart.
My second student was a fifty-six-year-old “society photographer” from Windsor, Ontario, named R. Howard Ridgefield, who said that his wife had been after him for years to branch over into the painting racket. His favorite artists were Rembrandt, Sargent, and “Titan”, but he added, advisedly, that he himself didn’t care to draw along those lines. He said he was mostly interested in the satiric rather than the arty side of painting. To support this credo, he submitted a goodly number of original drawings and oil paintings. One of his pictures – the one I think of as his major picture – has been as recallable to me, over the years, as, say, the lyrics of “Sweet Sue” or “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”. It satirized the familiar, everyday tragedy of a chaste young girl, with below-shoulder-length blond hair and udder-size breasts, being criminally assaulted in church, in the very shadow of the altar, by her minister. Both subjects’ clothes were graphically in disarray. Actually, I was much less struck by the satiric implications of the picture than I was by the quality of workmanship that had gone into it. If I hadn’t known they were living hundreds of miles apart, I might have sworn Ridgefield had had some purely technical help from Bambi Kramer.
Except under pretty rare circumstances, in any crisis, when I was nineteen, my funny bone invariably had the distinction of being the very first part of my body to assume partial or complete paralysis. Ridgefield and Miss Kramer did many things to me, but they didn’t come at all close to amusing me. Three or four times while I was going through their envelopes, I was tempted to get up and make a formal protest to M. Yoshoto. But I had no clear idea just what sort of form my protest might take. I think I was afraid I might get over to his desk only to report, shrilly: “My mother’s dead, and I have to live with her charming husband, and nobody in New York speaks French, and there aren’t any chairs in your son’s room. How do you expect me to teach these two crazy people how to draw?” In the end, being long self-trained in taking despair sitting down, I managed very easily to keep my seat.