Esmé

I’ve never met anyone with the name Esmé. The one and only time I’ve seen it is in J.D. Salinger‘s short story, “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor.” It’s a masterpiece. It’s a quiet story about loneliness and compassion. The Wikipedia entry for the story states: “Lack of purity and innocence in the adult world, love of childhood itself, and the power of words and writing are among the story’s themes.” Okay, that too. It’s the one short story I make sure to read every couple years. There is something in the follow excerpt that resonates for me, always has.

Now, for the third time since he had returned from the hospital that day, he opened the woman’s book and read the brief inscription on the flyleaf. Written in ink, in German, in a small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words “Dear God, life is hell.” Nothing led up to or away from it. Alone on the page, and in the sickly stillness of the room, the words appeared to have the stature of an uncontestable, even classic indictment. X stared at the page for several minutes, trying, against heavy odds, not to be taken in. Then, with far more zeal than he had done anything in weeks, he picked up a pencil stub and wrote down under the inscription, in English, “Fathers and teachers, I ponder ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” He started to write Dostoevski’s name under the inscription, but saw — with fright that ran through his whole body — that what he had written was almost entirely illegible. He shut the book.

The entire story, along with just about everything else Salinger has written, including his uncollected works, are available online at freeweb.hu/tchl/salinger/. My guess is Salinger’s lawyers will have the site shut down ASAP.

The Best of J.D. Salinger

Written in ink, in German, in a small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words “Dear God, life is hell.”? Nothing led up to or away from it. Alone on the page, and in the sickly stillness of the room, the words appeared to have the stature of an uncontestable, even classic indictment. X stared at the page for several minutes, trying, against heavy odds, not to be taken in. Then, with far more zeal than he had done anything in weeks, he picked up a pencil stub and wrote down under the inscription, in English, “Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”? He started to write Dostoevski’s name under the inscription, but saw — with fright that ran through his whole body — that what he had written was almost entirely illegible. He shut the book.

That’s taken from the best short story J.D. Salinger ever wrote, “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor.” This particular passage can be found on page 105 of his short story collection, Nine Stories. If you think The Catcher in the Rye is the best thing Salinger ever wrote, read this story and think again. I’m not saying it is the best thing he ever wrote, but it’s a remarkable story, deserving of careful attention. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor”? but I take something different from it every time. Salinger is definitely a writer worth revisiting from time to time.