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.