There’s not a bum note in Salinger’s collection For Esme with Love and Squalor, but the closing story is the best. Set on a cruise ship, it centres around Teddy McArdle, a ten-year-old blessed with a universal wisdom far beyond his years. He rises above his sniping family’s emotional, easily riled American excesses, calmly musing on concepts of permanence, reality and reincarnation.
As the story gently leads us towards his 10:30am swimming lesson Teddy, we learn that he a cause célèbre among high ranking professors of religion and philosophy in various countries. Before this trip to Europe, he left some deeply ruffled feathers among an examination group in Boston. The tape of the occasion has been heard by a fellow traveller who corners Teddy, anxious to interrogate him on his views about life, God, death and existence.
‘I understand you left a pretty disturbed bunch–’
‘“Nothing in the voice of the cicada intimates how soon it will die,”’ Teddy said suddenly. ‘“Along this road goes no one, this Autumn eve.”’
‘What was that?’ Nicholson asked, smiling. ‘Say that again.’
‘Those are two Japanese poems. They’re not full of a lot of emotional stuff,’ Teddy said.
The lightness with which Teddy embodies this enlightenment makes the impact of the final, inevitable scene – to which we’ve been inexorably drawn throughout – all the more devastating.
First published in The New Yorker, January 1953 and collected in Nine Stories, a.k.a. For Esmé – with Love and Squalor, Little, Brown/Penguin, 1953
‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ by JD Salinger portrays a certain, quintessential 1950’s summer’s day: stifling Florida heat, a chic beachside hotel, a woman in a silk dressing-gown paints her nails, waiting for a long-distance New York call. A gossiping mother spreads sun cream lotion on her daughter’s back. Bathrobes are removed, martini’s drunk. It is “the perfect day for banana fish,” the main character Seymour informs a little girl, while they play in the waves. Yet, everyone talks, but no one is listening. Freud’s Unheimlich, the uncanny, permeates every page. Layers of chit-chat about sunburn, cruises and green dinner dresses, barely cover the sense of impending doom. Seymour, the main character, has just been released from military hospital with post-war trauma, he seems to be losing his mind. The familiar becomes unsettling, the banana fish disturbing. Something is deeply wrong. I first read this story over 25 years ago, and this terrible feeling of strangeness has stayed with me, a Hitchcockian atmosphere captures glimpses into the double of this perfect summer beach day, what is not quite there, what has been there: death, folly, greed and war.
First published in The New Yorker, January 1948, and available online here. Collected in Nine Stories, Little, Brown, 1953. Picked by Susanna Crossman, who is an Anglo-French writer. She has recent/upcoming work in Neue Rundschau (S. Fischer), We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books), Berfrois and The Lonely Crowd. She regularly collaborates on international hybrid arts projects. Currently, she is showing the multi-lingual prose film, 360° of Morning, with screenings and events across Europe and USA. @crossmansusanna
Many if not all of the stories I’ve chosen for this list are themselves about stories and storytelling, and the way in which such things operate within a person’s life. The young protagonist of ‘The Laughing Man’ is a nine-year-old member of an informal group called the Comanche Club, which meets every schoolday afternoon to play various sports under the watchful eye of their leader, the 22 or 23-year old law student The Chief. After each session, The Chief tells a long, improvised adventure story called The Laughing Man. (The transformation of The Laughing Man, and of The Chief, and of the protagonist, is what’s happening in the story, and all are woven together). I can’t imagine a more perfect argument for why stories matter than this story, this part especially: “It was a story that tended to sprawl all over the place, and yet it remained essentially portable. You could always take it home with you and reflect on it while sitting, say, in the outgoing water in the bathtub.”
Originally published in The New Yorker, March 1949, and included in Nine Stories, Little, Brown, 1953
Whilst I’m on the mid-century Americans, here’s someone who wasn’t in the Granta book. The reason he isn’t is because at some point in the 1960s Salinger stopped giving permission for his stories to be anthologized. As a result I came to his collection For Esme with Love and Squalor (or Nine Stories, as it was in the US) late – a shame, because they are completely wonderful. The title story takes the form of an American soldier’s recollection of meeting a child, Esme, in a café whilst billeted in a rainy part of England just before D-Day. She asks him to write her a story that is ‘extremely squalid and moving’ and this, we understand, is that story. It has many of the Salinger tropes – a traumatised young man, a precocious child, a thick vein of melancholy as well as a dash of sentimentality. Cheever was reportedly jealous of Salinger and it’s easy to see why. As a writer it is difficult not to be both dismayed and joyful at the pure and apparently effortless talent on display.
First published in The New Yorker (1950), and collected in Nine Stories (the US title; elsewhere the collection takes its name from this story)