We've all heard that adage about bad peaces and good wars, and on this matter historians will continue to dig in opposite directions – until, perhaps, they both meet in China. Countless horrors are born from war, and lucky are those who convert those experiences into fortitude of mind or body; luckier still are those who pledge henceforth to quell all conflict forever. But luckiest of all are those select few who funnel their experiences into artistic creation. We could never imagine Böll not having been a soldier, or Solzhenitsyn not having been a prisoner of war as well as a prisoner of conscience. And our imagination likewise cannot but dwell on the military past of the author of this magnificent tale.
Like war itself the story's beginning is a mere excuse for its middle, and its end is, shall we say, a great relief. A former U.S. military officer, who shall abide no name other than Sergeant X, has received a wedding invite from a girl he knew six years ago in England. Attendance at this event is unlikely for a number of reasons, most of all the distance and expense; but our sergeant takes advantage of this occasion to "jot down a few revealing notes on the bride." We may expect something awkwardly prurient, the bitter send-off of a jilted lover, but nothing of the kind is portrayed. It is April 1944 and Sergeant X is in Devon participating in a "rather specialized pre-Invasion training course"; later, the Sergeant will receive a letter dated the day after that 'special invasion.' When the rains come, as they must in that part of England, the sergeant usually finds himself sitting "in a dry place and read[ing] a book, often just an axe length from a ping-pong table." What we discern about the sergeant's personality is gradual, but disturbing, even if we know that he is writing well after the traumatic wartime events:
I remember standing at an end window of our Quonset hut for a very long time, looking out at the slanting, dreary rain, my trigger finger itching imperceptibly, if at all. I could hear behind my back the uncomradely scratching of many fountain pens on many sheets of V-mail paper. Abruptly, with nothing special in mind, I came away from the window and put on my raincoat, cashmere muffler, galoshes, woolen gloves, and overseas cap (the last of which, I'm still told, I wore at an angle all my own – slightly down over both ears). Then, after synchronizing my wristwatch with the clock in the latrine, I walked down the long, wet cobblestone hill into town. I ignored the flashes of lightning around me. They either had your number or they didn't.
One wonders whether a military unit would be more effective or less effective if all its members shared such opinions – but we digress. The narrative needs to furnish us with our title character, and we wince slightly when the sergeant's eyes are drawn to a very young girl in a church choir, "about thirteen, with straight ash-blond hair of earlobe length, an exquisite forehead and blasé eyes that, I thought, might very possibly have counted the house" – and with an introduction like that, we know we've found her.
The sergeant proceeds from that church into a café – pardon me, we're at war, so a café has been replaced by a "civilian tearoom" – and does what soldiers tend to do on such occasions, loiter and marvel at being part of normal life. Well, perhaps "normal" is too strong a word. Soon Esmé, her little brother Charles, and their governess Miss Megley appear and make a "good" table selection, "as it was just eight or ten feet directly in front of" our American serviceman. Conversation is inevitable, but what could a thirteen-year-old girl say to capture the attention of a man roughly twice her age? Thankfully, the excitement the sergeant displays at Esmé's choice of seats is never repeated, and no agenda of any kind is furthered. Rather, it is she, the newly minted teenager, who mixes fine English expressions that have no meaning to children, a smattering of French, and more than the occasional malapropism to convey to our sergeant that she appreciates an American presence just as the war seems to be on its last act. And what about Esmé and Charles's family?
'He misses our father very much. He was s-l-a-i-n in North Africa.' I expressed regret to hear it. Esmé nodded. 'Father adored him.' She bit reflectively at the cuticle of her thumb. 'He looks like very much like my mother – Charles, I mean. I look exactly like my father.' She went on biting at her cuticle. 'My mother was quite a passionate woman. She was an extrovert. Father was an introvert. They were quite well mated, though, in a superficial way. To be quite candid, Father really needed more of an intellectual companion than Mother was. He was an extremely gifted genius.'
From this remarkable passage an entire blueprint of Esmé's familial relations may be extrapolated: that her parents favored Charles; that Esmé favored her father; and that her mother favored men who were not her husband. Without fear of perjury one may also conclude from this and other snippets that Esmé believes herself to be a remarkable person (she even refuses to give the sergeant her surname because, she tells him, "I have a title and you may just be impressed by titles. Americans are, you know"); and although she stands out among her coevals in the choir owing to her physical gifts, it is clear that the most remarkable thing about her is to what degree she deems herself remarkable.
The story's author died last year, one of the great losses of American letters as his reclusive nature and spiritual searches seem to have conspired against his artistic ambition. That Salinger continued to write extensively, to borrow a Russian dissident expression, "for the drawer," that is to say, with neither hope nor intention of ever having the works published, and that there may be around a dozen unseen novels pending must remain, at this time, rumors of the utmost interest. What can be substantiated, however, is that Salinger was an artist of the top rank. He seems to modern ears overly concerned with and knowledgeable about youth – not surprisingly, since he effectively ended his career in his forties. But his genius is obvious in the details: "The two sat quiet for a moment, hating Bulling"; "Clay left his feet where they were for a few don't-tell-me-where-to-put-my-feet seconds, then swung them around to the floor and sat up"; "He thought he felt his mind dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack"; and "She wrote to him fairly regularly, from a paradise of triple exclamations and inaccurate observations" – one of the most sensational sentences in the English language. I must admit that another mention of "house-counting eyes" was a unforgettably beautiful reference when I thought it was an epithet for the children's governess, but this is a minor regret. Observers far more politically-minded than I will assume that little Esmé and her rather unpleasant sibling represent those who are born into privilege and think themselves above the world's petty conflicts; indeed, those conflicts are definitely for others to handle. And we haven't even gotten to the squalor.