In Curious Squalor

December 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

It’s not often that you remember the exact point in your life when you learned a word.

In the November 21 New Yorker, Jill Lepore writes about the deal that almost came to pass between J. D. Salinger and an Emmy Award-winning television director, Peter Tewksbury, to make a movie out of Salinger’s story “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” from 1950, which appears in the collection Nine Stories.

As Lepore writes, the eight-thousand-word story attracted interest almost immediately after it was published in The New Yorker:

For a long time, Salinger had the same policy for “Esmé.” A month after the story appeared, “an English film maggot,” as Salinger called him, said he wanted to make a movie out of it; Salinger wasn’t interested. In 1953, “Esmé” was reprinted in Salinger’s “Nine Stories,” a collection whose U.K. edition was titled “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor: And Other Stories.” The following year, the BBC tried to acquire the rights to adapt “Esmé” for a radio drama series hosted by Laurence Olivier. Salinger said no. In 1958, Salinger’s U.K. publisher sold paperback rights to the story collection to a publishing house that issued a cheap pocketbook whose flashy cover pictured Esmé as a dishy blonde, with the tagline “Explosive and Absorbing—A Painful and Pitiable Gallery of Men, Women, Adolescents, and Children.” Salinger never spoke to the publisher again.

If it’s possible for there to be a Salinger trope, the precocious child is it. Lepore quotes the writer from 1955: “Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all of my best friends are children.” It’s conceivable to argue that the seven Glass children, featured in Franny and Zooey and a number of other stories, were a precursor to the reality TV family; they were, after all, known to America as regular contestants of a panel-quiz show. If a Salinger story were to be filmed, the Glass kids would be too-perfect subjects; it’s not hard to picture a treatment along the lines of Whit Stillman or Wes Anderson.

What’s remarkable about the choice to film “Esmé”—as opposed to the cruise-ship-set “Teddy” or “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”—is its containment: it’s essentially about a girl who bugs a stranger in a restaurant. The narrator, stationed in Devon before the D-Day invasion, kills time by ducking into a choir rehearsal, where Esmé is one of the singers:

Her voice was distinctly separate from the other children’s voices, and not just because she was seated nearest me. It had the best upper register, the sweetest-sounding, the surest, and it automatically led the way.

Esmé later shows up at the tea shop with her little brother and a caretaker whom the narrator presumes to be their governess. Esmé’s father was killed—she spells out s-l-a-i-n so her brother can’t hear—in North Africa. She wears his oversized army watch on her wrist. The narrative heft is packaged in Esmé’s polished mannerisms and embarrassments around this older man: her “blasé eyes” that “might very possibly have counted the house”; her “clear, unmistakable voice of a small-talk detester”; and her upper-school vocabulary (“Usually, I’m not terribly gregarious,” she confides).

“I’m training myself to be more compassionate,” she tells him. “My aunt says I’m a terribly cold person.”

Upon learning that the narrator is a writer—or at least thinks of himself as one—she requests that he write a story just for her.

“It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn’t childish and silly.” She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”

“About what?” I said, leaning forward.

“Squalor. I’m extremely interested in squalor.”

I remember when I first encountered the word squalor. It was in a newspaper article about a friend’s family, describing the trailer in which they lived. (Not that I really want to get into it here, but he had done something horrible to merit making the news.) I remember looking up squalor and realizing just how damaging my class advantages would be to my understanding of the world. We were by no means rich, but we were safe.

And so then, after going through my late-blooming Salinger phase—we never read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, too full of ideas perhaps—it was jarring to encounter the word uttered from the mouth of this character with her liberty of curiosities. Later, a woman I knew at a job would sign her notes with the closing, “Love and Squalor,” which I thought was pretentious, even though by then I had forgotten what the story was about.

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