I recently discovered some short stories written by JD Salinger that are more or less out of print now, one of which is A Girl I Knew (sounds like a Beatles song, I know). To be honest, the only other work I have read of his is, of course, Catcher in the Rye and I wasn’t really blown away by it. That led to me not having unrealistic expectations from these stories, and I have never been able to decide whether that’s a good thing or bad.
The protagonist in our story is a young American man who is expelled from college and then sent by his father to Europe to study European languages. The story is written from his perspective in first person, maintaining the same style of writing as Catcher in the Rye. John then travels to Vienna, where he meets Leah, who lives in the apartment below his. He describes Leah as a beautiful girl; all her mannerisms as delicate and pure. This fragility and beauty is what keeps him intrigued by her, as he owns that the conversation is exceedingly dull, and they fail to connect on any level despite spending a lot of time together.
The immediate connection one will make on reading this story will be to compare him to Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of CITR. They are both academically disinclined, come from affluent families, have seemingly casual relationships with several women but one, the attraction in that one exceptional relationship being quite inexplicable. In many ways, John is a draft version that Salinger builds further to create Holden.
John’s strange but endearing sentimentality is also reminiscent of Holden – both carry around letters received from the respective female characters for a long time. In this case, it is a letter from Leah informing him that she is happily married and would like to hear from him. The story appears to be taking a serious turn when the Second World War begins, but the tenor of the narration remains unchanged.
Salinger has a special talent that makes his writing so evocative: at the most unexpected places, he bestows magnificently described emotions on his characters. He has the ability to use simple words and yet create a grand reality that paints the scene with another colour altogether. Many such ‘quotes’ have done their rounds on Tumblr. One such instance is when John sees Leah for the first time, standing on the balcony singing a Connee Boswell song – “She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there, leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.”
Such moments keep the reader hooked and expecting more brilliance, and it would be unfair to say that the expectation remains unfulfilled.
John and Leah do not live happily ever after, they never even meet again, but this story of boy meets girl is one that you should read for Salinger’s unique colloquial style, his balance between seriousness and humour, and his vivid description of scenes and emotions.