Monday, June 24, 2024

Love and dialogue.

Salinger is just an amazing stylist of everyday language, amazing at conveying what he wants to convey, casually without any unnecessary flashiness. I was thinking of that today, looking closely at this quick interchange between the English Esmé (who is about twelve) and the American narrator (a soldier in his twenties who, like Salinger, will be part of the imminent invasion of Normandy):
She guided the conversation in a different direction. “I’d be extremely flattered if you’d write a story exclusively for me sometime. I’m an avid reader.”

I told her I certainly would, if I could. I said that I wasn’t terribly prolific.

“It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn’t childish and silly.” She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”
As with almost all of their conversation, in this exchange the narrator reports Esmé's speech verbatim and his own in indirect discourse ("I said that...."). This gives her a vividness that he lacks -- which is the point. I like the way we can tell he did use the exact phrase "terribly prolific" since Esmé repeats those words verbatim in her response. But her vividness comes from the English spin she puts on them. The idiomatic way that Americans use terribly in a sentence is usually in the negative: "I'm not terribly eager to go to that movie." It's understatement via negation of overstatement. The English way is the opposite. It's gracefully hyperbolic. (At a restaurant: "I'm terribly sorry to bother you, but may I have a glass of water without ice?") Esmé (who of course doesn't know what either "prolific" or "squalor" means) is reassuring him that a little prolificacy will be fine. And it's that difference that makes it possible to hear her voice against the grey background of his indirect speech. Another example of what I love about Salinger as a writer.

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