Back when I was an undergraduate English major with plenty of time on my hands, one of my favorite activities was to wander through the deserted stacks on the fourth floor of my university library (where all the fiction lived) and pluck from the shelf any book that caught my eye.
One spring day in my sophomore year I felt drawn, for whatever reason, to a copy of The Best American Short Stories: 1949.
As I scanned the index I noticed with great surprise and excitement that the book contained a story by J.D. Salinger that I hadn’t read before. It was called “A Girl I Knew.” Greedily, I slid to the floor, crossed my legs, and flipped to page 248, ready to start right in. The only problem was that there was no page 248. In fact, in between John Rogers’ “Episode of a House Remembered” and Alfred Segre’s “Justice Has No Number,” there was nothing. Some sneak had gone and ever-so-carefully removed the Salinger story with a razor.
Worse things had been done in the name of Salinger, I knew, but still I was vexed. The story’s simple and wistful title had me curious, and my discovery seemed somehow predestined.
That semester I was taking a class called “Later Twentieth Century American Literature.” The professor was a short, nervous, extraordinarily kind Fitzgerald scholar from Darlington, South Carolina who, unlike most members of the faculty, wore a jacket and tie everyday. His passion for literature was so great that he would usually remove the jacket within the first three minutes of class, revealing a curious but endearing pattern of sweat stains. Though Dr. Mangum had been teaching many of the same books for upwards of thirty years, he could not have lost a drop of his enthusiasm; nor was he the dreary sort to insist upon purely textual readings of the classics.
And so, when we read J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Dr. Mangum told us in his charming, slightly stuttering drawl all about Salinger’s life and known eccentricities: his predilection for much younger women. His mixed feelings about his half-Jewish heritage. His hermetic existence in Cornish, New Hampshire. The pack of cutthroat New York attorneys he’d hired to track down and sue anybody who attempted to circulate, either in print or on the internet, bootleg copies of his uncollected magazine stories. The theory that the post-traumatic stress disorder he acquired from his particularly horrific experiences in WWII is what led to his eventual seclusion.
Starting in 1940 when he was only 23 years old, and not yet the cult figure who’d penned The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger began publishing short stories in a variety of commercial and literary magazines including The New Yorker, Story, and Good Housekeeping. Salinger remained vehement through most of his life that, with the exception of those collected in Nine Stories, none of his other short magazine fiction – a total of twenty-two pieces – would ever be put into book form.
Evidence suggests that Salinger chose to safeguard these stories not because he doubted their quality, but out of spite towards both the world of publishing and the world at large. Several of these “Uncollected Stories” (as they are officially known by Salinger-philes to distinguish them from the “Unpublished Stories,” the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of stories that Salinger may or may not have written in the final five-plus decades of his life) deal directly with the war, and a few, like “A Girl I Knew” are thought to be autobiographical.
Though I didn’t feel like breaking the law in pursuit of some ramshackle, Xeroxed copy of the “Uncollected Stories,” I saw no moral dilemma in tracking down an un-butchered copy of The Best American Short Stories: 1949 where I could find “A Girl I Knew.”
I made a trip to the Richmond, Virginia public library, which at first revealed another TBASS: 1949 in which “A Girl I Knew” had been ever-so-carefully razored out. But after sending a recalcitrant librarian to the basement to retrieve yet another copy of the anthology – which had been apparently been gathering dust since about 1950 – I was able to read the story. I wasn’t sorry that I’d gone to the trouble.
While a few of the selections in Nine Stories had seemed a bit flat to me (“Teddy” and “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” come to mind) I found “A Girl I Knew” to be positively brimming with humor, pathos, and romance. It managed, in a mere 12 pages, to make me both laugh out loud and to cry.
The story itself is simple. It could be classified as a love story, though a strange one, in which the word love is never mentioned, the lovers never so much as hold hands, and the only verbal exchanges between them are formal, awkward, and embarrassing.
It is an almost painfully realistic rendering of the sort of crush one has while young, the harmless sort one can reflect on later in life and think, without bitterness: “I wonder what So-and-So is up to?”
The twist that makes this story a tragedy is that our young heroine is a Viennese-Jewish girl, born in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the real genius of this story, to me, the real kicker, is that even if there had been no Hitler, no war, the protagonist and the girl would not have ended up together. They lived on different continents; when they met the narrator was too young and self-involved to really desire commitment; the heroine, long before Nazi troops invaded Vienna, had married another man.
Part of the sadness here comes, of course, from a young woman being robbed, senselessly and viciously, of her life. But it is sad, too, in the way it deprived a young man, a man who hadn’t even known her that well, the luxury of remembering her without bitterness, of being able to ask lightheartedly: “I wonder what So-and-So is up to?”
The story is told as reminiscence, and the tone, to start, is light. It begins:
At the end of my freshman year of college, back in 1936 I flunked five out of five subjects. Flunking three out of five would have made me eligible to report to the Dean’s office for an invitation to attend some other college in the fall. But men in this three-out-of-five category sometimes had to wait outside the Dean’s office as long as two hours. Men in my group – some of whom had big dates in New York that same night – weren’t kept waiting a minute. It went one, two, three, the way most men in my group liked things to go.
Our precocious, underachieving narrator is a young man called John; his name reveals that he is neither a Caulfield nor a Glass, though he could easily belong to either family. “At eighteen,” he recalls, “I was six feet two, weighed one hundred and nineteen pounds with my clothes on, and was a chain-smoker.” When he returns to his family’s New York home, the news of his expulsion preceding him, he is greeted by the butler, who looks “tipped off and hostile.” His mother lectures him about applying himself. His father, a stern, no-nonsense type, wants to put him straight into the family business.
However, lucky for our young narrator, going directly into the family business means sailing for Europe to learn “a couple of languages the firm could use.” After our gaunt, slightly disaffected protagonist arrives in Vienna (and gets over his disappointment that the city does not, in fact, have gondolas) he proceeds to have a grand time: skiing, ice skating, hanging out in the lounges of posh hotels, writing insincere love letters to girls back home.
But then, intruding upon his blissfully non-committal existence, comes Leah, a sixteen year-old girl who lives with her family in the apartment below his. He is taken with her immediately. One afternoon he investigates some mysterious singing he hears coming from outside his window. The source, he discovers, is a young, beautiful girl, standing on the downstairs balcony “almost completely submerged in a pool of autumn twilight.”
She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.
In the four or five months our narrator spends in Vienna, he and Leah meet a few times a week. Every meeting takes place in his sitting room where they drink coffee and have long painful conversations in which he speaks awkward, halting German and she in rudimentary, heavily-accented English.
“Uh. Ist die Fenster – uh – Sind Sie sehr kalt dort?” I would ask solicitously. (Is the window – Uh – Are you very cold there?)
“No! I feel very warmly, sank you.”
Only once do they meet outside their apartment building, and this happens accidentally, when John bumps into her at the cinema one evening with a young man, who, he learns during their next meeting, is her fiancé.
We begin to feel a bit sorry for Leah when we learn that her father has arranged a (presumably unwanted) marriage for her. (“‘My fahzzer is wedding us when I have seventeen years,’ Leah said, looking at a doorknob.”) At 16, she works five days a week in her father’s cosmetics plant, work she doesn’t enjoy. Of course, this is merely grim foreshadowing of what her life will become.
When John leaves Vienna for Paris, “to master a second European language,” he doesn’t tell Leah goodbye face-to-face, but in a note. He promises to write to her and to send to her a copy of Gone With the Wind; he never does either of these things. “I was very busy in those days,” he recalls.
He returns to America and re-enrolls in college. “About the same hour Hitler’s troops were marching into Vienna, I was on reconnaissance for Geology 1-b, searching perfunctorily, in New Jersey, for a limestone deposit.”
For years he tries in vain to learn whether Leah has escaped Vienna. In 1940, at a party in New York, he meets a young woman who had gone to school with Leah, though she isn’t sure whether or not Leah has gotten out of Vienna. She only wants to talk about “a man in Philadelphia, who looked exactly like Gary Cooper.” This attitude of cold indifference is one he runs up against continually.
Eventually our narrator joins the Army and ends up back in Europe. After the war has ended, he is finally able to go to Vienna and he learns for certain that Leah has been killed.
Biographical records show that Salinger spent several months in Vienna before the war, working for his father’s meat importing business. While there he boarded with a Jewish family, who later all perished in camps. Little is known about them.
At the end of “A Girl I Knew,” John visits his old apartment house in Vienna, which has been converted into American officers’ quarters. He begs permission from a staff sergeant to go up to his old room, just for a moment, so he can look down onto the balcony and see the spot where Leah once stood.