War and Its Aftermath
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger, though much less well-known today than Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, was quite popular at the time of its publication in 1953 – particularly the semi-autobiographical story “For Esme – with Love and Squalor”. This story was notable for its handling of recovery from WWII induced PTSD. Unfortunately the collection does not start with that story; unwary readers may get put off by the oddness of the first couple of stories and abandon the collection before getting to “For Esme”. The Esme of the story’s title is a very prepossessed English teenager who is either herself suffering emotional detachment due to earlier traumas and/or has Asperger syndrome. Salinger’s doppelganger is an American enlisted man who while in per-invasion (D-Day) training in April 1944 in Devon, England happens to meet Esme. The latter half of the story takes place several weeks after V-E Day, 8 May 1945, and eons mentally for the Salinger character – ‘X’. He’s not coping very well with his undiagnosed PTSD – and his immature, insensitive Corporal is not helping. Corporal Z, wrote his wife, Loretta, a stateside psychology major, that he (X) had a ‘nervous breakdown’. Loretta’s response, to quote the Corporal, was: “She says nobody gets a nervous breakdown just from the war and all. She says you probably were unstable like, your whole goddam life.” But Loretta’s diagnosis of the Corporal’s killing of a cat who startled him in a foxhole was, per the Corporal: “…temporarily insane. No kidding. From the shelling and all.” Diagnosis of returning vets has progressed since WWII… but in many respects our ability and willingness to effectively reintegrate vets and others suffering PTSD is still pretty limited.
Interestingly, Salinger chose to end the story on a positive note by bringing Esme back – virtually – to help X start to heal – though there’s no indication that Salinger himself had an Esme. (After V-E Day he was hospitalized for combat stress reaction for a few weeks. Presumably he received some form of helpful treatment during that period.)
The Man Who Would Be King
The Man Who Would Be King is a novella written by Rudyard Kipling in 1888 set in India and a remote province of Afghanistan. Though Wikipedia classifies this work as ‘Adventure’, I’d put it more in the realm of historical fiction or sociopolitical commentary. The audio version, read by George Taylor with nuance and an accent that complements the text, is combined with other short stories and poems by Kipling that involve war in an arc that ends with the ignominy of “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”, also set in Afghanistan. In the first story the Brits are very able con men who only come to an untimely end when they overreach, in the second story (“Mary Postgate”) the gentleman doesn’t make it to the WWI battlegrounds perhaps as a commentary on how ill-prepared upper-class English males were to fight, and in the third the (lower class) Regulars flounder with completely inadequate training, resources, and mentoring while their (upper class) commanding officers treat them as remote, expendable pawns. Definitely worth reading / listening to as a still-insightful commentary on leadership, country-building, and war.
One of the original travel writers was Laurence Sterne, best known as the author of Tristam Shandy, writings of his travels in Western Europe in the 18th century. I tried making it through A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy but found my normal reading pace too severely disrupted by the archaic grammar and syntax. Given my familiarity with 19th century England thanks to Regency romances and my personal travels through France and Italy I was okay with the vocabulary and settings. However, I feel that I need a translation – many of the sociopolitical and contemporary cultural references were lost on me and hence much of the humor was drained from the story – it was kind of like reading a mi