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The narrator tells us that the story to come doesn't "make sense" (1).
Some aspects of the story, we are told, might be "ribald" (1).
("Ribald" means dirty, as in a dirty joke. "Bawdy" is a good synonym for "ribald.")
If it did makes sense and was ribald, the narrator might dedicate it to his stepfather Robert Agadganian, Jr., whom everyone called Bobby.
Bobby died in 1947 and was apparently very ribald.
He dies of thrombosis (a.k.a. a blood clot).
In addition to being ribald, Bobby was "adventurous, extremely magnetic, and generous […]" (1).
The narrator has never before admitted that Bobby was worthy of such "picaresque adjectives" and feels that it's very important to do so now (1).
("Picaresque" is a genre of story featuring a roguish main character experiencing a variety of adventures.)
The narrator's mother and father were divorced in winter 1928; he was eight at the time.
In the spring the narrator's mother married Bobby.
In 1929 Wall Street 'crashed' and Bobby and the narrator's mother lost all their money.
Bobby had been a stockbroker, but reinvented himself almost immediately by acting as an "agent-appraiser" (meaning he appraised or valued pieces of art, and bought and sold art).
He made lots of money and in 1930 the family moved from New York City to Paris, France, to better serve Bobby's career.
The narrator was ten and adapted well to the move.
But nine years later the narrator and Bobby moved back to New York, City. It was three months after the death of the narrator's mother, and he was have a great deal of difficulty with the move.
The narrators remember something important that happened to him one or two days after his return.
He was riding on a crowded bus. People were pushed up against the door.
The bus driver kept telling the people "step to the rear of the vehicle" (3).
Some people tried to do it, but the narrator was not one of them.
The narrator was wedged behind the bus driver's seat.
The driver noticed him, a nineteen-year-old with no hat, a " pompadour" hair cut, and acne on the forehead.
When the bus driver noticed him he said, quietly, "All right, buddy let's move that ass" (3).
"Buddy" was the word that offended the narrator and he began insulting the driver loudly in French, without keeping things "de bon gout" (in good taste).
The episode made the narrator feel "elated" and he did move to the back of the bus.
(End of important event. If you want to know more about why this moment might be important, see our discussion of "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory")
Anyhow, "Things got much worse" (4).
One afternoon the narrator exited the Ritz hotel, where he and Bobby were staying.
It looked to him like "all the seats from all the buses in New York" had been put on the streets, and that the people of the city were playing "musical chairs" (4).
The narrator would have played if the Church of Manhattan had allowed that everybody else would stand until the narrator had a chair.
When the narrator saw that this wasn't going to happen he prayed that all the people in the city would disappear.
This prayer is almost always granted when one is in New York City, and after that the narrator became completely lonely.
Anyhow, the narrator says that he was attending an art school twice a day, and that he hated it.
He also tells us, in parentheses, that about a week before they left Paris he "won three first-prize awards at the National Junior Exhibition, held at the Freiburg Galleries" (4).
In practically the same breath he mentions that on the trip back to NYC he looked at himself in the mirror lots, noticing how much he looked like El Greco.
(Freiburg is a city in Germany, though the narrator doesn't mention having gone to Germany. It's not clear why he is connecting El Greco, a Greek artist known for his work in Spain, with a German art gallery.
Now back to the story.
The narrator was telling us that he had eight teeth removed during that time, and that he spent his free time touring art galleries and that he read all of the volumes of Harvard Classics.
In the nights he painted. His diary from 1939 states that he painted eighteen oil paintings in a month, and that all but one were all self-portraits.
Sometimes he also drew cartoons.
Meanwhile, he and Bobby had come to understand that they "were both in love" with the narrator's dead mother, and were treating each other with a kind of fake, over-exaggerated politeness (5).
The narrator now tells us that about something that happened, "One week in May of 1939, about ten months after Bobby and I checked into the Ritz […]" (6).
Our narrator, who happens to have subscriptions to no less than sixteen "French-language newspapers and periodicals [magazines]," sees an ad in a paper from Quebec, Canada (6). (French is spoken in Quebec, so it makes sense that the add would be in French.)
A "correspondence art school" by the name of Les Amis Des Vieux Maitres (which translates to "Friends of the Old Masters") was looking for teachers who could speak French and English fluently.
Applicants were encouraged to send samples of their work to the director of the school, "Monsieur I. Yoshoto, directeur, formerly of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, Tokyo" […]" (6).
Our narrator promptly borrowed Bobby's typewriter and crafted a three page letter.
In the letter he claimed to be a twenty-nine-year-old widower who had recently lost all his money.
He also claims to be "a great-nephew of Honoré Daumier" and to know Pablo Picasso, "who was one of the oldest and dearest friends of [his] parents" (7).
He signed the letter "Jean de Daumier-Smith" (7).
"It took [him] almost as long to select a pseudonym as it had taken [him] to write the whole letter" (8).
Jean (as we will henceforth call our narrator) then mails the letter and goes to afternoon art classes.
After that he made quite a few samples of his artwork and sent them along to Quebec.
(If you are curious about these samples, read paragraph ten of your text. It's really good.)
Soon Jean got a letter from M. Yoshoto telling him he's got the job, and that he needs to get to Montreal in five weeks.
Unfortunately, Jean is required to pay his own transportation.
He's to arrive at the school on June twenty-fourth.
Jean quickly telegrammed Yoshoto his acceptance.
Then Jean meets Bobby for their regular 7pm dinner in the Oval Room.
(Incidentally, there doesn't seem to have been an Oval Room restaurant in Manhattan, though there is one in Washington D.C.
(Salinger might be alluding to Académie Goncourt, French literary society that meets at an oval table.)
Jean was annoyed because Bobby brought along a younger woman, a recent divorcée he'd been dating.
She was very nice to Jean and tried to draw him out of his shell.
He chose to decide she was hitting on him, and was just waiting to get rid of Bobby.
Grumpily Jean finishes the meal and then during the coffee tells them about his summer plans.
Next we have a conversation between Bobby and his date (whom Jean calls Mrs. X).
The suggestion is that Mrs. X is planning to nix her summer plans with Bobby to visit Jean in Montreal.
(The conversation they have doesn't really make sense – see paragraph one.)
Jean arrives at Windsor Station, Montreal on Sunday, June 23, 1939. He looks elegant in beige suit, navy shirt, yellow tie, panama hat, and three week old mustache.
(June 23, 1939 actually fell on a Friday.)
Measuring in at five feet tall M. Yoshoto was there to meet him sporting a dirty, linen suit, black hat, and black shoes.
Yoshoto's expression is described as "inscrutable" (20).
(Inscrutable means "cryptic" or "mysterious." As Jean points out, this word is used to describe Asian people in the racially stereotyping Fu Manchu series by Sax Rhomer. )
They took a five-mile bus ride to the school.
M. Yoshoto doesn't talk much, but Jean can't help but to expound on the lies he had already told in his application letter.
He makes up a Picasso story.
In parenthesis Jean lets us know that he chose Picasso because he was the French painter best known in America, and that he thought of Canada as part of America.
(Picasso was from Spain, but spent a good deal of time in Paris.)
The school is in a poor neighborhood, on top of an "orthopedic appliances shop" (a place where prosthetic devices are sold).
Jean likes the instructor's room because M. Yoshoto's wonderful painting adorn the walls.
Mme. (Madame) Yoshoto is wearing a kimonoand is a bit taller than M. Yoshoto and probably even more "inscrutable" (23).
They show Jean to his room, which used to be their son's. (Apparently, their son is away working.)
Instead of chairs the room had cushions and they ask Jean if he minds.
He made sure they understood that he absolutely hated chairs.
In the night when Jean's in bed he heard one of the Yoshotos moaning terribly, probably in sleep. This happened every night during Jean's stay, but he never found out why.
That night Jean stayed up until 5:30am, smoking cigarettes.
M. Yoshoto woke him at 6:30.
After a fish breakfast they all get to work.
Jean is shown to his desk and the Yoshotos examine material sent in by students.
Finally at about 9am M. Yoshoto asks Jean to translate the letters he's just written from French to English.
Enthusiastically, Jean agrees, but is deeply saddened.
Apparently, Yoshoto is brilliant artist, but a not so brilliant teacher. To make things worse, his handwriting is horrible.
When the lunch hour approaches Jean runs off and gets some hot dogs and coffee.
On the way back he ponders the unfairness of being given translator work, when he's such a hotshot artist and "personal friend of Picasso," and has a real mustache.
Back at the school Jean is about to tell another Picasso story, but he forgets it.
Instead he praises one of Yoshoto's paintings.
After this exchange Yoshoto asks Jean if he's like to take on a few students.
Jean agrees and Yoshoto explains the method of instruction, which, according to Jean is more like a lack of method.
Jean gets three English speaking students.
One is twenty-three and a housewife. She goes by the name Bambi Kramer.
As requested by the school, Bambi enclosed a photo, wherein she's wearing a bathing suit.
She's a terrible artist.
The next student is 55, and a photographer named R. Howard Ridgefield. Jean is amazed at the similarity between his technique and Bambi's.
Jean isn't even entertained by these students' work, and considers complaining to Yoshoto, spilling the following facts:
"My mother's dead, and I have to live with her charming husband, and nobody in New York speaks French, and there aren't any chairs in your son's room. How do you expect me to teach these two crazy people how to draw?" (33).
Instead, he moves on to the third student, Sister Irma, a nun (as you might have figured out by the "Sister" in front of her name).
Sister Irma sent not a picture of herself, but one of her convent instead.
She also didn't answer the "age" question on the student questionnaire.
Sister Irma's paintings were wonderful, especially one of them which featured "a highly detailed depiction of Christ being carried to the sepulchre in Joseph of Arimathea's garden" (35).
(A sepulchre or sepulcher is a burial chamber.)
This work was excellent, though Sister Irma was having some problems with her colors.
Jean hides the envelope away, afraid that if Yoshoto sees how good Irma is he'll take her for his own student.
Meanwhile, he made corrections to the work of the other two students.
After the evening meal Jean went immediately upstairs (refusing Mme. Yoshoto's offer to provide him with a chair) and worked on Sister Irma's work.
Then he wrote her a letter. He still has the "next-to-the-last draft of the letter," and so can reproduce it for us here (41).
(Note: You should read the quoted portion of letter; we find it very funny.)
We are told that most of letter consisted of professional advice to Sister Irma.
After offering her high praise, he told her that he was "an agnostic," and a fan of St. Francis de Assisi (45).
He asked her if one of the figures in her painting was Mary Magdalene.
In the P.S. Jean asked sister Irma to do some "outdoor sketches," to buy a bunch of art supplies, and to send him all of her other work (52).
He also asked her to tell him if she enjoys being a nun, to tell him her age, and to let him know when he can come and visit her at the convent.
Jean mailed the letter around 3:30am.
When he got in bed he hears the mysterious "moaning" and as he falls asleep he imagined the Yoshoto's revealing their secret to him in the morning.
He imagined himself reciprocating by showing them Sister Irma's work.
The next day, Tuesday, he started to get bummed out.
Bambi and Howard's work depressed him, and he lit a cigarette in the instructor's room, but Yoshoto (with some alarm) asked him to put it out.
He did, and then continued with his work.
On Thursday evening something strange happened to him.
He'd gone out after dinner, but doesn't remember the details because there is nothing written in his diary for that day.
In any case, as he was coming back to the school he happened to look into the display window of the orthopedic store that was on the bottom floor of the building of the school.
The he had the thought that even if he was able to live "coolly or sensibly or gracefully" he "would always at best be a visitor in a garden of enamel urinals and bedpans, with a sightless, wooden dummy-deity standing by in a marked-down rupture truss" (58).
(There are a few ways to interpret this. We look at some of them in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory.")
This was an awful thought and Jean went immediately to bed after having it.
During the night he can't sleep, and spends some time daydreaming about Sister Irma.
In his fantasy she was eighteen and hadn't yet taken her vows.
He imagined that when she met him she would give up her the idea of being a nun and go away with him.
On Friday he worked hard, but was rather bummed out, and by afternoon was feeling "torpid" (slow).
Then M. Yoshoto gave him an envelope.
The letter was from the Mother Superior at Sister Irma's convent, and it stated that Father Zimmerman wasn't going to let Sister Irma take art classes after all.
It also requested a tuition reimbursement.
After reading it Jean wrote letters to his other students, begging them to give up art.
This made him feel better, but not for long.
After zoning out in his room for some time he drafted another letter to Irma, though he never mailed it.
He wrote that he hoped he didn't say anything in his last letter to make Father Zimmerman change his mind.
He wrote that she had the potential to be a great artist, but needed to devote her life to it in order to become great.
He assured her that being a great artist wouldn't "interfere with [her] being a competent nun" (68).
A mysterious anecdote is presented – Jean wrote that his happiest moment happened one day when he saw a man with no nose.
He then offered to give Sister Irma free lessons, if money was the problem.
Again he asked her if he could visit her, and also withdraws his Mary Magdalene question.
That night he put on an embarrassingly good tuxedo and set out to get drunk for the first time.
On his way to the restaurant where he'd made reservations he noticed that people were staring at him due to his being overdressed, so he decided not to keep his reservation.
He stopped into the place where he ate hot dogs on Monday and ordered "soup, rolls and black coffee" (80).
After rereading the letter to Irma he decided to tweak it a little, and also thought about buying a train ticket right away for his visit.
On his way back, around 9 pm, as the sun was setting, he had "an extraordinary experience" (82).
It happened at the orthopedic appliance shop.
A woman was arranging the items in the display window, and Jean stopped to watch her, mesmerized.
When she saw him he smiled, but she blushed, fell, then got back up without giving him a glance.
Then he had his moment.
Here it is:
"Suddenly (and I say this, I believe, with all due self-consciousness), the sun came up and sped toward the bridge of my nose at the rate of ninety-three million miles a second" (83).
Stunned, dazed, and terrified, he touched the shop window for balance.
When he became un-blinded the woman was gone, but she had left behind the most beautiful, holy flowers.
In any case, after this Jean went home and wrote the following in his diary: "I am giving Sister Irma her freedom to follow her own destiny. Everybody is a nun" (Tout le monde est une nonne.)" (84).
He then wrote letters to the students he had kicked out, saying there had been some mistake and they were welcome as students.
But, about a week later the school was closed down for not having a license.
Jean left and went to meet Bobby in Rhode Island. He spent the rest of the summer girl-watching, and then went back to art school.
He never reconnected with Sister Irma, but still hears from Bambi now and again. He's rather excited to see the Christmas cards the woman now designs.