James Salter was my biggest revelation of last year, when I read his novel Light Years in March and immediately knew that nothing else would touch it for the next nine months (a self-fulfilling prophecy). His is a sparse output, and I was happy to wait until now to read his last novel, Solo Faces, just reissued by Penguin in their Modern Classics range. By ‘last’ I mean most recent, though that’s misleading as the book was published in 1979. Salter says he has another novel on the way – “it’s going to be terrific. Maybe. It could be” – but at 83, and averaging one book a decade, ‘last’ could also mean last.
Solo Faces continues Salter’s practice of writing about peculiarly male occupations: flying fighter planes, mountaineering, adultery. However this is the polar opposite of lad lit, and his prose, although spare, is too exquisite to invite comparisons with Hemingway. We see from the opening paragraph that he is a master of rhythm:
They were at work on the roof of the church. All day from above, from a sea of light where two white crosses crowned twin domes, voices came floating down as well as occasional pieces of wood, nails, and once in the dreamlike air a coin that seemed to flash, disappear, and then shine again for an endless moment before it met the ground.
So here we are: man’s work, roofing a church, at a precarious height. Among the workers is Rand, his solid, blunt, mildly suggestive name summing him up in a syllable. As he saves a colleague’s life in the opening chapter (“Just at that moment the world gave way – his foot slipped off the cleat. Instantly he was falling”), the scene is set.
Rand, feeling trapped in America (“he had stood at society’s edge envying its light and warmth, wanting to be part of it, determined not to be”), in and out of casual relationships (“he hadn’t yet learned that something always comes to save you”), travels to Europe to be alone and to enter into unarmed combat with the great mountains of France. They are described with awestruck glory: “a great dome of rock, its shoulders gleaming in the sun … so immense that it cannot be seen” – and then there is Mont Blanc:
It seemed to drown him, to rise with an infinite slowness like a wave above his head. There was nothing that could stand against it, nothing that could survive. Through crowded terminals, cities, rain, he had carried certain hopes and expectations, vague but thrilling. He was dozing on them like baggage, numbed by the journey, and then, at a certain moment, the clouds had parted to reveal in brilliant light the symbol of it all. His heart was beating in a strange, insistent way, as if he were fleeing, as if he had committed a crime.
Salter does not compromise just as Rand does not compromise. He presents his hero mythically (“he looked like a figure in medieval battle, lost in the metal din, in glinting planes of sunshine, dust that rose like smoke”) and – to coin a phrase – asympathetically. Rand, like the book he fills corner to corner, can be maddening, full of himself, but also admirable for his lack of compromise and his willingness to engage in battle with the world and himself. He quotes Colette – “il faut payer” – and Rand does pay for his obsession, by sacrificing stability. One lover puts it succinctly:
“Going from woman to woman, from place to place, like a dog in the street, that fulfils you?”
Well, we know what fulfils Rand (“when he climbed, life welled up, overflowed in him”), but in time he must face not only other people who share his passion, but the consequences of greatness: renown, attention, even immortality.
Salter writes so well that during the many climbing scenes in Solo Faces, the very air seems to chill and thin. Yet it is Rand’s inscrutability which drives the book and the reader. In literary fiction it is unusual to read a character so defined by masculinity, so that Rand can seem less a presence than an absence, defined most clearly in others’ reactions to him. His self-involvement might seem like a particular type of maleness itself. When he does experience a connection – with another as solitary as him – it is epiphanic, and it derives from the place – the top of a mountain – as much as the person.
There was an understanding between them, the kind that has its roots at the very source of life. There were days they would always remember: immense, heart-breaking effort and at the top, what rapture, they had shaken each other’s hand with glowing faces, their very being confirmed.