James Salter: All That Is

James Salter was interviewed in 2007, not for a new book, but for the reissue of two earlier novels, The Hunters and Light Years. In fact back then, all his novels were earlier: at the age of 81, he hadn’t published one in almost 30 years, since 1979’s Solo Faces: and that was an abruptly promoted screenplay. He was asked if there was a new novel on the way. “Oh yeah – and it’s going to be terrific. Maybe. It could be.” For those of us who loved The Hunters and practically worshipped Light Years, this was heady news, even if we didn’t necessarily expect to see it (well, you know what I mean). But, here we are and here it is, and it’s now been 34 years since that last novel. In such circumstances, any writer is likely to be doomed by the weight of expectations: if it turns out to be anything less than Ulysses, the response to All That Is might be ‘Is that all?’

James Salter: All That Is (UK)

All That Is takes for its title a summing up, which is apt enough. It is the book of a life; it is about a life. The life is that of Philip Bowman, from early adulthood to late middle age, though the narrative never limits itself to him. Indeed, only in the last third or so of the novel could the reader be certain that this is a book ‘about’ Bowman, so frequently do secondary characters rush into the foreground and steal the narrator’s attention, often so comprehensively that you think they might suddenly become the hero. That is surely no criticism – that the author’s empathy is so wide-ranging – and anyway it’s only the cover blurb that does limit the book to being Bowman’s story. So: it’s about Bowman’s world, better say. The happy reader must resist the desire to determine what a book is about before reading it.

And resist, too, the desire to expect it to be just like the reader’s favourite previous work by the author: or rather, to be simultaneously like that and entirely new. Clearly, All That Is was not going to be the new Light Years. For one thing, the fiction we’ve seen from Salter since then – the novel Solo Faces, the story collections Dusk and Last Night – shows a sparer, firmer, cleaner prose than Light Years. For another, Light Years was almost 40 years ago, and – to adapt Douglas Adams on P.G. Wodehouse – at the age of 87, you’re entitled to have your best work behind you. (See also fellow octogenarian Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies last year, which nonetheless wiped the floor with many writers half her age.)

All this might sound as though I am making allowances for a disappointment, and in a sense I am. But to avoid the charge of writing around the book but not about it – of writing a review that might be titled All That Isn’t – I had better say what it is like. Salter’s earlier works were generally books about how men measure themselves: against women (A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years) or against themselves (The Hunters, Solo Faces). All That Is, aptly for a summing-up, has both: in particular, a certain amount of war, and an awful lot of sex. This is a man’s book, a book of men, where women mostly are represented only in relation to their men. This is not to say that the men are portrayed without cynicism. When one recurring character, Vivian, is propositioned by a judge, she replies “I’ve already gone through one bad marriage,” which Salter follows with “The judge had gone through three, though he considered himself blameless.” However a more typical viewpoint seems to be that of Bowman, who, we learn, “didn’t like women who looked down on you for whatever reason. Within limits, he liked the opposite.” The men who come and go through All That Is are not always easy to distinguish, and tend to share an air of willed greatness, so that as Salter passes over his creations the effect is of a god checking in on his people, listening, moving on. Salter, who perhaps uncommonly for a writer has always been interested in success as much as failure, lords it over the reader in his reassuringly omniscient voice. He has no care for holding to a character’s restricted viewpoint, but is happy to direct and instruct the reader in all manner of details. One example is when Vivian, here aged eight, has a conversation with her mother Caroline about inviting some older boys over. After their exchange there is a passage which begins in Caroline’s head then switches quickly to an authorial aside, before slipping back into the story:

The age of imitation when there are no dangers though it depended. In the past, girls might be married at twelve, queens-to-be knelt to be wed even younger, Poe’s wife was a child of thirteen, Samuel Pepys’ only fifteen, Machado the great poet of Spain fell madly in love with Leonor Izquierdo when she was thirteen, Lolita was twelve, and Dante’s goddess Beatrice even younger. Vivian knew as little as any of them…

If Dan Brown did this, it would be considered an infodump from a guidebook and roundly mocked. Somehow, perhaps through reputation combined with the elegance of his style, Salter not only gets away with it but makes these asides into some of the highlights of the book. Perhaps this is what Martin Amis meant when he described reading the best books as being “a transfusion from above.” There are plenty more of these diversions in All That Is, most no more than a page, from a biography of Federico García Lorca to a report of a book on Reinhard Heydrich which is worth more than all of the overrated HHhH. These are page-thin slices of concentrated brilliance, and Salter brings similar expertise to short scenes usually involving intensity and danger, such as a thunderstorm and a nighttime swimming session. There is a masculinity to these too.

James Salter: All That Is (US)

Then there is the sex. Ever since he wrote the words “he comes like a bull” in A Sport and a Pastime, Salter has been the poet laureate of a certain kind of sex prose. All That Is seems likely to be nominated for a Bad Sex Award, unfairly in my view, first because that award seems to me to be a puritanical thing devised to punish those who dare to describe sex at all in fiction, and second because Salter’s sex writing clearly comes from the heart – or thereabouts – and from a passion to render it fully. Even when it’s more confusing than enlightening – “he came like a drinking horse” in All That Is has taken on a meme-ish life of its own, or then there’s “her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery” – you can tell that he really gives a damn. Elsewhere, away from the eye-openers, I think the sex writing is better than some say, although that might be because I am a man, since this is an area of Salter’s writing which is even more male-oriented than the rest. A passage, for example, where a woman is fellating a man, goes, “It was like a boot just slipped onto a full calf and she went on doing it, gaining assurance, her mouth making only a faint sound.” Typing that out, stripped of context (“the zipper of his pants melted, tooth by tooth”), I admit it sounds as much pornographic as erotic. But the pornography of All That Is is not primarily of sex, but of living: everything is at a height, fully-realised and rich in colour. The characters enjoy lives of significance and meaning: events, roles, status. This is consistent with Salter’s previously expressed belief (adapted from Jean Renoir) that “the only things that are important in life are those you remember.” In All That Is, this is extended in the book’s epigraph (uncredited, and so presumably Salter’s coinage): “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” And so it is the big things that are written about and which stick: that interest in success again. “You lived,” he quotes Lorca, “by dying and being remembered.”

In a recent interview in Esquire, Salter said that when writing All That Is, he “wanted to write a book where nobody underlines anything on any of the pages. I don’t want it to rely on language or for the language to be conspicuous.” In one sense this is an admirable aim, and reminded me a little of Keith Ridgway’s comment that he tries in writing to “leave out anything that looks to me forced, deliberate or fake.” Yet Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child was still full of memorable things, whereas outside the set pieces, my copy of All That Is remains – as Salter would desire it – fairly unblemished by swooning pencil marks. The characters, the publishing scenes, the conversations have gone largely uncommented here because they are already fading from my memory. What that would say in the context of Salter’s epigraph, I don’t know. When he is working as an editor, Bowman initially rejects a book which was “done elegantly enough, but past its time,” and I found it hard not to nod in sympathy. There is no doubt that Salter is already assured of a place in literature, but this must be largely on the strength of the earlier works. When one character reflects that writing is “the sacred thing. Everything would be forgiven because of it,” I thought, Well. Maybe.

8 comments

  1. I don’t think it sounds pornographic! I think it sounds well-written. I had never read any Salter and have been humming and ha-ing through the last few weeks of media onslaught, checking out the Amazon reviews, trying to decide where to start, if I want to start…. but your careful, quote-filled review has I think just sold me. (And turning to your writing for a sec “poet laureate of a certain kind of sex prose” is a good line.🙂

  2. Pretty much agree with your assessment, John. For those unfamiliar with Salter’s work, this is certainly not the place to start. For those who are familiar with it, this is more like an uneven but often wonderful echo of past glories. I do think there are amazing moments, especially when he somehow brilliantly sums up a situation, a character, a mood, in just a few perfectly balanced sentences. For long-time fans, it’s good to have this book – how many writers in their eighties would tackle such a big canvas? – for everyone else, I think Light Years or A Sport and a Pastime or The Hunters remain better starting points.

  3. Fascinating post, John. Thought Light Years was brilliant but simply haven’t been able to finish reading anything else by Salter (the short sentences in Solo Faces and A Sport and a Pastime come across as artificial, imo).

    Salams,

    b.

  4. My copy of ‘All That Is’ arrived last week, and I’m looking forward to reading it, especially after this perceptive review. If it’s half as good as ‘Light Years’ it’ll be better than most of the fiction published in the past year.

  5. I dived into this not having read any Salter, and not realising that he was so old and venerated, and thus I read it with no expectations. The result was I was a bit underwhelmed. I did like his precise prose, but plotwise for me it did rather ramble, and I didn’t engage with the characters. The sex scenes I found ‘manly’ – indeed the whole was quite masculine.

    Your insightful review is fantastic, it almost convinces me to try one of his earlier novels, but then I have too many other books to read …

  6. It has a quality to it that very much reminds me of Malick’s Tree of Life, with all the good and bad that implies. Fragmented, dispersed, superb self-contained episodes in a loose overall frame.

    I think Malick and Salter are American men of a type – brilliant in many ways, but possessed of a strong and unvarying (or certainly: authoritatively held) set of values that can rub those with different perspectives the wrong way. I guess that’s why women reading this book comment on perceived sexism, which I think is a mistaken but understandable reaction to Salter’s world view.
    I’m reminded of Peter Bradshaw’s comment about the film Mystic River: “substantial, but monolithic, like a handsome, well-made piece of traditional American furniture.” Salter’s book isn’t monolithic, but it has that self-assurance (self-importance?) that PB identifies.

  7. I’ve finally read it! It was somewhat of an eye opener. Bizarrely i had forgotten (well it was June) that quote about him saying he didn’t want anyone underlining stuff… I underlined loads. ! The sex I thought about a lot. Some of the writing I found almost irritating, grating or something. I LOVED the way it floated off into other people’s heads. I didn’t feel like it was self-assured – but I was ASTONISHED when Bowden took his revenge in such a callous way on his duplicitous lover. Jeeeez. By the end of it, though, I felt like my brain had been colonised by a virus, for good or for bad, of hallucinatory quality – the whole book seems burned into my head in a way that rarely happens. So to that, I have to say Wow

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