Salter James

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.

James Salter: Solo Faces

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.

James Salter: Burning the Days

When I belatedly discovered James Salter last year, I adored his novel Light Years so much that I knew not only that I would have to read everything he’s written, but that I had to take my time doing so. His output, in 82 years and counting, comprises just five novels, two collections of stories and a memoir. Fortunately in the UK most of these books were reissued last year, with his most recent (if that’s the term: it was published in 1979) novel Solo Faces to be reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic later this year. Just his second novel Cassada and his first story collection Dusk are out of print. Anyway, I’ve restrained myself for almost a year now, so time to indulge with his memoir, Burning the Days (1997), shown here in the typically uninspiring cover of the 2007 Picador reissue. (I much prefer the more colourful US cover.)

Burning the Days (UK) Burning the Days (US)

My original intention was to read all Salter’s fiction before Burning the Days, as I knew he would have a lot to say about his work within these pages. I was wrong: of the six books he had published when this was written, only A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years are referred to more than once. A couple aren’t mentioned by name at all, including his fine debut The Hunters. So in the end I am pleased I read this book now: it avoids building up yet further expectation in my mind, and therefore being even more disappointed by it than I was.

The problem is that despite Salter having had an interesting life by anyone’s standards – privileged upbringing, fighter pilot, screenwriter, ‘interesting’ relationships – the book to me was for the majority frankly dull. Most of the first half, outside his childhood, is taken up with his time as a pilot, which for my money is far more interestingly covered in his autobiographical novel The Hunters. But this is a book of recall – its subtitle is Recollection – and Salter says that Light Years was inspired by Jean Renoir’s “The only things that are important in life are those you remember.” So he writes well about the cruel selectiveness of memory.

Families of no importance – so much is lost, entire histories, there is no room for it all. There are only the generations surging forward like the tide, the years filled with sound and froth, then being washed over by the rest. That is the legacy of the cities.

Or here, when meeting his old teacher. There’s no suggestion in the book that Salter has lost his way with language:

I meant him to see that his faith in me had been confirmed, but I am not sure what he saw – his smile was one of not quite remembering. His children had replaced me and life now crowded in. As if the school years had been a vine and something cut them and they fell.

In the second half, after too much flightiness, we’re back to earth, with some memories of writers such as Irwin Shaw (er, which one was he again?) and Hemingway. Nonetheless I keep wanting him to get to his own books: is it unnatural for me to want a writer’s memoir to be more or less a director’s commentary on each of his works? But they come only in a fifty-page burst at the end which almost justifies – or at least is cause for forgiveness of – everything that went before. Perhaps Salter sees his novels as only a small aspect of his life (he certainly hasn’t spent the majority of his time writing them). But at the same time he’s primarily known for being a novelist, isn’t he? And “there is your life as you know it and also as others know it, perhaps incorrectly, but to which some importance must be attached. It is difficult to realize that you are observed from a number of points and the sum of them has validity.”

Another area where Salter hasn’t lost his touch, or at least his habit, is in his love of female sexuality, which he tempered to mostly successful ends in A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years. The matched sensations of physical arousal and existential yearning were well evoked in those books (particularly in Viri’s affair with Kaya Doutreau in Light Years), and here he gives us, for example, a portrait of John Huston’s mistress which you can practically taste.

Ilena may have been her name or it may have been the name she simply wore like a silk dressing gown one longed to peel back. Warmth came off her in waves. She was twenty-three years old and weighed sixty-two kilos, the absence of any part of which would have been a grave loss. … It was lovely to watch her. Her legs, the silk of her print dress, the smoothness of her cheeks, all of it shone like constellations, the sort that rule one’s fate.

Salter’s – one thing I learned is that that’s not his real name: he’s Horowitz – great subject is success; other writers prefer failure. He says, “Sometimes you are aware when your great moments are happening, and sometimes they rise from the past.” The horrible conclusion for me from Burning the Days – published in 1997 when he was 72 – so far is that as a writer, Salter’s great moments may be behind him. Which is not to make those moments any less great.

What more is there to wish than to be remembered? To go on living in the narrative of others?

James Salter: The Hunters

Another stop in my journey through James Salter’s sparse output: two novels and a collection of stories down, two novels and a memoir to go. Not much to show for 82 years, you might think, but Salter’s words are so carefully chosen and polished – such quality raw materials – that each book carries more weight than others, and sinks in more slowly, and stays longer afterward. His novels are either about men and women – A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years – or about men and themselves – Cassada, Solo Faces. The Hunters, his debut from 1956, is in this latter category.

In The Hunters, Cleve Connell is battling not only himself but other men: friend and foe. He is a flight commander in the US Air Force in the Korean War, a breed “with that contagious passion peculiar to hunters,” where all that matters to a pilot is getting his first ‘kill’ – bringing down one of the opposing Soviet MIG aircraft. Once he has done that, all that matters then is getting his next four, so that he can become one of the ‘Aces’ with five kills under his belt (and marked on his craft’s fuselage in red stars). This special score would give an Ace

something he never possessed, a hard luster for his assurance. He had become full grown, immutable. If he had seemed frail, he was no sturdier, but that flicking slightness now had an infrangible quality, like cable. He was established. If still shadowed by the ordinary perils, there was one at least he was now fully beyond: disregard.

For others, like Connell himself, the first kill is still elusive. “All a man has to do is want to find them,” they are told. “The desire… that’s all it takes.” But Connell wants them badly, and resists the temptation to curse his luck. “Luck? There’s no luck involved.” To Connell, success in the air battles is a measure of his worth as a man, and his self-respect is dependent on the atrophying respect of his colleagues. How hard it is to take, then, when success clings to others, particularly the conceited – and talented – Pell (“but everybody calls me Doctor”). He despises Pell but dreads becoming like Abbott, who “had been a hero once, in Europe in another war, but the years had worked in irreversible chemistry. He was heavier now, older, and somewhere along the way he had run out of compulsion.” Even now, Connell, an experienced flight commander trying to learn how not to be the freshest and best any more,

had reached the point where a sense of lost time weighed on him. There was a constant counting of tomorrows he had once been so prodigal with. And he found himself thinking too much of unfortunate things. He was frequently conscious of not wanting to die. That was not the same as wanting to live. It was a black disease, a fixation that could ultimately corrode the soul.

As you can see from all the above, the great temptation when writing about Salter is just to let him do the writing. Although much less rich and luminous in its prose than Light Years, The Hunters is nonetheless relentlessly quotable, and addresses masculine concerns – of purpose, of place – that most literature passes over, without being macho or indelicate. He controls the pace expertly, from the rushes of battle to the doldrums of time in between. The dialogue is peppery and vigorous; the ending is perfect and satisfying. Even in his first novel, Salter achieves with lightness of touch and final weightiness the sort of invisible immortality his fighter pilots dream of: “The way to go is in an instant, reaching for that highest one of the stars and then falling away, disappearing, against the earth. I wouldn’t mind that, would you?”

James Salter: Last Night

After devouring his masterpiece Light Years so greedily, I was bound to seek out more James Salter soon.  Picador have recently reissued his memoir, Burning the Days, and A Sport and a Pastime, but it was to his latest collection of short stories, Last Night, that I turned.  The mediocre cover, almost an article of faith for Picador paperbacks, is this time excused by the fact that the blurry photograph was taken by the author.

And as with A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, the subject here is women and men.  And unsurprisingly for a writer who at a recent public appearance said (quoting Irwin Shaw), “The great engines of the world do not run on fidelity,” the relationships in these stories are rarely straightforward.  Rarely is this more succinctly expressed than in the opening story, “Comet,” where Salter, having opened with a simple, “Philip married Adele on a day in June,” then slips in, almost as an aside:

They were married in her house, the one she’d gotten in the divorce

and immediately the character has a rich background that goes some way to explaining her subsequent behaviour.

But this minimalist expression is what Salter excels at in this collection (in comparison with the metaphor rich, thickly luminous prose of Light Years).  Countless times he sums up a personality in a handful of words:

There was not much more to her than met the eye

– a process which reaches its apotheosis in the story “Eyes of the Stars,” which contains the most densely packed two word phrase since Humbert Humbert explained his mother’s death in Lolita (“picnic, lightning”).  This is when the central character sets up with a man described, perfectly and harrowingly, as a “detoured novelist.”  Suddenly we know everything we need to about him.

But parts of the collection – ten stories averaging a dozen pages each – can seem a little slight, or tend towards tricksiness (as in the payoff in “Such Fun”).  The final story, the title piece of the collection, is perhaps the best, both affecting and surprising.  Salter, 82, who dreamed when younger of “making something lasting” from “the great heap of days,” says he has another novel on the way – “it’s going to be terrific.  Maybe.  It could be” – but whether or not we see it, he’s proved his lasting power well enough already.

James Salter: Light Years

Before now, James Salter was known to me only as the author of the slim novel A Sport and a Pastime which, in one of those odd cross-pollinations, came to my attention through being praised by a character in a John Irving novel (maybe A Son of the Circus). A Sport and a Pastime had the reputation of being ‘erotic,’ and if erotic comprises memorable phrases such as “he comes like a bull,” then it had that. But I recall not much more of it, and it was less Salter’s reputation than my feeble addiction to Penguin Modern Classics that made me pick up his 1975 novel Light Years when it was reissued this month.

Midway through the book the female lead, Nedra, who reads biographies of great achievers, reflects that “the power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark.”

The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?

And while reading Light Years may not be a life-changing event (but then again), illumination of the lives of others is precisely its achievement. The light of the title is present everywhere, and few chapters open without a reference to the light: of Rome, of New York, of Paris (“In the morning the light came in silence” … “The room filled with light” … “the river is spilling light”). And Salter illuminates the lives of his characters, the happily-unhappily married Viri and Nedra, with astonishing stylistic brilliance.

Viri and Nedra, prosperous and envied, are not faithful to one another, and their move from marital bliss to domestic blitz and beyond carries echoes of Yates (and has his ultimate tragedy), with prose less plain than his but equally unflinching and honest. The characters are not always sympathetic but when an author can set them wriggling on a pin like this, who cares? So relentlessly seductive is Light Years that each time I returned to it I felt like a teenage suitor: giggling, nervous, hot-faced with intimidation.

Salter’s ability to despatch a character in a few lines is extraordinary. Here he is (through Nedra’s biographies again) on Barcelona’s celebrated architect Gaudi, “who lived to that old age which is sainthood”:

In the end he was struck by a streetcar and left unattended. In the bareness and odor of the charity ward amid the children and poor relations a single eccentric life was ending, a life that was more clamorous than the sea, an everlasting life, a life which was easy to abandon since it was only a husk; it had already metamorphosed, escaped into buildings, cathedrals, legend.

Elsewhere, the writing put me in mind of Updike or Bellow without that restless density which can make their stuff a chore at times. However beautiful Salter’s flexuous prose (and it pretty much always is), the story remains open and fluent, full of air – and light. The narrative proceeds in jumps, impressionistically: a scene here, a set piece there, covering twenty years. Salter seems keen to show what he can do, demonstrating his wit early on with an exchange between Viri and a bespoke shirtmaker, then switching to reflective mood, social satire, and making some scenes impressively erotic without being explicit (particularly in Viri’s horribly realistic obsession with his sometime mistress, Kaya Doutreau).

Most impressive of all, perhaps, is a scene where a character’s father dies in a wrenching and arduous two-page stretch. It puts the tin hat on any questions about Salter’s ability and virtuosic brilliance, or about this being my book of the year so far. It begins like this.

It took a long time, it took forever; days and nights, the smell of antiseptic, the hush of rubber wheels. This frail engine, we think, and yet what murder is needed to take it down. The heart is in darkness, unknowing, like those animals in mines that have never seen the day. It has no loyalties, no hopes; it has its task.