Sunday, July 5, 2015

James Salter / All That Is / Review



It’s been almost 35 years since the publication of James Salter’s previous novel, “Solo Faces.” In the meantime, he’s written two volumes of stories and one of poetry, a memoir, a collection of travel essays and, with his wife, Kay Eldredge Salter, a book about food. He has not been idle. Still, any or all of those books, excellent as they are, might suggest a career in twilight, with grand gestures and major lifts all in the rearview mirror. And why not? Salter is 87, with a reputation so secure he has nothing left to prove. If there were a Mount Rushmore for writers, he’d be there already. He could have published nothing, and no one would have thought less of him.

Apparently no one told Salter, who, with the publication of “All That Is,” an ambitious departure from his previous work, has demolished any talk of twilight with a single stroke. Moreover, this novel casts the last four decades in a completely new light, not coda but overture. The brilliantly compressed stories in which life is lit by lightning flash, the humane memoir that generously exalts, more than anything, the lineaments of ordinary existence — it’s all here, subsumed and assimilated in the service of a work that manages to be both recognizable (no one but Salter could have written it) and yet strikingly original, vigorous proof that this literary lion is still very much on the prowl.

James SalterCreditSamuel Kirszenbaum/Outline — Corbis

In the preface to his 1997 memoir, “Burning the Days,” he wrote: “If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study, and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house. Certain occupants will be glimpsed only briefly. Visitors come and go. At some windows, you may wish to stay longer, but alas. As with any house, all within cannot be seen.” That apt description of his engaging reminiscences might easily serve to introduce this novel.

In the past, Salter’s fiction has concentrated with near savage intensity on specific, revealing moments in its characters’ lives. “A Sport and a Pastime” chronicles the span of a love affair. “The Hunters” and “Cassada” are bound by military tours of duty, “Light Years” by the history of a decaying marriage. The mountain climbers in “Solo Faces” contend against both gravity and the vagaries of age. Behind all these stories is the sound of a ticking clock.

Going long where those previous narratives were almost cruelly terse, “All That Is” gobbles the whole arc of a man’s lifetime as its subject, opening near the end of World War II, when Philip Bowman is a junior naval officer on a ship bound for Japan. Over the next several decades, we see him married and divorced, and watch him make his way as a book editor at a literary publishing house in New York. Other romances follow, the most significant one curdled by a cruel betrayal that Bowman ultimately repays with commensurate viciousness. Friends fall away, new friendships are forged, houses are bought and sold, parents die, and one by one the bonds of love and attachment weaken and fade. In one of our last glimpses of Bowman — he’s just old enough to be thinking hard about death — he’s pondering a trip back to the Pacific, last seen from a warship’s deck, “where the only daring part of his life lay.” The clock ticks in this book too, but not so audibly, and sometimes not at all.

Set beside the flyboys and climbers of Salter’s previous books, Bowman looks unremarkable, a loner with a lowercase life and a profession to match: “The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened. It had happened gradually. It was something everyone recognized and ignored. All went on exactly as before, that was the beauty of it. The glory had faded but fresh faces kept appearing, wanting to be part of it, to be in publishing which had retained a suggestion of elegance like a pair of beautiful, bone-shined shoes owned by a bankrupt man.” Here, as always, this writer so at war with the obvious uncovers radiance in even the most melancholy circumstance, applying to it the same rigor he uses to scrutinize and dismiss any easy, conventional notions about heroism or the honorable life.

What redeems the otherwise ordinary Bowman — what gives him grace — are his unstinting capacity for watchfulness and his embrace of memory as a bulwark against oblivion. Supplying his own epigraph, Salter opens the novel with this note: “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.” Bowman insists at one point that he’s no writer, but, like the man who created him, he doesn’t miss much: “The first voice he ever knew, his mother’s, was beyond memory, but he could recall the bliss of being close to her as a child. He could remember his first schoolmates, the names of everyone, the classrooms, the teachers, the details of his own room at home — the life beyond reckoning, the life that had been opened to him and that he had owned.”

With his customary knack for scenes and characters chiseled with a stonecutter’s economy, Salter constructs Bowman’s world out of dozens of glistening miniatures and tossed-off portraits, each bristling with life. There are the troops at Tarawa, “slaughtered in enemy fire dense as bees,” and Bowman’s uncle, a New Jersey restaurant owner who “had taught himself to play the piano and would sit in happiness, drawn up close to the keyboard with his thick fingers, their backs richly haired, nimble on the keys.” There is an upper-crust London party that might have been drawn by Hogarth, where an “older woman with a nose as long as an index finger was eating greedily, and the man with her blew his nose in the linen napkin, a gentleman, then.” (Actually, the artist Salter most closely resembles is Degas, with his icy regard and discerning, sensual eye.) And while there is a generous amount of carnality, as might be expected from the author of “A Sport and a Pastime,” the sex is always lyrically economical and never ever laughable, except when it means to be: “They made love simply, straightforwardly — she saw the ceiling, he the sheets.”

The everyday may be one of the hardest things to write about — the quotidian doings, including the outright tedium, of ordinary life. Writers from Flaubert to David Foster Wallace have attempted it, and its difficulties may be gauged by the fact that only writers of that caliber even consider trying. But to pull it off, to succeed in conjuring the “unbreathing stillness” of an August dawn just before a storm or the vertigo ignited by the news of a mother’s death, to indelibly record the trivial and the portentous with the same ravenous affection, thereby persuading us that there may be no difference between the two when assaying the worth of a life or divining its mystery — that is a crowning achievement and it’s Salter’s to claim.

By James Salter
290 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.

Malcolm Jones is the author of the memoir “Little Boy Blues.”


Saturday, July 4, 2015

James Salter / The Hunters / Extract


by James Salter
It was almost noon when they crossed the Korean coast. Cleve stared anxiously at it, drifting past beneath the wing. He knew a moment of acute fulfillment, for here he would make a valedictory befitting his years. He had come along way for it, and much was still ahead; but already he could feel self-imposed obligations, his burden of pride, diminishing, actually leaving him. He began to experience something of the exhilaration that came with triumph. In this war, he was more certain than ever, he would attain himself, as men do who venture past all that is known.
He looked about the cabin. Everyone was leaning toward the nearest window to see the land below, which lay calm as wreckage in the clear winter air. Not much could be distinguished to show where the war had been. Smooth fields of snow mottled everything, and the rivers were as pronounced as veins, but he did not think of an ancient mother of men. His eye was the flyer's. He saw the hostile mountains, the absence of good landmarks, and the few places flat enough to land in an emergency.
They had fought down there, on foot, taking weeks to move the distance he went in an hour. He was arriving like a tourist, in comfort. He felt the detachment of a specialist, and the importance. His gaze moved for a while to the heavy wing and the out-board nacelle, which was the only one he could see. A broad slick of oil, black and gleaming, was spread back from the cowling. He went back to staring moodily at the land.
Within an hour they had landed at Seoul. It was a blue, bitter February afternoon. Cleve stepped off the plane onto Korean ground frozen as hard as plaster. A sharp wind was keening across the flats. It stung his cheeks and made the rims of his ears ache. It came with the sharpness of steel into his lungs when he breathed. His eyes watered.
He followed along in the string of debarking passengers. They walked across a bare expanse of earth toward buildings near which were mounds of baggage, barracks bags, and groups of waiting men huddled in their overcoats. He walked past them and into the biggest hut. Inside it was crowded, too, and almost as cold. Men were clustered about the two oil stoves, warming their hands. Cleve hesitated, then began pushing through them with difficulty toward a counter he could see at the far end of the room. There he inquired, as soon as he had an opportunity to, about going onto Kimpo. He had no idea how long an additional trip it might be.
'I'll find out for you, Captain,' the corporal said, turning away. 'Hey, how do you get from here to Kimpo?'
'To where?'
'There's a bus that goes there.'
'When does it run?'
'How should I know? Look at the schedule.'
'Where's the schedule?'
'Oh, Christ.' The other man walked over with an expression of disgust on his face. He was a sergeant. He leafed through a foliage of paper tacked on the wall and quickly located the schedule. He ran a finger down its columns.
'The next one is due to leave here in,' he looked at his watch, 'thirty-five minutes.' He turned to Cleve. 'Are you the one who's going to Kimpo, Captain?'
'That's right.'
'You can catch it just outside, on the road?'
Cleve sat down on one of the benches near the counter to begin an uncomfortable wait. He had meant to ask how long a ride it would be, but he suddenly felt it did not make any difference. He listened to pieces of conversation. Everybody seemed to be on the way back to Japan. In Japan, everybody had been going back to the States. He was moving alone against this tide. It was always that way, he reflected, the feeling of arriving late, after everything was over.

Friday, July 3, 2015

James Salter on Passing an Hour with Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov, photographed by Irving Penn for Vogue in 1966.

James Salter on Passing an Hour with Vladimir Nabokov

JUNE 22, 2015 2:43 PM

James Salter, who died last week at the age of 90, wrote this essay on passing an hour with Vladimir Nabokov for the September 2007 issue of Vogue.
Sometime around 1950 I came across his name, which I first mispronounced, to myself and aloud, with the accent on Nab. It was a professor’s name or a musician’s, and in fact he was a professor at the time, at Cornell. I’d only a glimpse of what he could do, a published chapter of what was finally Speak, Memory, his partial autobiography. That one glimpse was enough.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

James Salter / The Paradise of the Library

The Paradise of the Library



JULY 19, 2012

As Anthony Burgess once commented, there is no better reason for not reading a book than having it, but an exception should be made for Jacques Bonnet’s “Phantoms on the Bookshelves,” just out this month. It appears at a time when books and literature as we have known them are undergoing a great and perhaps catastrophic change. A tide is coming in and the kingdom of books, with their white pages and endpapers, their promise of solitude and discovery, is in danger, after an existence of five hundred years, of being washed away. The physical possession of a book may become of little significance. Access to it will be what matters, and when the book is closed, so to speak, it will disappear into the cyber. It will be like the genie—summonable but unreal. Bonnet’s private library, however, comprised of more than forty thousand volumes, is utterly real. Assembled according to his own interests, idiosyncratic, it came into being more or less incidentally over some four decades through a love of reading and a disinclination to part with a book after it was acquired. Among other things, he might need it some day.

Under the pretense of writing about this library—its origins, contents, and organization—he has written instead this often witty tribute to and perhaps requiem for a life built around reading that summons up all the magical and seductive power of books. You recognize, with a kind of terrible joy, all that you haven’t read and that you would like to read. Titles and names strike what can only be called chords of desire. In these pages, as at a fabulous party, you are introduced to writers who have not been translated into English, or barely. Hugues Rebell, Milan Fust, Anders Nygren, Kafu Nagai, the Japanese writer of the floating world about whom Edward Seidensticker wrote “Kafu the Scribbler,” or Osamu Dazai, “tubercular and desperate,” who attempted suicide three or four times, the last time successfully with his mistress. To these as well as to writers more famous, and to incredible characters: Count Serlon de Savigny and his beautiful fencing-champion mistress, Hauteclaire Stassin, who together murder the count’s wife and live happily ever after in Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s “Happiness in Crime,” or Edvarda, the trader’s daughter in Knut Hamsun’s “Pan,” who sometimes came to the cabin where Lieutenant Thomas Glahn lived near the forest with his dog, Aesop.

Bonnet did not resist these books. They became, in a way, part of him, and he manages to bring up the question of what one has read, what one should read, what one remembers, and, in a paradoxical way, what is the use of it. This last question can be dealt with more easily: reading has the power not only to demolish time and span the ages, but also the capacity to make one feel more human—human meaning at one with humanity—and possibly less savage. Bonnet admits that he has not read all his books, which, even at the rate of two or three a week, would take the better part of a century. Some he has read and forgotten, others he remembers, although not always perfectly—indelible, however, are “the two wild duck feathers which the lieutenant, Thomas Glahn, with the blazing eyes of a wild beast would receive two years later folded into a sheet of paper embossed with a coat of arms”—and a great number of books he has only glanced at or not read at all. As he describes it himself, books that he has acquired, that is, has bought rather than received because of his occupation as a writer and editor, can end up in one of three ways:

They may be read immediately, or pretty soon; they may be put off for reading later (and that could mean weeks, months and even years, if circumstances are particularly unfavourable, or the number of incoming books is too great—what I call my “to read” pile). Or they may go straight on to the shelf.

He goes on to say that even these books immediately shelved have, in a sense, been “read.” He knows what they are and where they are; they can be of use one day. He is able, of course, to read quickly since this has long been his work. But some books should not be read quickly. One often hears the expression “I couldn’t put it down,” but there are books that you have to put down. Books should be read at the speed they deserve, he properly notes. There are books that can be skimmed and fully grasped and others that only yield themselves, so to speak, on the second or even third reading.

All of this is normal, and you have probably formed an image of a pallid bookworm, serious and solitary. Bonnet is not like this. He is, to the contrary, convivial, good-natured, even jaunty. He has spent his life as an editor, as a journalist for Le Monde and L’Express, and as an art historian, writing a book on the life and paintings of Lorenzo Lotto. These are what might be called the visible occupations. At the same time, and much of the time, he has read. He has always read. He likes to read, as he says, “anywhere and in any position” although for him—and he is a voluptuary in this regard—the ideal is lying down or, as he elsewhere mentions, in the bath. I have never seen him reading, although I remember that the one visit I made to his Paris apartment was like walking into La Hune; the walls were completely covered with bookshelves and the shelves were filled with books. This was fifteen or twenty years ago, and I don’t know if there was then the full complement of books, nor do I know what forty thousand books would look like; but it was an apartment dedicated to them. I didn’t wonder at the time how they were arranged, and I did not consider what, after the joy of acquisition, must be an overwhelming reality for the owner of a large library: that it is almost impossible to move, both from the point of view of finding another place large enough, as well as actually moving all the books, packing, transporting, and reshelving them.

A private library of good size is an insolent form of riches, and the desire to have more books is difficult to rationalize, especially in view of the fact that you do not or cannot read them all but, as Bonnet makes clear, still you might. The bibliophile is, after all, like a sultan or khan who has countless wives already but another two or three are always irresistible. Reading is a pastime and can be regarded as such, but it can also be supremely important. Walter Benjamin expressed it off-handedly; he read, he said, “just to get in touch.” I take this to mean in touch with things otherwise impossible to embrace rather than merely stay abreast of, although a certain ambiguity is the mark of accomplished writers. Benjamin’s life ended tragically. He fled from the Nazis but was trapped, unable to cross into Spain, and he committed suicide. But that was the end only of his mortal life. He exists still with a kind of shy radiance and the continued interest and esteem of readers. He is dead like everyone else, except that he is not. You might say the same of a movie star except that it seems to me that stars are viewed years after with a kindly curiosity. They are antique and perhaps still charming. A writer does not age in the same way. He or she is not imprisoned in a performance.

Books, as Bonnet comments, are expensive to buy and worth very little if you try to sell them. The fate of a private library after the death of its owner is almost always to be scattered. There are exceptions, like the library assembled in Hamburg by Aby Warburg that was moved to London, in 1933, to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis, and that became the heart of an institute for Renaissance studies. But even great libraries, those of schools and cities, have come to ruin, destroyed by fire, war, or decree: Alexandria’s famous library, Dresden’s in 1945, others. An emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, you will learn, the builder of the Great Wall, also ordered the destruction of all books that did not concern themselves with medicine, agriculture, or divination. There were a number of sages who preferred to die rather than destroy their libraries.

The love of books, the possession of them, can be thought of as an extension of one’s self or being, not separate from a love of life but rather as an extra dimension of it, and even of what comes after. “Paradise is a library,” as Borges said.

The writers of books are companions in one’s life and as such are often more interesting than other companions. Men on their way to execution are sometimes consoled by passages from the Bible, which is really a book written by great, if unknown writers. There are many writers and many of some magnitude, like the stars in the heavens, some visible and some not, but they shed glory, as Bonnet makes clear without the least attempt at persuasion.

This essay is drawn from Salter’s introduction to “Phantoms on the Bookshelves” © 2012 by Jacques Bonnet; translated from French by Siân Reynolds and published by The Overlook Press.

Monday, June 29, 2015

James Salter / Lost in Air

Lost in Air

MARCH 18, 2014

I’ve known the anxiety of being completely lost, flying, at night. It can be extreme. You’re travelling at close to five hundred miles an hour, and every minute that goes by takes you further into being lost unless you get help from ground radar somewhere or somehow figure out the error. If you maintain altitude, is it a safe altitude or should you climb? How long have you been lost? It doesn’t happen suddenly. It’s just suddenly recognized.

But the Malaysian airliner was not lost. It was on course on a long, late-night flight to Beijing. I am identifying now with the passengers. An hour after takeoff, some are already asleep. The plane is flying smoothly at altitude. Only a change in engine power would have gained anyone’s attention. If, in fact, there was a change of course in a turn to the left, it may have been a very gentle turn, almost unnoticeable. Everything is proceeding normally. The fact that they are no longer in communication with anyone or anything on earth gives the plane and its passengers, most of whom are by now sleeping, the equivalent of invisibility.

Does this particular plane have the small television screens that show altitude and airspeed and then distance to destination and estimated time of arrival? Do the screens show a map and the course?

One of the pilots, most likely, knows where they are going, possibly both pilots. Possibly even a third or fourth person. But at some point the cabin crew will realize that something is wrong. The passengers know nothing, and, even if there is finally some understanding or feeling of unease, what can they do? They realize that they have been flying for too long, dawn is breaking. There have been no announcements, or, worse, there has been an ominous announcement that causes panic. At some point, the passengers, perhaps coming out of sleep, know.

There were airplane crashes during the Second World War, in the mountains, the jungles, in the Arctic, at sea, where the wreckage of the plane was never found or found decades later, sometimes in pieces, sometimes nearly intact. Eventually most questions about what happened are answered, but only after the wreckage has been found. I think the answer for the flight out of Kuala Lumpur will finally be found in the sea.

James Salter’s latest novel is titled “All That Is.”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

James Salter / Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen
Postscript: Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014)

APRIL 14, 2014

I met Peter Matthiessen sometime in the late nineteen-seventies. I had moved east from Colorado, or intended to, and we were introduced by a mutual friend. I had been at several Paris Review parties at George Plimpton’s in the years before that, but had never happened to meet Peter there. He was famous, not only as a founding editor of the Paris Review but as a writer. He wrote for The New Yorker and had won a National Book Award for “The Snow Leopard.” An earlier book, “Wildlife in America,” had established his reputation years before.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

James Salter / Bangkok

Illustration by Simon Birch


By James Salter

Hollis was in the back at a table piled with books and a space among them where he was writing when Carol came in.
Hello, she said.
Well, look who's here, he said coolly. Hello.
She was wearing a gray jersey sweater and a narrow skirt as always, dressed well.
Didn't you get my message? she asked.