Sunday, October 6, 2013

James Salter / An Old Master

A final flowering that proves 

an old master can still capture 

the first flush of youth

David Sexton

16 May 2013

London Evening Standard

All That Is
by James Salter
(Picador, £18.99)

Salter published his first novel in 1957 and is now 87 - but this book is easily the equal of all his others, says David Sexton. Primarily a series of stories about moments of transcendant happiness in its hero Bowman's love life, the way he writes implies an attitude to life, even down to the level of the single sentence - he is that good.

David Sexton
Publische 16 May 2013

All That Is
by James Salter
(Picador, £18.99)

It's rare for novelists in old age to produce work as good as that of their youth. If they try to describe contemporary life, it’s seldom convincing; if they revert to the past, they tend to repeat themselves for the worse. James Salter, though, escapes these strictures, perhaps because all his work has been about looking at life elegiacally, about treating the present as fleeting, treasuring what can be captured in memory and words, now so more than ever.

Salter, who published his first novel, The Hunters, about his experiences as a fighter pilot in the Korean War — he flew more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 Sabre — back in 1957, is 87 now. Yet All That Is is the equal of such great novels as A Sport and a Pastime,  Light Years and his memoir, Burning the Days. That is to say, it is delectable.

Philip Bowman, its hero, is an altered version of Salter himself (fiction is almost always drawn from life, he has said). It opens with Bowman as the young navigation officer on a ship preparing for the invasion of Okinawa in 1944, attacked by kamikazes, an experience that determines his attitude to what matters for the rest of his life. All this has happened before he has any experience of love.

Returning to New York, he becomes not a writer, but an editor in an intelligent publishing house and marries a horsey Virginia girl, Vivian, with whom he is erotically infatuated. The marriage doesn’t last, and the rest of the book — while elliptically referring to public events like the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam War, and containing pretty obvious satirical sketches of recognisable people such as the entrepreneurial London publisher “Lord Wiberg” — is primarily a series of stories about moments of transcendant happiness in Bowman’s love life interspersed with vignettes about the personal lives of the people he knows, many of which, although brief and glancing, could stand alone as stories.

There’s Enid, a married Englishwoman he meets at a publishing party with whom sex for the first time amounts to uniting with London itself. He experiences “a kind of nirvana not based on freedom from desires but on attainment. He was at the centre of the city, of London, it would always be his.”

There’s Christine, another married woman he meets at an airport, with whom he experiences even greater sexual rapture: “Everything he had wanted to be, she was offering him. She had been given to him as a blessing, a proof of God.” Christine finds a perfect house in the country for them to share, but betrays him. Years later, he seduces her daughter, 30 years his junior,  and takes her to Paris, in revenge.

Bowman ages alone. “Age doesn’t arrive slowly, it comes in a rush,” says Salter in one of his authorial certainties. But then in the last chapter, Without End, there is the “miraculous presence” of Ann, who also works in publishing: “He was unsure of himself and of her. He was too old to marry. He didn’t want some late, sentimental compromise. He had known too much for that ...” They plan a November trip to Venice.

Salter has an extraordinary gift of conveying an entire story, the huge decisions of life, in a few telling  phrases. Here’s a man happily married: “He had fallen in love with his wife before he ever saw her, he said. He saw a pair of legs beneath some sheets being hung up next door to dry.” Or in a paragraph or two. People — Joanna, a fat girl, who finds happiness, and Breggren, a Swedish publisher, whose acceptance of the reality of what happens with the women he loves leads him to suicide, have their whole lives told simply, lyrically, and never appear again.

Salter switches freely between foreground and background, incisive generalisation and precise detail, intense moments of lived experience and great swathes of time passing unremarked. A story that, treated more conventionally, could have been so much longer  and less affecting is refracted here into points of light, moments of intense feeling, the memories that constitute us. The way Salter writes implies an attitude to life, even down to the level of the single sentence. He is that good.

Salter’s belief that the core of our being is sex and that what happens to us in this realm is the story of our lives may seem extreme, outmoded  and even reprehensible to some readers. But he has made from it the loveliest book, so late in the day. Although Salter has never had the fame of, say, Updike or Cheever, he is their equal, at least.

James Salter
by Nancy Crampton

An American Master: 

James Salter

by Alexander Maksik
March / April 2013

Years ago, a friend and I used to joke about founding a new writing movement—we’d call it the Sensualist School. Our work would be devoted to the sensual experience and the ways in which close attention to the physical world might save our subjects from all variety of sorrow and disaster. It would be a response to what we saw as a glut of ironic, glib and self-referential writers who seemed happily disconnected from bodily experience, guided by the notion that thought, not feeling, was the way into art and the way into living.

James Salter might have been our patron saint. By the time I discovered him, he had lived the way I wanted to live myself. Which is to say variously and with courage. He had been a fighter pilot and flew more than a hundred missions to Korea. And then, after 12 years in the Air Force and the publication of his first novel, he resigned and with that became a writer. He wrote with style and in spite of fear, and as I first began to write seriously, he was, as he remains, a hero to me. It was his novel A Sport and a Pastime that did it first, but I have learned from everything he’s written—novels and essays and short stories. Salter is a writer for whom engagement with the physical world provides relief from life’s inherent sadness, disappointment and terror. Sex and food, sunlight and sea are all powerful contrasts to isolation, loneliness and the rapid passage of time, which is nearly audible in his fiction. No matter the horrors his characters endure—the sudden or gradual losses, the betrayals, the violence—there are always moments of ecstatic physical engagement, when time and memory seem to vanish, when there is nothing but the immediate and sacred present. As Salter wrote to me, “These natural things don’t ever bring sadness. There may be some melancholy in rain. Snow can make you pensive. A big storm is one of the most thrilling things in life. Sex brings sadness, afterwards, a kind of desolation, but where is the remedy for sex? If I make any argument, which is anyhow only implicit, it is: Try to be a man.”
In James Salter I discovered not only an exquisite writer but a manner of living. I found solace in the same way I imagined his characters found solace: Pay close enough attention to silver light on the ocean, to making love, to food, and all the rest is worth the trouble. In fact, these things are all we have. These things, and perhaps writing itself, which should be the most sophisticated, most refined form of paying close attention. In his essay “Some for Glory, Some for Praise,” Salter writes, “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.” He uses the same lines for the epigraph to his new novel, All That Is (Knopf), the story of Philip Bowman, who as a young man returns from World War II to begin a career as a book editor in New York. It’s a masterpiece, and in it, over and over, he demonstrates the revelatory power of the physical experience, a counterpoint to pain. In one of the novel’s finest scenes, Bowman is having dinner with a woman at a seaside restaurant. On a whim he decides they should go for a swim together. The waves are too big, the night too dark, but they go anyway. They might have drowned, but they don’t, and afterward they return home “shaken but exultant.” Which, it seems to me, is how we should all like to feel at the end of a life. Near the conclusion of the novel, when Bowman is older, he swims alone. “Though he was tiring,” Salter writes, “he felt he could not swim enough, stay long enough, in this ocean, on this day.”
If we have lived with the grace and passion of James Salter, we are left looking out at the world—standing at a window, the way Bowman does, filled with “deep nostalgia,” watching the snow fall over a place we love. And here, looking back on a life nearly ended, we maintain the intense desire to continue living, to stay longer, to keep swimming, and if we are fortunate, we are shaken and we are exultant, and we have what is recorded in novels, in short stories, in essays. For otherwise, everything will have been a dream.

James Salter Reading List

A Sport and a Pastime (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): A love affair between a young French woman and a Yale dropout, narrated by a man who weaves observation and imaginings into a novel so sensual and vivid that it feels like a drug.
Light Years (Vintage): Yes, it’s another novel about an American marriage, but as Richard Ford points out in the introduction, “Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.”
Burning the Days (Vintage): Salter’s memoir is both a view into an extraordinary, novelistic existence and a kind of gloss to the rhythms of his fiction and the way that he brings people to life on the page.
Life is Meals (Knopf): Structured like a diary—one entry a day—the book is a history of James Salter and his wife Kay’s life in food: guest-list advice, poetic notes on eating and recipes (try Salter’s blini) from dinner parties that have inspired art.

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