JUNE 20, 2015
The writer James Salter died on Friday in Sag Harbor, New York. He was ninety years old. Perhaps best known for his 1967 novel, “A Sport and a Pastime,” he had a reputation, as Nick Paumgarten wrote in a 2013 Profile of Salter, “as a writer’s writer, or, as John Ashbery once said of Elizabeth Bishop, a writer’s writer’s writer.”
When “A Sport and a Pastime” became a Modern Library classic, in 1995, George Plimpton wrote about a small dinner party thrown to celebrate the occasion. Plimpton singled out the book’s “purity of style and its sensuality,” which, he wrote, “quickly attracted a cult following that has continued to grow over the years.”
Two years later, Salter published his first piece in the magazine, a personal history drawn from his 1997 memoir, “Burning the Days.” The excerpt focusses on the time he spent writing screenplays, which began with short documentaries he made with a friend, and led eventually to working with Robert Redford on “Downhill Racer,” and to projects in Europe. Of “those years in the movies,” Salter wrote, there remains “a kind of silky pollen that clings to the fingertips and brings back what was once pleasurable, too pleasurable, perhaps—the lights dancing on dark water, as in the old prints, the sound of voices, laughter, music, all faint, alluring, far off.”
In 1998, Salter was one of several writers who reflected on then President Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and the subsequent investigation into the affair. Salter had not been a “great admirer” of Clinton, he wrote, but he found himself impressed by the President’s “grit.” “There is no real beauty without some slight imperfection,” he concluded.
Salter published one work of fiction in The New Yorker, the 2002 story “Last Night,” which became the title story of a 2005 collection. “Last Night” is about a translator named Walter and his wife, Marit, who has terminal cancer and has asked him to help her end her life. When Thomas McGuane was on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, he chose this story to read, and discussed it with the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. Salter himself was a guest on the Fiction Podcast, in 2012. He read “His Final Mother,” by Reynolds Price, a story that, Salter said, “takes some liberties that you might not be prepared for.”
Salter wrote two pieces for this Web site last year: a remembrance of his friend Peter Matthiessen and a brief reflection on the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (Salter spent twelve years in the Air Force, several of them as a fighter pilot.) In 2012, Page-Turner published his introduction to Jacques Bonnet’s “Phantoms on the Bookshelves.” “The writers of books are companions in one’s life,” Salter wrote, “and as such are often more interesting than other companions.”