James Salter by Rupert Thomson
Salter’s gift as a writer was his way of conveying the ecstasy and transience of life in language that was simple and crystalline
The Guardian, Saturday 27 June 2015 11.00 BST
When I met James Salter in London in the spring of 2013 I was struck by the way he walked. Though he was 87, there was the ghost of a swagger as he crossed the hotel lobby, and I had an immediate and vivid sense of him as a younger man – the pilot he once famously was, strolling across the runway to his F-86 fighter jet.
Though he acknowledged that flying was probably the great adventure of his life, he always longed to write, and while stationed in Germany in the early 1950s he happened to pick up a copy of Under Milk Wood Burning the Days The Hunters Solo Faces A Sport and a Pastime – reflect that belief. Perhaps because his subjects encompass war, sport and sex, he has sometimes been referred to as a macho writer, but he consistently demonstrated the ability to create believable women, an ability most evident in his 1975 masterpiece, Light Years, which paints a portrait of Viri and Nedra Berland and their gilded but ultimately doomed marriage.
It is the core of Salter’s gift, his way of conveying the ecstasy and transience of life in language that is simple, pure and crystalline, and yet he never reached a wide audience – at least, not until his last years. At the end of our meeting, I asked Salter what he felt about fame. He compared it to a white linen suit. “You’d give anything in the world to have it,” he told me, “and then somebody buys it for you and you don’t wear it very much.” It’s gratifying that after decades of longing and disappointment Salter was able finally to put on that white linen suit.
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