The writer James Salter is in the extraordinary position of having become very famous for not being famous at all.
This week, at the British launch for his book, All That Is, literary London milled about the ballroom at Chandos House in Marylebone, drinking dry champagne and marvelling at the book’s instant and overwhelming success. Many of those in the crowd were journalists paying court. A large table was stacked high with reissued copies of his previously out-of-print backlist. Two editors from competing glossy magazines bantered good-naturedly over who ran their Salter interview first. “How was I supposed to know he was going to be bigger than Daft Punk?” one asked.
Cocktail chatter lulled when the head of Picador U.K. stood up in order to lavish praise upon the 87-year-old American, calling the novel – Salter’s first in 34 years – “marvellous,” “exquisite,” and “the very best work of fiction I’ve read in a long, long time.”
But when the author himself took the microphone, looking like a slightly more weather-beaten version of Thurston Howell, the millionaire on Gilligan’s Island, in his navy blazer and khaki trousers, the room fell silent. “Well, that leaves me with absolutely nothing positive to say,” he said in his thin, flatly accented voice – a voice at odds with the weighty baritone of his presence.
The crowd exploded with laughter, and Salter paused, warily eyeing the rapturous faces before him, as if to acknowledge that the joke had not been that funny. “Since this novel was published, I’ve already signed more books than I’ve previously sold. There is the general idea that I’ve lived and worked in obscurity. No one will think that after this.”
It was, everyone agreed, a perfect speech.
This was ironic (or perhaps just entirely fitting), given that Salter has spent much of his later career trying to shift the mantle of stylistic perfection. “I wanted to get past the great-writer-of-sentences thing,” he once wrote in a letter to a friend. “I don’t care about that at this stage.” Naturally, this hasn’t stopped his publisher from touting the praise Salter has gotten from Richard Ford, another American heavyweight: “Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master.”
Nor did it stanch the flow of extravagant praise from writers far richer, more famous and more prize-laden than Salter. Julian Barnes calls the novel “consistently elegant”; Edmund White, “a masterpiece”; Tim O’Brien, “the best novel I’ve read in years.” John Irving declares it a work of “sufficient love, heartbreak, vengeance, identity confusion, longing and euphoria of language to have satisfied Shakespeare.”
According to a recent profile in The New Yorker, Salter is “the writer’s writer’s writer,” an author who “is not famous,” but “is venerated for his sentence-making, his observational powers, his depictions of sex and valour, and a pair of novels that, in spite of sales and obscure subject matter, have more than a puncher’s chance at permanence.”
The insider’s pick is a mantle Salter has admitted he finds somewhat discomfiting, smacking as it does of a patronizing sense of having been lost, then rediscovered, by his more successful peers. “James Salter: The Forgotten Hero of American Literature,” was a headline that recently ran in the Observer.
Like it or not, all this veneration from high places has rendered Salter’s career bigger than the sum of its parts. He has become the altar of literary obscurity at which more “discovered” authors pay homage. His advanced age only adds to the sense of sage authenticity.