Illustration by Triunfo Arciniegas
How to be the hippest act in town even in your eighties
Robert McCrum meets James Salter, the softly-spoken American novelist whose work is experiencing a remarkable renaissance
Sunday 25 March 2007 00.14 GMT
ames Salter is possibly the best living American writer you've never heard of. His fans range from Joyce Carol Oates to Michael Ondaatje; according to the Washington Post, he is the contemporary novelist 'most admired by other writers'. At the heart of this acclaim lie three works of fiction (The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years) and an astonishing volume of 'recollection', Burning the Days. Perhaps this adulation will now be repeated here. Penguin Modern Classics has just reissued The Hunters and Light Years, the latter with an introduction by Richard Ford that makes the object of its praise beam with pleasure.
Salter, a shortish, careful, eightysomething, dressed in khakis, shirt and comfy jacket, the uniform of the postwar American intellectual, is at pains to seem a regular guy, a man of 'low cultural tastes' who 'didn't read a lot as a child'. Born in 1925, he grew up in New York as Jim Horowitz, the son of second-generation immigrant Jews. His father had gone to West Point; his son joined the air force, to fight in Korea. Salter protests that, up to this point, he had no ambitions to be a writer and had grown up unbookishly, reading pulp magazines about aviation.
War can inspire literature. Stunned and exhilarated by the experience of aerial combat, he wrote The Hunters. 'I had hoped when I was writing the book,' he observes in a typically diffident formulation, 'that I might be a writer.'
When it appeared, under the name of James Salter, and got 'good reviews' and 'fairly good sales', it seemed that he could say: 'Now I'm a writer.' Salter notes with a rueful smile: 'I was mistaken.' He was only at the start of a long apprenticeship.
In 1957, he resigned his commission to devote his energies to fiction, had a disappointing experience with his second novel and fell into screenwriting, noting: 'It was good money and I needed it.' He says he had always wanted to write or, better still, to direct a movie. His finest hour was Downhill Racer, starring Robert Redford and Gene Hackman.
Looking back, Salter recognises that expending his energies on the film business was 'misguided'. After the dazzling debut of The Hunters, there was 'a hiatus of about 10 years; yes, the time could have been better spent'. But then, at the end of this fallow season came A Sport and a Pastime, a novel of a love affair at once 'licentious yet pure'. This erotic masterpiece was of such transgressive intensity that it was only published through the benign intervention of The Paris Review's George Plimpton.
Once Salter had identified his theme - the sexual life or, as he puts it, 'the real game of the grown-up world' - his work began to soar again. Light Years followed, the novel of a disintegrating marriage that Harold Bloom has placed in his Western Canon. Mention this to Salter, and he brushes Bloom's advocacy aside. 'The question is: does he [Bloom] know anything?' he asks, not unkindly. 'In the end,' he observes philosophically, 'flattery is wonderful so long as you don't inhale.'
Salter could hardly be more American in speech and demeanour, but there's something appealingly English about his robust lack of 'side'. I wonder: would he think of himself as an artist? 'Yes, I would.' (Laughs.) 'But you have to forgive that. I mean... you know...' (He shrugs). His sentence tails off and the conversation turns to a story about F Scott Fitzgerald. Salter rates Fitzgerald 'pretty high', but says he wouldn't put him 'at the top of the American tree'.
Who would be top? A long pause. 'For true soul, for spirit, that most important quality, I'd say Faulkner. He's not a very good writer, but he's a great writer.' 'Who am I leaving out?' he wonders. Philip Roth, perhaps? 'Yeah, I'm leaving out Philip Roth.' Salter's fuzzy diffidence is gone. He's analysing Roth's qualities with the urgent clarity of a rival, concluding with: 'I admire and envy him.'
Is there a new novel? 'Oh yeah - there is, and it's going to be terrific. Maybe. It could be. I can't talk about it...' Salter understands the processes of the literary afterlife. As he puts it in Burning the Days: 'Somewhere, the ancient clerks are sorting literary reputations. The work goes on eternally and without haste. There are names passed over and names revered.'
Read The Hunters or Light Years and you will find a writer more likely to be revered than passed over.