on celebration, james salter and stockholm

The Paris Review have been celebrating James Salter lately, with prizes, an interview, mention of his forthcoming novel, manuscripts and republishing his first ever contribution; Sundays [1966] [comically, they have ascribed it to Giles Foden on their site!], which became part of A Sport and a Pastime. I’ve got a copy of that PR edition from 1966 with Sundays in it I’m happy to note! Here is a link to their site with its serial blog on JS.

Here follows a short excerpt on Light Years from my essay ‘On Meeting James Salter’ -which can stand as my own little celebration.


Non-Proustian Portrait of Nedra Berland, ‘Heroine’ of Light Years.

Her life was like a single, well spent hour. p.245

Where does it all go, she thought, where has it gone? p.259

The present is powerful. Memories fade. p.303.

Nedra had a single actual source of inspiration whose “aplomb” Salter revered. However, aplomb is a quality he’s pursued in many people and places, beginning here in his very early 20s: “We were attracted to one another instantly. We ridiculed one another and adored one another. She was high-spirited and careless. People always told her they liked the way she talked. She used words like “heavenly”, “intense”, “lechers”, and “god-awful”. Years later she would quit a job by smiling sweetly and saying to the boss, “I’ll bet I can make you say shit, Mr Conover. She was a year older than I was, but at that age it made no difference. She was also married. Her husband was a captain in the Air Force. He was to be my best friend.” p. 113. The Captain’s Wife. BD.

“It was all a secret life, lived alone.” 9 The words are Cleve Saville stroke Connell’s p.9 TH.

“He was filled with secrets, deceptions that had made him whole.” This fabulous corner stone line from Light Years is given to Viri Berland, husband of Nedra. Viri possesses a faithless faithfulness Nedra perhaps a faithful faithlessness. Viri is pitifully presumptuous in this, just as Nedra is deludedly self-indulgent. They seem the quintessence of their time and place.

“Day to day truth was probably not in him, but a higher kind of integrity was, a kind not wasted on trivial matters. He had an infectious spirit. We were unalike. I adored him.” 155. BD. Typical qualities of a typical Salteresque hero, this time Philip Coleman who flew with him in Korea. The “incomparable” Coleman was older, lied about his fighter experience, always went in for a kill, not from duty but desire, and yet was out of place too, somehow. Salter claimed the possession of virtue, but admired even envied those who did not: “there are times when virtue is a terrible defect”.

“And all of this, dependent, closely woven, all of it is deceiving. There are really two kinds of life. There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.” [p.24 LY] This life of desire is the motor of much of Salter’s fiction, in which women are “like a magnet, without them the filings just lie inert.” Women with the kind of face, poise, stature “that make one long for one more chance at life.” Critics of Salter always alight on this kind of revelation, as if they’ve never been hit by a wall of passion themselves. But it’s more than that, this unspeakable life of corrosive desire is now quotidian, a facet of the pornographic world of soul shopping we inhabit. This is one reason why his fiction feels so contemporary.

“I can’t explain it. It’s what turns you to powder, being ground between what you can’t do and what you must do. You just turn to dust.” p.134 LY. Here, Salter’s cans and can’ts bred the competing demands and multiple facets of contemporary life. This powder, the dust left over, is our world, in some ways so big, in others so small.

“The great engines of this world do not run on faithfulness.” p.207. BD. Salter is writing about one of his mentor-heroes, the man who persuaded him to turn a failed movie script about mountaineering commissioned by Robert Redford, into the novel Solo Faces. Harold Bloom included it along with Light Years in his slightly ludicrous The Western Canon [1994]. He gave Salter, Bernard Malamud and Nabokov twice as many shots at longevity than John Updike, though one less than F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West and Flannery O’Connor. He also compiled the list before Burning the Days existed but there’s no excuse for overlooking A Sport and a Pastime. In Burning the Days, by the way, Salter was guessing about his charismatic friend. Presuming, perhaps, hoping, I think.

“I like men who have known the best and the worst, whose life has been anything but a smooth trip. Storms have battered them, they have lain, sometimes for months on end, becalmed. There is a residue even if they fail. It has not been all tinkling; there have been grand chords”. p.297 BD.

“Life divides itself with scars like the rings contained within a tree.” p.170 LY.

“I haven’t dismissed heroes or heroism … I deem as heroic those who have the harder task, face it unflinchingly and live. In this world women do that.” p.62 PR. I’m not sure what he meant in 1993 by this harder task, but I do know what it means for him to admire those who face something impossible without flinching or giving up and manage to live too. These are the greatest qualities in his imagination, symbolised by mountaineers, by Nedra Berland -almost, certainly by a writer like Isaac Babel.

“One is drawn to lives achieved in agony.” p. 329 BD.


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