james salter; readers revenge & last night 2006

James Salter photo

I wonder if anyone really cares or wants to linger with what Norman Mailer thought or wrote about sex, nor what any of the Jonathans haven’t thought or written about it.

I’m intrigued however by the way that Kate Roiphe’s much-blogged piece in the NYT left out any mention of the great and complex James Salter’s thoughts and writings about it. Of course, it’s because he doesn’t fit the schema; old existential roisterers and silly braggers vs new pseudo-feminised feyboys/merchants of self-mortification.

The key line is this one comparing the old with the weary:

“In contrast to their cautious, entangled, ambivalent, endlessly ironic heirs, there is something almost romantic in the old guard’s view of sex: it has a mystery and a power, at least. It makes things happen.”

Roiphe’s not-mentioning Salter maps too neatly over the way that his many non-mentioners perceive him as nothing more than a 2-D ClassicMan served in pricey after/over dinner sauce. Or as marginal old-school, perhaps? Instead, sticking with the schema, I think that Salter knows that sex can make things happen, but that those ‘things’ involve plenty of entangling ambivalence too, no? [Who isn’t weary of cautious irony?]

Salter’s non-readers also think of him as typical New Yorker product when, just for instance, he was far too much, too singular, too difficult for the New Yorker for decades while producing brilliantly crystalline short stories [hunt down Dusk and other Stories]. The same non-readers managed to dampen the fact that Salter’s fiction is now in Penguin Modern Classics where it belongs [amongst books not to be approached with cliché, at least] and what isn’t is well published in the UK in Picador paperback.

So, while for many years it was hard to get at or read his classics; A Sport and a Pastime [published in the UK 20 years after the US!], Light Years and Burning the Days, it no longer is. At the same time, his almost impossible to find earlier or less concentratedly Salteresque/Salterine books, The Hunters and Solo Days are now also in print. Easily available, not to be missed.

Readers can get one over critical and consensual incuriosity and, frankly, ignorance, by reading books like Solo Faces and forming their own judgment on exactly how good it is in Salter’s mini canon of greatness. A tip; get over the first few pages up on that church roof and you’ll find yourself finishing it at a sitting -on a ledge thousands of metres above the ground.

Salter’s non-mention in the story of 20th American sex-writing came at the same time, slightly unfortunately, as the issue on DVD on a film he scripted for Robert Redford, Downhill Racer. I haven’t seen it yet but the combination demonstrates a rare breadth of ability  no less and generated attention in places like GQ on the one hand and Slate on the other.

Any trigger to read Salter is welcome, but I think GQ’s notion that he is [‘merely’] a great sex writer is wrong. No no it’s more than that; he’s a great writer of desire, in the theoretical and quotidian sense. This is why his 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s writing feels so alive, generating ambivalence with a very particular nakedness of the spirit -and very much more.

So every time Salter is not-mentioned, take the reader’s revenge and enter a world founded not on comfortable certainties, leering vantage points or, I’m afraid, sexual possession/disgust, but on what a character in his earliest fiction describes as “indigenous doubt”; a world of conflicting desires, ideas, roles, intentions, hopes and expectations. One very like how we all experience being alive in 2010, no?

I’m posting a short celebratory review I wrote as Salter’s second collection of stories, Last Night, was published in the UK in 2006, when his other work was still very hard to get hold of.

Early in 2007 he was in London and gave an irresistible reading at the LRB bookshop. By then I’d drafted a highly singular and -dare I say- pretty authoritative essay called Meeting James Salter.  I sent my 7000 word essay to one or two people with sufficient appetite in London. That led indirectly to me actually meeting JS and then to him mailing substantial comments and factual corrections to my essay.

I haven’t succeeded -or tried hard enough- in ‘placing’ Meeting James Salter, surprise, surprise. The only journal in the UK that publishes at any such length told me they’d done something on him recently, meaning an ill-read review from the this-man-is-a-sexist-cliché school in 2004. Such things are telling if forgivable for a young critic; not so for the well-seasoned publication itself.

For now, anyone interested in reading or publishing my essay can email me at the address in About: queries [at] g-m-a [dot] net.

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Last Night. By James Salter

Penetrating tales about life from an American master of fiction

Review by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Thursday, 30 March 2006

“Aplomb” is a favourite word of James Salter’s. He praises Virginia Woolf for hers, adds it to the physical glories of a busy mistress, and, in Nedra Berland, heroine of his novel Light Years, wrote a study of it. He uses it like this; “I liked the way he spoke, the speed of his conclusions, the breadth of his scorn, the exactness of his references. Also his aplomb.”

Famously, albeit not famously enough, Salter is the Jewish-American fighter pilot and film writer/maker, transformed in mid life into a master of ecstatic prose fiction and non-fiction. Even this legend has a singular footnote containing two early novels, straighter accounts of airborne daring-do, recently revised. Literary canons are risible, as Harold Bloom’s choice of Light Years and Solo Faces for his parade, The Western Canon, demonstrates. However, Salter has written three books that everyone should read before they die; A Sport and a Pastime [1967], Light Years [1975] and his book of recollection, Burning the Days [1996].

Death and the life achieved against it is Salter’s obsession. As a fighter with more than 100 missions over Korea in the 1950s you might expect as much. Similarly hard earned experience helped make Solo Faces a brilliantly authentic portrait of mountaineering. Both pursuits promise much and demand absolutely everything of you. Aplomb incorporates this dauntlessness as well as Nedra’s “self conquest”, a freedom gained only by risking all. Otherwise, she adds, “life is only appetites until the teeth are gone.” Salter’s world, most obviously the idyll memorialised in Light Years, may appear exclusive but is shaped by “lives achieved in agony”, gamblers who have lost, a peculiar dissidence.

All of this is exemplified in his new collection of ten short stories written since the early 1990s. Last Night follows Dusk and other stories, a collection which began with Am Strande von Tanger from 1968. From the first Salter was fully present in stories which have all the precise interiority and penetrating perspective of his novels. They share something else. At least half of Dusk’s stories are milestones of the form, yet were spurned by The New Yorker, for instance, and remain out of print. His novels have struggled to find publishers, only to immediately fall from view. Now, two of them will shortly become Penguin Modern Classics.

Last Night opens with Philip and Adele’s marriage, their fifth -jointly. Around a Salteresque dinner table with friends, Philip resists the consensual reaction to news of infidelity. Then, while Adele guts her husband’s failed marriages he holds to their joys; he’d do it all again. Outside Adele finds him staring at a comet; “It won’t be there tomorrow. One time only.” She turns away, shrinking as she recrosses the lawn “reaching first the aura, then the brightness, then tripping on the kitchen steps.”

Elsewhere a young couple’s agreement to correct irritating flaws in each other with a ‘give’ founders when Anna asks Jack to “stop the sex” with Des, their semi-resident poet and child’s inspired friend. In Platinum we encounter the downside of aplomb, when Brian and his powerful father-in-law find themselves sharing the “forbidden happiness” of busy Pamela. In Bangkok, a book dealer shucks off a former lover’s fantasy offer, preferring his settled existence: “It was not a pretend life.”

Salter has described finding part of “one’s never complete mosaic … abroad” -as seductively elaborated in A Sport and a Pastime. Similarly, his characters are made whole by their secrets and deceptions. This is true even of Walter Such in Last Night -first published in The New Yorkerwho is to administer a lethal injection for his terminally ill wife, Marit, after dining with their young female friend. Classic Salter and as good as living writing gets, the story collides with a comet, ricocheting unpredictably.

Last Night tops a beautifully weighted collection fully the equal of Dusk. These stories, like Solo Faces, have been written with the sun directly overhead, in contrast to the angular, retrospective veils of evening light which are so much Salter’s style. The recognisable present occasions some stylistic dilution but no loss of exactitude or exquisitely crafted velocity. Last Night is an urgent and deeply gratifying reminder of what reading is for.

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