JAMES Salter will turn 88 next month. Nobody could blame the guy for being old-fashioned, although the publication of his new novel All That Is – his first in over 30 years, and presumably his last – has occasioned a certain amount of eye-rolling, to set against the swell of widespread acknowledgement that this great writer’s moment may finally have come. With Updike and Mailer now dead, and Philip Roth recently retired, the lesser-known Salter is the only one of his generation left to fly the flag for post-war American virility.
And like all those strong, distinctive, masculine voices, his style is hard to imitate but easy to parody, characterised as it is by ecstatic descriptions of sexual conquest in luxury hotel rooms with the afternoon sun slanting through the windows. There is plenty of this in All That Is, which recounts the life and loves of a New York book editor named Phillip Bowman, who feels “like a god” in one such encounter with a married Englishwoman, and observes of his partner that “the light in the Ritz made her beautiful”.
There is also much made of high art, fine clothes, exquisite meals, luminous nights in European cities – all the stuff of Salter’s fiction, which is also the stuff of his experience. The opening epigraph is a quote, or a statement, from the author himself: “There comes a time when you realise that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” If the first part of this sounds almost Zen, the second hints at his lifelong faith in literature, and perhaps also at his ego. His books have always been about the self and its desires – for pleasure, for brilliance, for immortality.
Over more than half a century of sporadic novels and short stories, Salter has refined his ability to distil and ignite the most salient moments of half-imagined lives, transfigured from his memories of people he has known, places he has been, and things he has done. Most authors do this, but few observe so closely, with a notepad held ready just below the dinner table. Even fewer have led Salter’s kind of existence. His first book, The Hunters, was drawn from the diary that he kept as a fighter pilot with the US Air Force in the Korean War, and written under a pseudonym to conceal its oblique confessions from the ground commanders, flight leaders, and wingmen he had rendered into characters.
“Salter” was his pen name. He was born James Horowitz during a thunderstorm in 1925, a couple of months after The Great Gatsby was first published, and about a year before The Sun Also Rises. It’s a little fanciful, but not wholly off beam, to imagine Hemingway and Fitzgerald as the twin stars above his crib. He grew into a modernist with classical values, a believer in the ancient attributes of courage and fortitude, a glory-seeker. When he didn’t find it in combat – he shot down at least one enemy aircraft in Korea, but apparently that single confirmed kill was not nearly sufficient – he pursued it through literature. And while his books weren’t making him famous, he turned to journalism, screenwriting, and filmmaking, achieving a vicarious semi-celebrity in the most glamorous social circles of England, France and Italy. He became an accomplished skier and mountain climber, an acquaintance of Nabokov, Henry Miller, Graham Greene, and Saul Bellow, the lover of a certain Italian actress who was also mistress to the great director John Huston.
What Salter learned in these years would make its way into his later novels – the notoriously erotic A Sport And A Pastime, the abstract portrait of dissolving marriage Light Years, the singular mountaineering fable Solo Faces. And readers of his memoir Burning The Days will be able to pull more biographical threads from the fabric of All That Is, from echoes of recalled conversations, to the fact that author and protagonist were both born in the same year, in the same thunderstorm. Phillip Bowman, for his part, is not much of a hero. He begins the novel as a young naval officer in the Pacific, on the eve of the battle for Okinawa, but this vivid passage recedes into the past as the only “daring” moment of his life.
As the years pass and the narrative proceeds, his position at the centre comes to seem almost arbitrary, and Salter often diverts away to report on the dreams and disappointments of Bowman’s friends and colleagues, peripheral figures, and former objects of his affection. The book is composed of fragments and fleeting impressions, and makes the case that life itself is loosely arranged in the same way. Salter has often suggested as much, in prose that can be earthy, emotionally terse, and manly as hell, but also supple, elegant, and exhalted in places.
This time he has held back on that loftiness – apparently stung by those critics who find his most lyrical works a bit too rococo, and frustrated by his reputation as a master-builder of gorgeous sentences, rather than an author of complete and lasting artefacts. In All That Is, the simplest lines hit the hardest. When Bowman is betrayed by the woman he assumed to be the love of his life, Salter describes with perfect clarity the brutal new awareness that comes of heartbreak, the sudden sense of relegation to a minor role in someone else’s story:
“He was sick with all the memories. They had done things together that would make her look back one day and see that he was the one who truly mattered. That was a sentimental idea, the stuff of a woman’s novel. She would never look back. He knew that. He amounted to a few brief pages. Not even.”
If there’s a hint of chauvinism in that passage, there is also a revealing note of Bowman’s own solipsism, which also underscores the sex scenes that might otherwise seem as retrograde as some reviewers claim. “It was impossible that she did not feel as he did,” thinks Bowman of his first wife, rhapsodising on his lust. But she doesn’t, and that’s that. The upshot is, one’s own existence is baffling enough, and those of others are beyond reckoning. Reading back through Salter’s short stories, now reissued in a new collection to add weight to this last push for recognition, you realise that it’s not just his close-ups that make him a true artist, it’s the reverse angles by which he views the world from a cosmic and melancholy distance.
Take the end of a short story called Comet, in which another character called Phillip watches his second wife walk away from him even as the comet of the title passes overhead, never to be seen again in this lifetime. “He stood where he was, looking up at the sky and then at her as she became smaller and smaller going across the lawn, reaching first the aura, then the brightness, then tripping on the kitchen steps.” Everything is vanishing, James Salter reminds us, writing it down as he goes.
All That Is and Collected Stories are both available from Picador