James Salter: a long career, a late flourishing
For too long, perhaps, he was a writer’s writer – but James Salter’s reputation has matured with age
Photograph: Julien Chatelin/Rex Features
On a cold recent day the ocean at Bridgehampton is vast and grey; the waves crash, as in James Salter’s story My Lord You , like the final chords of a symphony. Salter has an eye on them; he’s frowning in a way he has when he thinks and when he talks and, presumably, when he writes. It’s a frown not of vexation or impatience but of concentration; he is watching closely. This is the beach beside which he has lived for many years. He walks here daily. Come summer he’ll swim here daily too.
Also come summer he’ll turn 88, but if you’ve heard anything about Salter’s new novel, All That Is , you probably know this already. “It’s in the first paragraph, usually,” he says, shrugging; he means the articles like this one. His age has formed a sort of inscription over the door of this book. That and its being his first novel in 34 years. There have been other books – short stories, a memoir, Burning the Days , and even a book of recipes with his wife, Kay – but All That Is has been rolled into view with a fanfare that would induce stagefright in even the most swaggering of authors.
And Salter does not swagger. His Hamptons is not where you summer but where you live, in a modest house – wooden, nut brown – with two runaround cars parked outside. He and Kay, also a writer, winter in Aspen, but that’s not what it sounds like, either; he has been going there since it was a shabby mining town, because he loves to ski, although he can’t do that any more.
No, Salter the writer does not swagger: he wonders; he doubts. Perhaps this is a symptom of having been called, for so long, a writer’s writer; two of his previous novels, A Sport and a Pastime , from 1967, and Light Years , from 1975, are regarded as classics, but his has not been a career of huge readerships or big laurels. Today, if a remark about his fiction seems limned with any kind of praise, he sounds out the opposite perspective. For instance, to the suggestion that this novel carries a rare wisdom and experience, Salter responds with a worry: that the decades it took might hobble it yet.
“I didn’t realise that I was going to be so old when the book was published,” he says, over lunch in the off-season town. “I was just writing without a thought for that. And I didn’t get old until about five years ago. I felt I was in the middle of life.” He glances at me. “I know you’ll say ‘what?’ to that, but it’s true. It was only fairly recently I thought, Oh my God, I’ll be well into my 80s. That’s sure to be a hindrance.” Why would it be a hindrance? “People saying, ‘What is this?’ ” he says. “I think it diminishes interest.”
Child of the 1920s
Like Salter, and indeed like John Williams and Richard Yates – it is somehow astonishing to have a new novel from a writer of whom they were contemporaries – the central character of All That Is is a child of the 1920s. When we meet Philip Bowman he is a second World War naval officer. (The battle scenes bear the stamp of Salter’s experience as a fighter pilot in Korea.) Afterwards he wheedles his way into Harvard and begins a publishing career in New York. He marries, cheats, divorces, loves again. His life expands. His life contracts. He has sex, plenty of it, as protagonists in a Salter novel often do. Life turns, lengthens, darkens; it is touched by a rich cast of characters, goes close up to some of them, is oblivious to the complexities of others. Salter’s prose follows every nook and shadow of the world it creates; tunnels, then tunnels into those tunnels.
What mattered to Salter in the writing of it? “I suppose everything I believe is in the book,” he says. “I don’t think that can be discerned. I mean, it’s in not only incident but language, scale, proportions.”
Did he enjoy writing it? “Oh yes.” Throughout? “No. That would be an unusual book.” There were false starts, he says, threads that led nowhere. He’d think of something while he was walking – lines come to him that way; he puts a lot of stock, he says, in Joyce’s claim that “chance provides me what I need” – and return to the desk to find it gone. “The written word is hard won.” It’s hard, he says, “not to get a little panicky” during the process.
All that’s in evidence, though, is ease. The kinds of lines or passages that, for another writer, might comprise a powerful climax show up, in Salter’s prose, on almost every page, and there are times when this power of his seems almost casually cruel.
That is certainly the case when it comes to the ways in which his male protagonists see women; political correctness may not belong to their era, but nor, you sense, does it belong to the bluntness and the fullness of portrayal in which Salter is interested. See also: sex. When a pillow is folded in a Salter narrative, well, hold on. With every such scene, the metaphors grow more audacious. You have to admire them. Most writers avoid the subject entirely. “Well,” Salter says, not even looking up from his club sandwich. “I can’t help them.”
But where does it come from? The energy of depiction? “Well, you write about things that you have an interest in,” he says. “Everybody has an interest in sex . . . I mean, at a certain point in life, you should know it.” Reaction shouldn’t come into it, he says. “You don’t want to be intimidated by what your mother might think. Or anybody. But there always exists in you a social sense of, well, people are going to read this. How will this be received by them? Will it live?”
The matter of his work’s reception has been a two-sided coin. Kurt Vonnegut was a neighbour here, but they never discussed each other’s writing. “We were already at an age where you don’t do that,” Salter says. “I don’t care what he thought about my work. And he didn’t care what I thought about his.”
Also nearby is the house once lived in by George Plimpton, the founding editor of the Paris Review ; Plimpton’s widow just weeks ago returned to Salter the original manuscript of A Sport and a Pastime , which Plimpton put out under his own imprint when Salter’s publisher rejected it. The pages, Salter says, are untouched by an editorial hand – “Not a scratch”.
The writer Reynolds Price also thought A Sport and a Pastime “perfect”, yet by the late 1970s both it and Light Years had gone out of print. They had followers – worshippers, even – and new editions appeared, yet the “writer’s writer” label was slinging its weight on to Salter’s shoulders. Asked now about reputation, Salter repeats the word to himself in a quick, interrogative whisper. “Well, yes. You’re trying to have a reputation. Isn’t that part of what it’s about?”
But against that, then, isn’t there the value of producing good work? “Well, if you do that, won’t you have a reputation?” he says. Then it strikes him: we mean different things. A reputation is what he already has. What I’m getting at, he says, is fame. On which matter the New Yorker did not hesitate last month: “Salter is not famous,” its profile of him said. And, later: “Salter minds.” That is, Salter notices. Almost his whole career he has been praised for the brilliance of his sentences. But he writes novels, and stories, not sentences. Those are my words, by the way, not his: he is as careful on this subject as he is on any other. “It seems hard to produce good work and not have a reputation,” he says. “But it’s a lesser thing, really.” A lesser thing than fame? “It’s a private thing.”
He’s pragmatic about the business of writing and publishing, which is perhaps partly why the idea of an editor as a central character has long been attractive to him, though the “dignity” of the editors he knew in the 1960s and 1970s was the biggest draw in that respect, he says. But he doesn’t cling to a nostalgia for that world.
He’s interested in what’s happening now; he talks at length about a New York Times piece on David Blum, who crashed and burned in the traditional industry but now, as editor of Amazon Kindle Singles, an innovation dedicated to novella-length journalism and fiction, could be the 21st-century incarnation of Philip Bowman.
“The book” – he means All That Is – “is the past,” Salter says. “It may be nostalgic, but it isn’t weepy about the past. That was a certain era. I think this one is just as exciting. There are other questions coming up, sure: are the readers changing; are they willing to read other books or just these short things? Well, I think, wait around and see. See what they’re interested in.”
When writing, Salter has a strict method: a couple of hours in the morning, a little in the afternoon. He writes in longhand for a first draft, then successive drafts are typed, printed and edited, typed, printed and edited again, for as long as it takes. The tenacious range of his novels makes it hard to believe he could write from an outline, but he does; in the case of All That Is he knew he wanted a book of about 300 pages, something “manageable to read”.
His own ability to disappear down a YouTube rabbithole, as well as a memory of obsessively playing pinball games in his 20s, gives him some sympathy for younger, internet-addled writers. But no more than he should have. “There are stories one must tell,” he wrote in his memoir, “and years when one must tell them.” Six months ago, in this house, he wrote the final words of this novel, the work of many years. How did that feel? “At last.”