On James Salter

A writer’s writer — awful term. It’s damning, like putting a bird in a cage or a princess in a castle. There’s even “a writer’s writer’s writer,” applied to Elizabeth Bishop by John Ashbery, and by Terry Southern to Henry Green. I’m sure there are others. It is a high compliment and a virtual death sentence. It has not only to do with low sales but also high style: somewhat austere, perhaps, basically inimitable, with a certain difficulty or density or obscurity. Salter seems (at his best) to do more than his language suggests. Actually, it’s that his language is so often almost entirely suggestive, creating space around things, enlarging them. A Sport and a Pastime, his best book, is barely 200 pages long.

Maybe it’s risky or repugnant to say it’s his best novel. A Sport and a Pastime (1967) is an objectionable book, a secret book, a precious book, a notorious book. It’s demeaning to women, or at least to one woman, Anne-Marie, the main female character, whom the narrator compares variously to “a favorite mare” and “a fish”; she is not very bright, low-born. The last line of “American Express,” one of Salter’s short stories, ends: “He was part of that great, unchanging order of those who live by wages, whose world is unlit and who do not realize what is above.” Anne-Marie belongs to this order. She is a shopgirl. She keeps her entire life savings, a few hundred francs, in a drawer in her tiny apartment. Salter goes out of his way to note her bad breath and bad teeth, repeatedly, as if to scuff her apparently great beauty. “She has a cheap look in the morning, young, without resources.”

Early in the novel, before Anne-Marie makes her first appearance, the narrator imagines Phillip Dean, the main male character (whom he usually refers to by his last name, as “Dean”), Anne-Marie’s lover-to-be, getting involved with “the young whore [Phillip] met in Paris: “teaching her how to dress, wear her hair, behave, speak, and all the while abusing her like a convict morning and night.” Then the narrator dismisses this idea as “banal,” but as he elaborates on it, what he describes is very much like what then proceeds between Phillip and Anne-Marie, who is barely of legal age, and whom Phillip is just about to meet in a scene that opens the way to an instance of shockingly, gratuitously casual racism. (Like his more famous literary associate, Saul Bellow, Salter is an unreconstructed racist.) Anne-Marie is in fact a bit like the Parisian whore of the narrator’s imagination.

So, detractors of the book may justifiably call it misogynist. They may find its graphic sex scenes immoral for their sheer copiousness if nothing else. Oppositely, I’ve seen admirers call the sex in Salter’s writing “moral,” but i’s neither moral nor immoral, and A Sport and and a Pastime is neither honorable nor dishonorable. It’s an amoral book, completely adrift in the world, set sail on sex and sensuousness, its events deliberately and appropriately without consequence to anyone or anything outside its three principals. Its amorality is linked to its aestheticism, which is its morality, or surrogate morality. I is a book driven and derived by sex. Some people try to work around this, but this is the engine of Salter’s work. “Sex is the dance,” he said, although “the music may change.” To ignore or deny this is to miss the point of Salter, almost deliberately, because the point is so clear, so thorough.

Not just sex but anal sex, lots of it. Sodomy is actually an important part of the plot. Likely Nell Zink, the author of the excellent book I wrote about last time, The Wallcreeper (2014), would not have kind things to say about A Sport and a Pastime. Zink goes out of her way to make anal sex sound about as unpleasant as the Inquisition (an “auto-da-fé,” she calls the experience). A Sport and a Pastime is lyrical, intense, apolitical. The Wallcreeper is conversational, offhand, political. Yet the books have commonalities. They are both driven almost entirely by voice. They’re both short but complete. They both revolve around sex and sex taboos. They’re both expatriate novels set in Europe, and the specific places themselves are very important. Both books feature the brief but important appearance of a sister character. This is almost all coincidence, surely, but it’s all there.

Nick Paumgarten’s ambivalent profile of Salter in the New Yorker called A Sport and a Pastime “an odd little book […] something of a puzzle.” To me, the book isn’t odd, or little, or a puzzle — or maybe it’s better to say that the puzzle is the book, and it’s quite elegantly and intuitively designed. It’s perfect, and perfectly complete, not despite its abrupt, slightly incredible ending but because of it. Phillip Dean is a character who has to die. This is inarguable, and it is quite right that he dies abruptly, in an accident (yet “his existence is superior to such accidents”), offstage so to speak, and without ceremony. He is very like Stephen of The Wallcreeper in many ways: impulsive, self-gratifying, charismatic, untrustworthy. They are opportunists, makers (and fulfillers) of wish-lists, users of substances and people. They throw themselves completely, recklessly, into temporary passions. They are both “quantum,” as Stephen uses the word: they don’t hold still, you can’t get a read on them. Phillip is “close to the life that flows, transient, borne away […] joined to the brevity of things.”

There’s a great moment late in A Sport and a Pastime when Phillip is walking with the unnamed narrator in Autun, the tiny but potent geographical heart of the novel. Phillip has told the narrator of his plans to return to the US — in fact, he has talked the willing narrator (a sap, really) out of the airfare, because he’s broke. The narrator feels badly about having given him the money: “something I will be ashamed of later.” He feels he’s an accomplice to a crime, and he is, in a way: Phillip has not told Anne-Marie he’s leaving for the US, even though he claims to have plans to come back to France for her. He has even thought about marrying her, he tells the narrator. But on the other hand, he muses, maybe he’ll go back to school in the US; he dropped out of Yale to come to France. “I have to organize myself a little,” he says, vaguely — his talk is almost always as vague and errant as his actions are assured and willful. This is a key to Phillip’s character, this gap between what he does and what he says. He cannot explain himself, or be explained, which vexes the narrator, who imagines — even predicts, fearfully — that they will run into Anne-Marie on the street:

It frightens me. I’m sure she could read what we have done in my face. I am ready to confess it all, I haven’t the slightest instinct to escape or lie, but Dean, ah, he would greet her with a smile.

How great is that “ah”? How great is most of Salter’s prose in this book?  “The rain pours down like gravel.” The simple, limpid first lines: “September. It seems these luminous days will never end.” It’s one of the only books I want to re-read just for its sentences. All the writing Salter did before A Sport and a Pastime leads up to it, and all the writing he did after it leads down and away from it. Maybe the immense force, gravity and passion of that novel, and the ease and naturalness of its composition, could not be recaptured. Salter, who not long ago wrote an appreciation of Hemingway for the New York Review of Books, at one point paraphrased Hemingway’s line, “I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.” Salter wrote better than he could only once, and it was in A Sport and a Pastime. Fragments elsewhere succeed, but only fragments. Light Years, which followed A Sport and a Pastime, is considered by many to be his masterwork. It’s longer and heavier, but it’s not as good. He has too much of a sense of himself as important, and of delivering an important book. He winds up imitating himself, self-conscious, trying too hard, writing a James Salter novel. We sometimes imitate him, unconvincingly — his sentences are sinkholes for writers, his style a trap — and so does he.

There are a lot of similes and metaphors in A Sport and a Pastime. Sometimes he’ll use two in the same sentence, as if trying to find just the right one — and they’re always both just right: “Her hand touches his chest and begins to fall in excruciating slow designs. He lies still as a dog beneath it, still as an idiot.” Sometimes they are dangerous: “Her breasts hang sweetly, like the low boughs of a tree, like handfuls of money.” But mostly they are perfect:  “He is like a dead musician, like a spent runner.” The potent concentration of the writing comes from admixtures like these. Salter will linger on an image for an extra moment — there’s an an almost painful erotic languor to the way he does this — and add small elements until the image reacts. Yet there is virtually nothing extraneous or gratuitous in the entire book, not even the sex scenes, which are actually developing a relationship. Only a fool or a philistine would claim that sex alone can’t do that. The apparently desultory travel all around France is doing the same thing. So are the interludes that find the narrator in the company of his dissolute acquaintances in Paris.

So even are the little, apparently pointless diversions. Every piece of the novel fits into the whole, and expresses it whole. Consider the fairy tale Anne-Marie makes up for Phillip, which she calls “The Prince of Crayfish.” The little prince of all the crayfish is doted on in the sea, spoiled with presents. He decides to go and see the world, over his mother’s objections, all the way up to the surface of the ocean:

An odyssey which ends — Dean is shocked — in disaster, in a great, frothing kettle where the prince is scalded to death, still brave, still honest… She shrugs over the soup at the abruptness of it all. Dean sits silent. He is drained of all invention and also aware, for the first time, that she is fully able to speak, to create images strong enough to alter his life.

This is essentially the plot of the novel itself: Phillip’s fate fabulized. It is also the allure of Anne-Marie captured in a sentence fragment: he feels superior to her yet he is constantly astonished by her power.

All That Is, which will probably be Salter’s final novel (he’s almost ninety), was his first in more than thirty years. It also features a protagonist named Philip (minus an ell). This does not seem coincidental. Although his last name is Bowman, not Dean, this Philip is obviously the man Dean would have become had he survived. It surprised me that no one else reviewing All That Is mentioned the recurrence of Phil(l)ip, especially given Salter’s well-known propensity for paying careful attention to his characters’ names. He seemed to be very deliberately calling our attention to A Sport and a Pastime.

Like Dean, Bowman too is intriguing but evasive, always on the move — more like an arrow, despite his last name, than the man who shoots them. All That Is arcs over most of Bowman’s adult life: his service in World War II and his rewarding career as a New York book editor; his intense love affairs, including a brief marriage, and a couple of hard personal losses and choices; and his travels among the linked worlds of the literati and Western Europe, where Bowman retraces some of Dean’s steps, spiritually if not quite geographically.

Bowman even repeats Dean’s scenes. Both men watch a lover try on clothing in a dress shop. That’s not so rare as to draw serious notice, but there is more. Both have affairs in Europe. Both write down lists of names of hotels. In A Sport and a Pastime there is the half-sentence, “Days of marriage.” (Soon after, “Nights of marriage.”) In All That Is there is: “Days of Paris.” Women are not quite human, again: “He was holding her by the waist, half woman, half vase.” All That Is even makes a glancing, winking reference to A Sport and a Pastime‘s sodomy: “not gay. [The word ‘gay’] destroys the dignity of perversion.” The territory is all very familiar. The effect is to shed light from each of the two books toward one another.

I wanted to be charitable to All That Is, but I don’t think it’s a very good book. Salter told interviewers that he was trying to shake the “writer of great sentences” label that had been stuck on him for decades and is primarily responsible for his “writer’s writer’s writer’s… (etc.)” reputation. The language of the book is intentionally plainer, but in its place Salter could not find a sufficient substitute. When an older writer friend (Irwin Shaw) called him, somewhat dismissively, a “lyric writer,” he meant that Salter wasn’t good at narrative. The plot of All That Is doesn’t so much drift as glide by. Bowman, like Dean, is oddly a cipher — in fact, Bowman makes Dean seem more like a cipher in hindsight. He is really without a character, filled and impelled entirely by his commitment to his transient, evanescent passions. “The real France” Dean waxes about in A Sport and a Pastime isn’t real at all. Yet he makes it real for himself, creates it. The problem Bowman has is that he’s trying to live Dean’s dreamlife in the real world, so he often merely floats in it, with inconsequence. A line from All That Is: “When you love you see a future according to your dreams.” And what makes Dean alive is this near-monstrous impulsion, from A Sport and a Pastime: “His dreams take place while he is awake and they are marvelous for at least one quality: he has the power to prolong them.”

Nor is Salter psychological. He skims the cream of life off the surfaces of events, captures the very real profundity immanent in shades of light and color, in the sound of rain, in the slightest but most shattering gestures. He can draw a character in a sentence or two. To say that substance cannot be drawn from these surfaces is simply wrong, as it’s wrong to say that relationships can’t develop from sex. But in All That Is, he’s after something more, or deeper, which he announces in a portentous (and debatable) epigraph: “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” This is a puffier (and homelier) reiteration of another line of his: “Life passes into pages if it passes into anything.” Yet for all its clearly autobiographical detail, All That Is withholds (or can’t access) its deeper emotional truths, of the sort that even The Wallcreeper, as comically diversionary as it can sometimes be, liberally offers. (How often Tiffany is just sad, sad, sad.) On the rare occasions when Salter cracks the door a sliver, it can be touching. Salter has long prided himself on his physical fitness (climbing mountains and “showing them my heels” well into his fifties), so it’s notable that he writes this in All That Is:

Age doesn’t arrive slowly, it comes in a rush. One day nothing has changed, a week later, everything has. A week may be too long a time, it can happen overnight. You are the same and still the same and suddenly one morning two distinct lines, ineradicable, have appeared at the corners of your mouth.

See how the experience of getting old is tied up in vanity: appearance (wrinkles) is what changes with age. Sexual appeal fades, a worse decline than losing one’s sight, or the ability to walk. The power of the surface.

Another vulnerable moment:

No one called them Jewesses anymore. The word evoked rabbinates and pious, backward villages along the Pale. They were stylish, ambitious, at the center of things. Their allure. He had never gone with one. Their lives had warmth and no scorn of pleasure or material things. He might have married one and become part of that world, slowly being accepted into it like a convert. He might have lived among them in that particular family destiny that had been formed by the ages, been a familiar presence at seder tables, birthday gatherings, funerals, wearing a hat and throwing a handful of earth into the grave. He felt some regret at not having done it, of not having had the chance. On the other hand, he could not really imagine it. He would never have belonged.

Salter’s given last name was Horowitz. He never wanted to talk much about his choice to change his name. The reasons were so obvious to him that they needed no explanation, but there is also a sense of evasion there, which gets at the heart of his work, in two ways. First, Salter has always been concerned with the “time of choice.” The phrase pops up in The Hunters, his first novel, although he later revised The Hunters for a reissue in the 1990s; perhaps the phrase was borrowed back from A Sport and a Pastime, which fully elaborates it:

Now, at twenty-four, he has come to the time of choice. I know quite well how all that is […] His father writes to him in the most beautiful, educated hand […] admonitions to confront life, to think a little more seriously about this or that. I could have laughed. Words that meant nothing to him […] His life will be filled with those daring impulses which cause him to disappear and next be heard of in Dublin, in Veracruz… I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.

Leaving aside the fortuitous appearance in this passage of the title of Salter’s last book, see how much is going on here. Again the preoccupation with surfaces: “the most beautiful, educated hand.” The way something looks is part of its meaning — Salter has had a longstanding fascination with Japan, where style of presentation can be as important what is presented. Salter gives Dean his untrammeled freedom only to remove Dean himself: Dean is not real, he is a projection of fantasy “out of my own inadequacies.”

After a while, the second phase begins: the time of few choices. Uncertainties, strange fears of the past. Finally, of course, comes the third phase, the closing, and one must begin shutting out the world as if by panels because the strength to consider everything in all its shattering diversity is gone and the shape of life — but he will be in a poet’s grave by then — finally appears, like a drop about to fall.

As we see in Bowman, the end of Phil[l]ip’s time of choice doesn’t progress through fears of the past. Bowman constantly sheds the past, burning bridges and relationships as he goes. (He’s awful to his first wife, and what he does to another woman is so cruel as to be almost unthinkable.) He doesn’t have the width or depth of awareness to be overwhelmed by “everything in all its shattering diversity.” (“I don’t believe he ever becomes more than an intelligent, relatively stable man satisfied with his work and with his life,” Salter told an interviewer.) In fact, he spends much of the book finding ways to prolong his time of choice. At the very end of the novel, he’s about to go on yet another romantic European adventure with a woman: this is the abiding Salter set piece, throughout his career. But this commitment to freedom and adventure leads to aimlessness, a refusal to take stands or stake claims. Malaise sets in. Viri, trying to be a family man, suffers from it in Light Years. So does Frank in “American Express.” Men turn rancid. This malaise, which is a virtual STD in Salter’s work, is Salter’s secondary theme. Suffering from it, life suffers from inanition, velleity, emptiness.

Why? Here is something I learned from, of all people, Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers: “You have to write through your pain,” Flea said. He was talking in a documentary about Angelo Moore, the lead singer of the band Fishbone (sort of a band’s band — they influenced others, especially the Chili Peppers). Fishbone’s failure, Flea implied, had to do with Angelo’s reluctance to face down whatever it was he needed to face down. In any given game of artistic chicken with his pain, he veered off into the safety of weirdness: singing ludicrous praises of fat girls, deliberately assuming other characters by making his voice sound strange (often “white”), or playing the theremin.

In this issue of writing through pain is the second evasion: Something I didn’t know about Salter until I read Paumgarten’s profile (which is worthy, notwithstanding our disagreement about the relative quality of Salter’s novels) is that in 1980 his adult daughter died horribly, tragically. She was staying in the cottage behind Salter’s house and was electrocuted in the shower. Salter found her. His published output about this, arguably the defining catastrophe of his life — and lives are defined, ultimately, by their catastrophes — amounts to a handful of reticent sentences in his memoir, Burning the Days. “I have never been able to write the story,” he admits. “I reach a certain point and cannot go on.” Perhaps this partly explains why Salter has published so little. He cannot go on. This is not to say that he had to write specifically about his daughter’s death in order to reach full artistic integrity or power. You don’t have to write about your pain, but you do have to write through it. A Sport and a Pastime is great because it’s a book written through pain, although it doesn’t initially seem so — it seems the opposite, but the opposites reach all the way around and touch. It’s perhaps obvious to say that passion is also pain, because passion is always temporary and it will abandon you, or you will have to abandon it. Loss is the source of all pain.

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