"The world's only 87-year-old sex symbol," is how a guest described the writer James Salter to me last night. She wasn't joking. There he was, in the middle of the room, straight backed, elegant in blazer and tie, a glass of red wine in his hand, surrounded by adoring men and women, smiling graciously, signing books, gently playing everything down.
The party, thrown by Picador, the publishing house, in a swank room just north of Oxford Street, was to launch 2013's most keenly anticipated novel: Salter's intimate epic, All That Is. The great man was in town with his wife, Kay, trailing worshipful reviews and encouraging sales from the US, and exuberant pre-publicity here.
Also in attendance, fellow Picador authors Aleksandar Hemon and Edward St Aubyn, as well as Salter's glamorous agent, Binky Urban. Famously, as he pointed out in his speech, Salter is said to be an underrated writer, a brilliant man who has toiled in relative obscurity. Now he is the subject of Newsnight and New Yorker profiles, and the guest of honour at soirees like the one we were standing in.
He'd signed more copies of All That Is, he said, than he'd sold of previous books. It all felt a long way – because it was a long way – from the quiet of Salter's kitchen in snowy Aspen, Colorado, where I sat with him for two days in March to talk about his new book, his old books, his long life, and other things: war, women, marriage, children, love, death… you know, the small stuff.
The resulting profile of Salter, "Something Lasting", ran in the June issue of Esquire, and you can read it below. The novel is available to buy here in a handsome hardback edition, and Picador has also published a new collection of Salter's short stories. I recommend you buy all three.
Something Lasting: How James Salter Freezes Time
A valley overlooked by mountains under a pale blue sky. A grid of streets off the main road through town, clapboard Alpine-style chalets and modernist glass boxes, everything heavy with snow.
On a corner, a modest wooden house surrounded by tall trees, Volvo in the drive, logs piled by the porch. Inside, a skew-whiff brick chimney, groaning bookshelves, stacks of papers. On the walls, female nudes and framed menus from French bistros visited long ago.
In a light-filled snug off the living room, beneath an old map of French ski resorts, a small desk, a typewriter, a sheet of paper fixed in place, pages under correction and a pencil. In the kitchen, on the circular table, a bowl of almonds, a white china teapot under a cosy, silver spoons, three lemon segments on a dish: everything comfortable, courteous, civilised, just so.
This is the house of an epicurean, a sensualist, a Francophile, a sportsman, a writer. Arms folded, he sits in the kitchen in a wooden chair, wearing a denim shirt and jeans, flip-flops on his feet, spectacles in his top pocket. In another room, his wife — elegant, younger, hair the colour of cherries — talks on the phone.
Outside, the melting snow is dripping from the roof. Now and then a heap falls from a tree with a startling whump, which either he doesn’t hear or chooses to ignore.
James Salter bought his house in Aspen, Colorado, in 1969, the year that man — actually men, one of whom, Buzz Aldrin, he knew and had flown planes with — landed on the moon.
He was in his mid-forties then, a former fighter pilot who had risen to the rank of major in the US Air Force but who had left active service a decade before, filled with the idea, he has written, of being a writer “and from the great heap of days making something lasting”.
He vowed, still more dramatically, to “write or perish”. He was then married to a woman named Ann and they had four children, three girls and a boy. They had been living, apart from periods when he was stationed in Europe, on the east coast of the US, in the country near New York City.
It was or appears to have been an idyllic existence, one that Salter would later use in his novel of family life and the passing of time, Light Years. It was a life of “wine, stories, friends”.
And Salter was, like the husband and father in that book, “a man lying fully clothed in the stream of days”.
By the end of the Sixties, he had three novels to his name, none of which had brought him fame or riches, although the first had been made into a film starring Robert Mitchum, and the third would later become regarded as a discrete classic of erotic fiction. \
He also had prominent credits on three films that were released in 1969, two as screenwriter, one as screenwriter and director. None of these was a hit even though the best known of them starred Robert Redford, at that moment perhaps the most popular actor in America.
Salter was not, himself, quite a star, though by all accounts he had charm and looks and style and talent to burn. He also had a friend whose father had a ranch in Colorado and who encouraged him to come out and ski and see for himself if this wasn’t the perfect spot for a rugged writer’s winter retreat.
Salter paid, he thinks, $22,000 for the house. It was somewhat dilapidated and he hired two hippie kids to help him restore it. After a time, the hippies had to leave town.
It turned out they were wanted in Massachusetts for the armed robbery of a liquor store. “They took off on motorcycles,” is how Salter puts it now, relishing the story. “I never saw them again.”
So he had to finish the work with his own hands. Sitting at his kitchen table today, he holds up those same hands for emphasis, gnarled and mottled now, 44 years later.
The world has changed around James Salter. He has changed, too, though perhaps not as far or fast. The Aspen he discovered in 1969 was a tiny skiing village. It was remote, unspoiled, spectacular. It’s still spectacular but today it is an affluent enclave where the super-rich keep second homes.
The mountain bike hire shops and ski equipment outlets are outnumbered by international fashion boutiques, for those who have a sudden desire for a Dior handbag at 7,000ft.
Only a few old head shops testify to the town’s past as an outpost of the counterculture, the place where, in 1970, Hunter S Thompson ran for sheriff on a Freak Power ticket. All that’s gone now, vanished, along with Thompson. One senses Salter felt more at home in the old Aspen, before the West was tamed.
Salter doesn’t ski any more. His knees are not up to it. And anyway, the idea of an 87-year-old man skiing is, he says, “obscene”. These days he moves slowly. His eyes are watery, his skin is papery, his hair is white and sparsely distributed.
As we talk he sometimes pauses, puts his hands over his face, rubs the sides of his head, looks a little pained, or perhaps just tired.
In the years since he bought this house he has been divorced and remarried, to Kay Eldredge, a playwright — the cherry-haired woman in the other room — and they have a son.
He has published two further novels; two collections of short stories; a collection of travel journalism; a guide to entertaining, written with Kay; a collection of letters to and from his friend Robert Phelps; and two memoirs — he prefers the term “recollection” — one of which, Burning the Days, published in 1997, has done as much as any of his fiction to burnish his reputation as a writer of exceptional talent.
Slowly, his literary stock has risen, but he has not yet achieved wide recognition or sales commensurate with his status among other writers. His work has been saluted by a parade of literary giants (Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, John Irving), and he has won prestigious awards and the favour of influential critics (Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom), but just as often Salter has been dismissed by the press and overlooked by the academy, and almost consistently he has been ignored by the public.
Partly for those reasons he is a romantic figure, almost a mythic figure, especially to other writers. But his cult status is not simply derived from his relative lack of commercial success. It is also the result of his subtle, supple and seductive voice on the page.
His writing does not flinch from the disappointments and the tragedies of human existence. But Salter’s books offer solace, too, in snatching moments of beauty from the passing of time.
Against illness, sadness and death he arranges sex, food, nature, friendship, love, art. He makes all these things seem urgent, profound and necessary. His books are celebrations and consolations, charged with an appreciation of the glories of life.
Then there is the story of his own life, which is glamorous in a way that few writers’ lives are today. He seems to hark back to an earlier conception of what a writer might be — not surprising, perhaps, given his age — which is dashing, worldly and courageous.
He is the literary writer who taught himself rock climbing in his fifties, who drank with the greats of postwar American letters, who opened fire in the skies above Korea, who, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed John Huston’s mistress, and made love to French actresses and skied the Alps with Olympians.
He is the movie business outsider-insider who kept his distance from Hollywood but still got to hobnob with Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate in Santa Monica, who met Yoko before she met John, who had Vanessa Redgrave over for dinner, who spent time on set in Rome with Lotte Lenya and Anouk Aimée, who met Nabokov and Nureyev and Graham Greene, who winters in snowy Colorado and summers in sunny Bridgehampton, Long Island, another picturesque haven for America’s well-heeled.
He is an American who absorbed Europe, who learned from his time there “a view of existence: how to have leisure, love, food and conversation, how to look at nakedness, architecture, streets…” Who recollects, of the Sixties, “a kind of glamour and sleekness, travel, the great hotels…” Who aimed for — and it seems, achieved — “a life of freedom, style, and art…”
He has, he has said, attempted to cultivate the feminine in himself, in terms of his intellectual and emotional responses, but his voice is masculine and he writes about men who are men and the alluring women who sustain and entrance, or disappoint and betray them.
There is a passage in Burning the Days when Salter remembers “an Italian mistress, O very fine, who would fly places to meet me. She was slender, with a body brown from Rome’s beaches and a narrow pale band, as if bleached, encircling her hips…”
He mentions her in connection with the moon landings. As his former colleague was disembarking Apollo 11, Salter was at the St Regis Hotel in New York, in bed with this extraordinary sounding creature, who was “writhing, like a dying snake, like a woman in bedlam.”
He concludes: “I have never forgotten that night or its anguish. Pleasure and inconsequence on one hand, immeasurable deeds on the other. I lay awake for a long time thinking of what I had become.”
There are those who find that sort of thing showy, self-dramatising, or just plain icky. Others of us, Salter snobs, feel ourselves uniquely attuned to his refined, poetic sensibility. All that goes into the making of the cult, too.
But us cultists may be in for a jolt, because the convenient narrative — writer toils away in obscurity, his work too exquisite for brutish mainstream tastes — has been complicated in recent years. As he prepares for the publication of his sixth novel and first since 1979, Salter’s position as holder of that least enviable of literary titles, the writer’s writer, is under threat.
All That Is, a novel covering half a century in the life of an American man, threatens to finally torpedo the idea that Salter is too much an acquired taste for popular success.
In his book James Salter, a rare scholarly study of Salter’s work, published in 1998, William Dowie describes his subject as “fully aware of himself as sitting in the anteroom of fame, waiting to be called. He believes in himself and the quality of his work, but he also believes there is no greatness without recognition. In life or after death, one must be read widely to qualify. And that has not yet happened.”
It’s true that Salter has never written a best seller. And to me he puts his own formulation for success succinctly: “I have a strict measure: you have to sell books.”
In his novel Light Years, Nedra, the central female character, asks: “Must fame be a part of greatness?” Her husband, Viri, realises that in fact fame is “the evidence” of greatness, “the only proof.” Viri “believed in greatness.
He believed in it as if it were a virtue, as if it could be his own. He was sensitive to lives that had, beneath their surface, like a huge rock or shadow, a glory that would be discovered, that would rise one day to the light.”
This is an idea to which he returns. In the story “Via Negativa”, published in his 1988 collection, Dusk and Other Stories, Salter introduces an underachieving writer, “unknown, though not without a few admirers”. “His hair is thin. His clothes are a little out of style. He is aware, however, that there is a great, a final glory which falls on certain figures barely noticed in their time, touches them in obscurity and recreates their lives.”
Like Viri and the writer in “Via Negativa”, Salter believes in greatness. He believes in it as a virtue. He believes in ambition, in wanting to do something enduring, something worthwhile. It is some years now since the author Richard Ford announced that, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.”
James Wolcott’s characterisation of Salter as “the most underrated underrated writer in America” no longer applies. But Salter’s success, if this is what it is, has been so long in coming that he finds it hard, I think, to accept it.
For a long time — maybe the whole time — Salter struggled to believe that he had a literary life, in the sense that other writers did: living off their writing alone, publishing books that were reviewed admiringly and then read widely. Roth, Bellow, Mailer: those guys had literary lives, literary careers.
Meanwhile, Salter suffered setbacks. He has not forgotten or forgiven the “bitter remarks” that accompanied the publication his best books.
They left him uncertain. “I just didn’t have deep enough confidence to go on, and I suppose that let me stray away from writing for periods. I lived this life here for at least five or seven years, not writing anything important.”
The day before my visit to Aspen, he had taken a phone call at 7am from someone at Yale University, who was calling to inform him that he was one of three fiction writers to have won an inaugural Windham-Campbell Prize, in recognition of “outstanding achievement”. He will receive $150,000. He’d thought at first that he might be the victim of a prank call — which speaks more eloquently for his modesty than his status.
When I mention the growing excitement about the publication of All That Is, he answers with practised scepticism. “Apparently, I have an audience, and this book is awaited,” he says, his voice soft and slightly creaky. “We’ll see what the truth of that is. I don’t want to get too excited about it one way or another. You can work yourself into a state of nerves: What did they say? What have you heard?”
Still, it must be gratifying that there’s a certain amount of excitement around the publication of All That Is? “It’s gratifying but a little unreal at the same time,” he says. “The clothes feel a little loose on me, if you know what I mean.”
He was born James Horowitz, an only child, to Jewish parents in New Jersey in 1925, and raised in New York City during the Depression. His father, who worked in real estate, was successful enough at that time to send his son to Horace Mann, a private school in the Bronx, where his contemporaries included the future doyen of American conservatives, William Buckley Jr, as well as Jack Kerouac.
In 1942, at the urging of his father, James entered West Point, the US military academy. He’d wanted to go to MIT or Stanford, and at first he struggled to adjust to the regime, but in his second year, by his own account, he came to enthusiastically embrace the ethos of West Point: honour, courage, sacrifice, all these meant something to him.
In his story “Dusk”, Salter gives us the thoughts of an army veteran attending a reunion of his class at West Point, thinking back on “how ardently he believed in the image of a soldier. He had known it as a faith, he had clung to it dumbly, as a cripple clings to God.”
James Horowitz was taught to fly in Arkansas and New York. On VE Day, 8 May 1945, while millions around the world rejoiced at the defeat of the Nazis, he became disorientated over Massachusetts during a cross-country navigation flight. From Burning the Days: “Something large struck a wing. It tore away. The plane careened up. It stood poised for an endless moment, one landing light flooding a house into which an instant later it crashed.” Happily, no one was home: they were out celebrating the end of the war in Europe.
He graduated in June 1945, less than two months before the Japanese surrender. As he shipped out from San Francisco for his first tour of duty, he passed under a sign on the Golden Gate Bridge, addressed to America’s returning fighters: “Welcome Home Heroes”. He was heading in the other direction.
He spent the following 12 years on active duty, first in Manila and Hawaii, then as a jet pilot in the Korean War, in which he flew over 100 missions, fighting MiGs over the Yalu River. Later, he was stationed in Europe and the US; finally he commanded an aerial acrobatics team.
In 1951, he married Ann Altemus. The first of their four children, a daughter, Allan, was born in 1955, a year after he began work on The Hunters, in which a doomed pilot, Cleve Connell, chases glory in the skies, trying and failing to become an “ace”. That novel was published in 1956, when its author was 30 and still a serving officer.
He chose the nom de plume Salter because it was, in its Waspyness, far enough away from Horowitz to prevent suspicion falling on him as the author. After he sold the film rights for $60,000, enough to live on for a few years, and decided to resign his commission he felt, he tells me, “deep regret” to be leaving the military.
In Burning the Days, he reckons with his achievements in Korea. “I finished with one [enemy plane] destroyed and one damaged… When I returned to domestic life I kept something to myself, a deep attachment — deeper than anything I had known — to all that had happened.” Later, his feelings hardened.
“I felt I had not done what I set out to do. I felt contempt for myself, not at first but as time passed, and I ceased talking about those days, as if I had never known them. But it had been a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.”
To me he says: “Those years of flying have a brilliance for me that is of a different order. The feeling of coming back from something memorable, landing with your wingman, it’s a feeling of having out-sailed a storm.
“But that isn’t my life. I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am. I devoted the subsequent 50 years — more — to writing.”
In 1958, he and Ann bought a half-converted barn in the country, 30 miles from New York City. For a time Salter — the name had become official — would drive into the city to write in rented rooms or apartments.
Briefly, he sold swimming pools to supplement his income. With a friend he made documentary films. He published a second novel, The Arm of Flesh, in 1961. (Thirty-nine years later, he rewrote it almost from scratch and published it under another title, Cassada).
He began to write for the movies, he travelled, he worked on a third novel.
The world that Salter conjures in Light Years, his 1975 novel of family life and its disintegration, and in Burning the Days, and now in All That Is, is, for want of a better phrase, haute bohemian. He is sometimes accused of writing only about rich people. In fact, the people in his books rarely have money, not serious money anyway. But they are tasteful, educated, cultured. Their sensibilities are delicate, their clothes and houses are stylish. They are often beautiful. Their lives are, superficially, enviable, even — dread word — aspirational. This will annoy some readers. (Geoff Dyer once opined that the couple in Light Years, Viri and Nedra, are “possibly the most irritatingly named characters in literature”). I am bound to say: not me.
For me, it’s his writing about family life that is most arresting. From Burning the Days, again: “I remember the intensity of family life, its boundlessness. It was an art of its own — costume parties; daring voyages in an old sailboat, a leaky Comet, far out on the river; dogs; dinner parties; poker on Christmas night; ice skating.” And again: “The seasons passed in majesty: summer’s inescapable heat, the storms of winter, the leaves of autumn which in a single night fell from the elms along the road.”
Through the Sixties and into the Seventies, he wrote for the movies. A film called The Appointment, directed by Sidney Lumet in Rome, with Omar Sharif and Anouk Aimée. “Lumet simply butchered it,” he says now. “He didn’t even have the slightest idea. The film was a disaster. It was ridiculous.”
Three he directed himself, based on an Irwin Shaw story about a love triangle and starring Charlotte Rampling, with whom he did not get on. It received some positive notices but quickly disappeared.
The only film remembered now, Downhill Racer, starred Robert Redford as a conceited Colorado farm boy who blasts onto the US Olympic ski team and receives an unsentimental education from a beautiful Swiss party girl.
The film is recognisably Salterian in its milieu and its concerns — the company of men versus the society of women, man in nature, the yearning for fame and recognition, the nobility of competition. In Redford’s words, “the combination of poetry and danger.” They changed his ending, of course. In Salter’s version, Redford’s skier loses.
Hollywood, Salter says now, “didn’t work out for me, really. I don’t think about it that much but it’s probably my fault as a screenwriter. I mean, the movies kept being bad. That can’t all be somebody else’s fault.” I’m not sure he really believes this.
In 1967, he published A Sport and a Pastime, his first really distinctive work, the one in which he finds his beguiling voice. It is the story, told by an unreliable narrator, of the relationship between a 24-year-old Yale dropout and an 18-year-old French girl.
Looking back on it now, Salter says: “It has a lot of sex in it. Youthful, sacred sex. Not just, you know, pop sex. And I like it for that reason. That seems to remain fresh. And, of course, it’s a book dedicated to France and I like France.” (France likes him, too. Salter is regarded as an homme serieux in France, where he has long been accorded a status that has until now eluded him at home, and certainly here in the UK.)
A short, sharp swoon of a book, A Sport and a Pastime ends with an ironic flourish — an attack, in a single sentence, on traditional family values of home and hearth, health and safety, putting down roots, raising children, marriage, stability, order, routine, “the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired”.
In this way, I think, Salter is a subversive writer — and, I suppose, a subversive figure, for all that he is hardly a figure of the counterculture. Not because of all the sex in A Sport and a Pastime, or All That Is, although there is plenty of it.
But because much in his work seems to challenge the conventions of bourgeois society. This theme is developed in Light Years. To my mind, this is a masterpiece to rank alongside any of the great American novels of the period.
Light Years hymns the ineffable beauty, the deep appeal, of a harmonious domestic life — houses, children, friends, pets, conversations, wine, music, late nights, days at the beach — and then watches it slowly come apart.
The novel was conceived, in part, to demonstrate Salter’s idea, outlined in Burning the Days, that “marriage lasts too long”; his own, to Ann, ended in the year of the novel’s publication, after 24 years. (“There is a time to put one’s self first,” he wrote to his friend, the writer Robert Phelps.)
The commercial failure of A Sport and a Pastime, which sold fewer than three thousand copies in the US on first publication, was one thing. My sense is that the commercial and critical failure of Light Years, eight years later, was a watershed moment for Salter.
“I became excited when I was writing it,” he says now. “I thought I was writing, I don’t want to say a great book, but I thought I was writing a real book.”
In Burning the Days, he admits that, upon finishing Light Years, he had “wanted glory” and craved “widespread praise”. Then the reviews came in. “They were savage,” says Salter. The New York Times’ reviewer called Light Years, “overwritten, chi-chi and rather silly”.
“It’s a dismissal, is what it was,” says Salter. “Silly, fatuous, who cares? And so forth.” The book, Salter still believes, was “mortally wounded”.
“That has an effect,” he says. “It was 10 years or more before it accumulated any kind of substance around it. It’s still a book that sells a thousand, fifteen hundred, two thousand copies a year. I don’t count that as much of a significance, or importance. I’d say it’s a little book. I don’t know how you can say people like it. Perhaps I’m looking at it from the wrong side of it.”
In the aftermath of Light Years, he did some journalism and he published short fiction and memoir in Esquire, The Paris Review — George Plimpton was another influential champion — and the now defunct Grand Street.
He interviewed literary luminaries for People magazine. (Younger readers — those below, say, 60 years of age — will have to take it on authority that there was a time when celebrity weeklies would commission profiles of Vladimir Nabokov and Antonia Fraser.)
He worked on another screenplay for Redford, this time about a rock climber. When the star changed his mind about doing it, Salter turned his script into a novel, Solo Faces (1979), about Vernon Rand, an ascetic mountaineer who lives to climb, has no interest in conventional life, and ultimately dies doing what he does best.
Meanwhile, Salter lived a life mostly separate from the publishing world and from Hollywood, a “real life”. “The snow fell in the winter, and you cut your own wood and skied,” he says. He doesn’t pretend to have lived without regret. “I know I should have written more,” he says, “but I didn’t.”
To exist is to occupy a series of moments, each as ephemeral as the last and the next, as ungraspable as light, or water, or air. Memories, free-floating memories, are as weightless, as intangible, as dreams.
The way to pin them down is to type them on to a page or paint them on to a canvas. Beauty, happiness, pleasure — all these are impermanent, they are lost to us except when they are accurately captured in, or summoned by, art.
His new novel opens with an 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.” He pinned those words to a wall of his house in Bridgehampton, when he began writing All That Is in earnest.
He speaks to me of the feeling one has sometimes standing in front of a portrait — a Sargent or a Whistler, say — when, in that moment, the subject of the painting comes alive, for you. “And something of that life enters you as you look at it. I think that writers have the possibility of doing that...” That’s quite a power, to reanimate the dead. Salter smiles. “It’s an ill-paid profession but it has that compensation.”
The Hunters was born of his desire not to forget his time in Korea. Not just not to forget it, but to have it not be forgotten. “Otherwise, it might as well have been a dream.” The Arm of the Flesh reclaims his years on air force bases in Europe.
A Sport and a Pastime immortalises his romances with France, and at least one of its women. (“I had a long affair with a French actress,” he tells me at one point, which is the kind of thing too few among us are able to matter-of-factly drop into conversation.) Light Years, as we’ve said, is an elegy to the fragile beauty of family life.
Salter has never suggested or pretended, as some novelists do, that his work is not autobiographical, or that his characters are not based on people he has known or met or heard about. His own greatest personal tragedy — the death, in 1980, of his daughter Allan, his first child, in a freak electrical accident in the shower, here in Aspen — was still five years off when he published Light Years, but his novels have always confronted pain and loss. His characters’ hearts are broken, they fall ill, they suffer and, often, they die.
Unlike happiness, Salter remarks to me, sorrow is not fleeting. “You are it, you become it, you feel it fully, wholly and for a long, long period.” That’s very sad, I say. “Yes, I suppose so. But as they say: live with it.”
The stories collected in Dusk and Other Stories and a more recent collection, Last Night, have this clear-eyed, unsentimental attitude. All That Is has one of the most devastating tragedies in all Salter’s writing, and he frequently reserves his loveliest writing for his stories’ saddest moments.
When Philip and Anne-Marie, the young couple in A Sport and a Pastime, are reaching the end of their affair, they make love and then, “Afterwards they lie for a long time in silence. There is nothing. Their poem is scattered about them. The days have fallen everywhere, they have collapsed like cards. The air has a chill in it. He pulls the covers up. She is so perfectly still she seems asleep. He touches her face. It is wet with tears.” This is the “ecstatic melancholy” that the writer Philip Gourevitch has identified in Salter.
He can be cruel. He can write this, of a marriage, from the story “My Lord You”, in Last Night: “They ate dinner in silence. Her husband did not look at her. Her face annoyed him, he did not know why. She could be good-looking but there were times when she was not. Her face was like a series of photographs, some of which ought to have been thrown away.”
Last Night is full of such moments: sexual betrayals, romantic disappointments, misunderstandings between men and women. So is All That Is. Salter believes, fundamentally, that men and women are different and, in some senses, in opposition.
Early in Burning the Days, he remembers his first sight of a naked woman. He saw her through an apartment window, “an empty box of illumination… more compelling than any stage.” Then she disappears: “I had never, till then, faced the paradox of a dream vivid to the point of ecstasy yet destined to vanish.”
He fell hard, and he may never have recovered. Salter’s work sings of the male libido, earthily and honestly. He understands and expresses the way men think about women, the way we look at them, what we desire from them.
He knows that we want to possess their beauty, and that while we can sometimes feel we’ve caught it for a moment, we can never keep it. You can’t hold on to beauty. Beauty fades.
There’s a minor character in All That Is, a novelist called Russell Cutler, whose wife — a rather annoying woman — crosses out the sentences she considers sexist in his novels. Salter has never had that kind of wife.
He once wrote: “Happiness is often at its most intense when it is based on inequality.” That was in a 1992 cover story for the American edition of Esquire, called “Younger Women, Older Men”.
It also includes the line, “Men’s dream and ambition is to have women, as a cat’s is to catch birds, but this is something that must be restrained.” Take that last part however you will.
The tension between the desire for a settled, ordered existence, and the lust for a life of sexual adventure, is central to his work. (“These demands for sexual exclusivity… are the most maddening thing on Earth,” he wrote to Robert Phelps in 1978.)
I wonder if he feels the two impulses are irreconcilable? “You can live both,” he says. “Can you live them simultaneously? That’s difficult. You have to be prepared for the consequences.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, he doesn’t particularly want to elaborate on his own arrangements over the years, and he fumbles about for a bit when I press him. “I think this would be a bad thing for me to assess here. Let’s put it another way there have been various periods in which… I don’t know how to answer this.
“I can’t provide any solutions,” he says. “For myself, I subscribe to Thai rules.” In the same Esquire article, he had explained: “In Thailand mistresses are an accepted part of the society, often a mark of riches.”
The only time I see a flash of fire in my hours talking to Salter is on this point about the desirability or otherwise of monogamy.
“I don’t hold myself dictated to by what everyone is saying, by the tabloids or popular opinion. I don’t like bourgeois values. I say you find your own way to live.”
Of the puzzle of marriage, he says this: “Men and women want different things. There’s a period, obviously, where their desires coincide perfectly and then they begin to diverge.”
He is scathing of those who would try to invent a formula to keep couples together. “Family therapists and people who specialise in all of this, they don’t know anything.
“Try lighting candles in the evening! I mean this is all rubbish, isn’t it?”
James Salter’s new novel might be the most substantial work of his career, in the sense that it has weight and heft and it seems to rest firmly on solid ground, rather than floating somewhere above it, or drifting past like a stream.
It is determinedly less lyrical, less elliptical than earlier work. He beams when I tell him this.
“I wanted to write a book where nobody underlines anything on any of the pages,” he says. “I don’t want it to rely on language or for the language to be conspicuous.”
Regarding his previous work, “I was constantly hearing people talking about their favourite passages, a sentence they’d underlined 10 times. I don’t know that that’s what you read a book for. I began to feel it was a fault. I got tired of it.”
Salter’s notes for All That Is date back to 1975, but it would be misleading, he says, to think of the novel as being 38 years in the making. For a long time, he had no idea where the sentences were leading.
What he knew was that he had a subject : “the journey of life for a certain kind of man”. Then, about seven years ago, he read a line by Christopher Hitchens.
“He said, ‘No life is complete that hasn’t seen war, poverty and love.’ And I thought, ‘That’s succinct. Is that actually what I’m writing?’”
The certain kind of man Salter has written about is Philip Bowman, an editor of books in New York in the second half of the 20th century — a man, says Salter, who “carries a bit of civilisation with him”.
His story opens in 1945, on board a US battleship bound for Japan. Bowman, 20-years-old, a navigation officer, is on lookout. He can’t see what’s coming. None of us can.
After the war, Bowman enters publishing, “a gentleman’s occupation, the origin of the silence and elegance of bookstores and the freshness of new pages…”
That world suits him. He is promoted to editor and takes a tiny apartment in Manhattan. He becomes friends with a fellow editor, Neil Eddins, a Southerner and hopeful ladies man.
They talk books and girls. They are thirsty for sex and knowledge and experience. It is, I think, a terrific evocation of the life of young, single men in what was at that time almost certainly the most important, most exciting city in the world.
In the background, we are aware of the passing of time, of the great socio-historical schisms and movements, but these are not Salter’s real subjects. Neither is the world of literary publishing, as appealing as he makes it sound.
The subject is Bowman’s romantic life, his love affairs, their rapturous beginnings and confounding endings. Unlike previous Salter protagonists, Bowman is not striving for a greatness he will never attain.
It is only in matters of love, perhaps, that he over-reaches himself.
Bowman’s love affairs are contrasted with the more settled life of his friend Eddins, who has the good fortune, early on, to meet a smart, sassy Texan girl with a young son, and to settle down to what promises to be a happy marriage.
But as ever with Salter, love and death lie together, limbs entwined. Everything is temporary.
All That Is is the story of a life, then, but like all Salter books it is a river that meanders, that surges ahead and then is becalmed. It has many tributaries; one of the great pleasures of Salter is the way he dives into the lives of minor characters, spending a few paragraphs on someone who wondered into the action for a moment, telling you everything you ever need to know about them, then leaving them be.
And all in that spare, elegant, shimmering prose, those sentences long and short that seem to expand and compress time itself. “It seems to me that when you read,” Salter told The Paris Review in 1993, “what you are really listening for is the voice of the writer. That’s more important than anything else.”
He was speaking of Henry Miller, whose voice “makes you linger at his elbow long past closing time…” One can say the same of Salter’s.
In that same interview, when he was a mere sapling of 67, Salter described himself as a frotteur: “Someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible…”
“That was an unfortunate choice of words,” he says now. “I meant that all I like to do is pick the right word, and rewriting is really one of the more pleasurable parts of writing for me. But I used that damn French and now it sounds self-indulgent: ‘He’s a frotteur! Oh, he is, is he? I’ve never seen one before’.”
If Salter’s prose has approached purplish at times, and it has, then it has also inspired much imprecise panting in others. Critics use words like “luminous”, “lapidary”, “limpid”. All very nice, but not too helpful. The Los Angeles Times once suggested that Salter’s short stories will “blow your heart out”. They “glimmer with the magic of fiction” according to Michiko Kakutani, of The New York Times.
One reviewer wrote that things are always falling in James Salter’s books. “I recognised it immediately,” Salter says. “She said rain is falling, dusk is falling, cities are falling beneath as fighter planes rise. And I thought, goodness me, is that it?” Better yet, as ever, is Richard Ford, who wrote simply that, “Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master”. Precisely what Ford means by that, and why he says it, is best demonstrated by Salter’s books themselves. Buy one and see for yourself.
In All That Is, Philip Bowman is asked, on a night out in London, “What are the things that have mattered?” I ask Salter the same question.
“I’ve told you,” he says. “This interview has been about them. All the answers are in there.” The women, the war, the work, the children, the friends, the good luck and bad — all, that is, that goes to make up a life.
Salter’s nature, he says, is to be dissatisfied. There is much he would like to have done that he will probably never do now, places he would have liked to go, people he would have liked to have known, books he would have liked to have written. “It’s a question of your desires being infinite and insatiable,” he says.
Surveying his body of work, he says, “It’s hard for me to put myself in the position of looking back with pride at accomplishments. That’s just not the way I look at things.”
He is old now, no doubt about it. Old, but not infirm, not doddery, despite his self-effacing protestations. At one point, he tells me his bones were formed in a different era, “the Paleolithic era.”
He claims to be “out of it” on a few occasions, unconvincingly. He says he doesn’t see films any more, for example, but when I mention Lincoln, the recent Spielberg movie, he says, “Oh, yes, well I have seen Lincoln.”
And it turns out he’s a fan of Michael Haneke’s work, and that he has a friend nearby who gets sent the new stuff on DVD. So he’s not exactly entirely cut off from recent developments in the movies.
He claims, too, not to keep up much with the contemporary literary scene but he’s familiar with every younger writer I care to mention. He reads The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, and he follows literary debate online.
When I bemoan the disappearance of the scenery-chewing novelist from the public stage — where is today’s Mailer or Styron or Capote? — he suggests that this is a temporary situation.
“I think we’ll have some more rascals,” he says. “I look at Zadie Smith and I think, ‘Good God, if she only stabbed her husband we’d have a huge star!’ Or if Lindsay Lohan could write!”
He’s funny like that. He doesn’t take everything entirely seriously. When I ask him if he uses Twitter or Facebook: “Do I take pictures to send to my friends? This is what it looks like outside today! This is my typewriter! I’ve just finished three pages! What the hell? That seems to be about the level of it. Nobody cares. About what I’m doing, anyway. Well, I hope they don’t.”
But the most compelling evidence for this late octogenarian’s continuing potency is the major novel he finished just last October. “Until the last 20 or 25 per cent of the book, I felt very strong,” he says, when I ask where he found the energy for such an undertaking.
“Then it was rather like a race and we were coming up to the last lap and I could tell that my legs did not have what they had back then. I was strong enough to finish, but I don’t want to talk about the next book, or any such thing.”
He’s still writing, though, in long hand first, then on his typewriter, then correcting in pencil, then typing up another draft. There’s a new story on the desk in the other room.
He scoffs at the idea of another novel but then confesses that he wouldn’t rule out making a start on one.
We’re wrapping up now. I’m heading back to Denver, through Rocky Mountain blizzards, to catch my flight home. Salter suggests some places for me to look at on the way, meticulously draws me a map in pencil.
He and Kay fuss around me solicitously before I leave. He signs a book for me. My two days drinking tea at the kitchen table have been a brief, friendly interruption in a life dedicated to a great many glorious things — but above all to remembering, to recreating, to writing. And that’s what he’ll go back to when I’m gone.
Of Isaac Babel, the Russian Jewish writer who fell foul of Stalin, Salter once said: “He is heroic to me. My idea of writing is of unflinching and continual effort, somehow trying to find the right words until you reach a point where you can make no further progress and you either have something or you don’t.”
It turns out that Salter had something. He had a lot, an enormous amount. It might sound fanciful, but don’t bet against him having something more.