“…It was in me like a pathogen—the idea of being a writer and from the great heap of days making something lasting.”
—from Burning the Days:Recollection
Born in 1925 in Passaic, New Jersey, a graduate of West Point, and a fighter pilot in the Korean War, James Salter is the author of a relatively small body of prose of uncommon subtlety, intelligence, and beauty. Especially in his deftly rendered shorter fiction, gathered in Dusk and Other Stories (1988) and now Last Night, as in the remarkable Light Years (1975), Salter suggests not the heavy hitters of his era—James Jones, Irwin Shaw, Robert Penn Warren, John O’Hara, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Saul Bellow, for whom prose fiction is an arena for sinewy self-display and argumentation—but such European sensibilities as Proust, Colette, Woolf, Nabokov, Marguerite Duras.
Salter remarks with a kind of off-handed regret in his memoir Burning the Days (1988) that no work of his is filmable, but in fact Salter’s elliptical, impressionistic prose suggests the films of Antonioni and Bertolucci, who may well have had some influence on his fiction. Rare in the fiction of a male writer of his generation, Salter’s work reveals virtually no interest in politics and social issues and very little interest in reigning ideas, popular obsessions, psychology. In his shimmeringly sensuous meditation upon mortality, Light Years, which reads like an eroticized To the Lighthouse, the concerns of Salter’s Caucasian, bourgeois characters are exclusively familial, aesthetic, sexual. Though the novel moves through the violent upheaval in American society of the 1960s, Salter’s characters are untouched by assassinations, civil rights demonstrations, the Vietnam War and its protesters, the disintegration of drug-ravaged communities.
A Sport and a Pastime (1967) is a lyric account of youthful erotic love in “green, bourgeois France” imagined by a voyeuristic American observer, and Solo Faces (1979) is an impassioned account of the mystique of mountain climbing, seen primarily through the consciousness of a fanatic devotee for whom “what mattered was to be a part of existence, not to possess it.” Salter’s characters inhabit not history but time; not a snarled world of politics and events but a pastoral world forever beckoning, and forever elusive, like the highest and most treacherous peaks of the Alps.
As an Air Force pilot, James Salter flew F-86 fighter planes in more than one hundred missions during the Korean War, an interim of his life described with dreamlike precision in Burning the Days and in his first novel, The Hunters (1956). When he resigned his commission at the age of thirty-two, he’d been in uniform since the age of seventeen and he had just published, under a pseudonym, The Hunters: “Salter was as distant as possible from my own name. It was essential not to be identified and jeopardize a career…. I wanted to be admired but not known.” Though he seems to have renounced these early realistic novels* in favor of his later, more experimental style, The Hunters is a fascinating work of fiction that brings us intimately into the fighter pilot world of missions against Russian MIGs manned by Russian pilots: “That’s what makes it a war…. You shoot at them, they shoot at you.”
Salter writes with sympathy and compassion of those relatively few pilots who are motivated to be heroic in the fullest sense of the word, as well as those who are motivated primarily to survive. The Korean War, predating Vietnam, isn’t a subject for irony, black humor, moral outrage, but rather, in Salter’s vision, a neutral place “free of the gravitational forces of reality,” where men feel the irresistible lure of the heroic:
[Cleve] looked over the maps on the walls again, the rows of charts, the claims board. The last he stood before for some time. On it was listed the name of every pilot in the group who had ever had a confirmed claim in Korea. Small red stars marked them. There were separate columns for aircraft destroyed, probably destroyed, and damaged, but it was only the first column that really counted. His eye moved down the trail of names…. Some belonged to dead men. There was Robey’s, with five stars after it. Nolan had three. Bengert, seven. Imil, six. Tonneson had thirteen, two full lines on the board. And there was his own name with one, and Pell’s. Cleve had seen men come in every day to glance at this board and admire their names on it. It was the roll of honor…. It was absurd, and yet impressive. Anything that men would willingly die for had to be considered seriously. From this board, perhaps, or one like it, could come names a nation would seize in its appetite for heroes. For a truly singular record there might be lasting fame.
So from the time of Homer to the mid-twentieth century men compete with men for “fame” and not political, still less moral, ideals. As games are benign forms of war, so war is a lethal game played by men in contention. Because Salter doesn’t write wartime black comedy like Joseph Heller, or with the moral ferocity of Robert Stone, his characters strike us as painfully real, vulnerable:
At the close of June, [Cleve] had only four missions left…. It was near the end for him, and, as if in its final throes, the terrible fever to win that had held him was stronger than it had ever been.
Passages from both The Hunters and Cassada, as well as previously unpublished excerpts from Salter’s Korean War journal, are included in the miscellany Gods of Tin: The Flying Years (2004), an excellent introduction to Salter’s variegated yet uniformly eloquent work. Like Salter’s powerful memoir Burning the Days, Gods of Tin is so rich in its observations, so poetically precise in its language, one can open it virtually anywhere and be drawn into its haunting prose:
12 Feb 1952. Korea…. Watched a mission take off at K-14—two at a time booming down the runway, then two more, and two more. Col. Thyng was leading, north to the Yalu. A second squadron followed. They streamed out, turning, disappearing into the overcast.
Come now, and let us go and risk our lives unnecessarily. For if they have got any value at all it is this that they have got none. We arrived in Korea, as it happened, on a gloomy day. It was February, the dead of winter, planes parked among sandbag revetments and bitter cold lying over the field adding to the pall. Davis, the ranking American ace—mythic word, ineffaceable—a squadron commander, had just been shot down. With the terrible mark of newness on us, we stood in the officers’ club and listened to what was or was not fact. We were too fresh to make distinctions….
We had come, it turned out, to join a sort of crude colonial life lived in stucco buildings in plain, square rooms, unadorned, with common showers and a latrine even the wing commander shared.
We were there together for six months, cold winter mornings with the weak sunlight on the hills, the silvery airplanes gliding forth like mechanical serpents not quite perfected in their movement and then forming on the runway amid rising sound. In the spring the ice melted in the rivers and the willow became green. The blood from a bloody nose poured down over your mouth and chin inside the rubber oxygen mask. In summer the locust trees were green and all the fields. It comes hauntingly back: silent, unknown lands, distant brown river, the Yalu, the line between two worlds.
You lived and died alone, especially in fighters. Fighters. Somehow, despite everything, that word had not become sterile. You slipped into the hollow cockpit and strapped and plugged yourself into the machine. The canopy ground shut and sealed you off. Your oxygen, your very breath, you carried with you into the chilled vacuum, in a steel bottle.
A Sport and a Pastime, published when Salter was forty-two, is a radi-cal departure from Salter’s early novels both in subject matter and in lan-guage. A perennial on those lists of “most neglected” masterpieces, this tenderly/obsessively erotic romance might be seen as a kind of homage to the Parisian publisher of scandalous novels by Sade, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), and Pauline Réage (The Story of O), Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press, “a sort of lanky Falstaff” as Salter recalls the man whose books “one leafed through…in a kind of narcotic dream.” A Sport and a Pastime has as an epigraph a quotation from the Koran: “Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime.” It’s an ironic and yet literal commentary on the novel’s preoccupation with sensuous experience in a sequence of set pieces evoking, with the same lyric intensity, the countryside of France and a highly charged love affair of a twenty-four-year-old American, a Yale dropout, and a younger French shopgirl.
The novel suggests Nabokov’s Lolita, though lacking Nabokov’s brilliant nastiness and allusiveness. Its narrator is intrusive in the way of narrators in experimental fiction of the 1960s, a self-described “somnambulist” whose relationship to the avid young lovers is enigmatic:
These are notes to photographs…. It would be better to say they began as notes but became something else, a description of what I conceive to be events. They were meant for me alone, but I no longer hide them. Those times are past….
I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh. It’s a story of things that never existed although even the faintest doubt of that, the smallest possibility, plunges everything into darkness.
Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time…. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward…. One alters the past to form the future.
As Lolita is a kind of valentine to Nabokov’s adopted, gorgeously vulgar America, so A Sport and a Pastime is a valentine to Salter’s France, “not the great squares of Europe…but the myriad small towns closed tight against the traveler, towns as still as the countryside itself.” Obsessed with the young lovers whom he has befriended, the voyeur-narrator begins to imagine their lovemaking in the most exalted terms:
Mythology has accepted [Dean, the young man], images he cannot really believe in, images brief as dreams. The sweat rolls down his arms. He tumbles into the damp leaves of love, he rises clean as air. There is nothing about her he does not adore. When they are finished, she lies quiet and limp, exhausted by it all. She has become entirely his, and they lie like drunkards, their bare limbs crossed. In the cold distance the bells begin filling the darkness, clear as psalms.
A Sport and a Pastime moves with dreamlike serenity through successive (and somewhat repetitious) erotic scenes, ending with the return of the young American to the United States and his abrupt, accidental death there. As a kind of drifting ghost attached to the small provincial French towns now closed to him, the voyeur-narrator remains behind, still enthralled.
The experience of Light Years, like that of Virginia Woolf’s most characteristic novels, is tonal, musical; the novel’s plot, so to speak, seems to happen in the interstices of its characters’ lives, in a sequence of wave-like motions that appear unconnected to human volition, like the play of light, obsessively described, in the Hudson Valley household that is the novel’s primary setting:
In the morning the light came in silence. The house slept. The air overhead, glittering, infinite, the moist earth beneath—one could taste this earth, its richness, its density, bathe in the air like a stream. Not a sound. The rind of the cheese had dried like bread. The glasses held the stale aroma of vanished wine.
In embryo, this is Light Years: an upper-middle-class suburban household touching upon infinity, irradiated with light, yet, if one looks closely, beginning to go stale as if with an excess of happiness.
[Viri’s and Nedra’s] life was two things: it was a life, more or less—at least it was the preparation for one—and it was an illustration of life for their children…. They wanted their children, in those years, to have the impossible, not in the sense of the unachievable but in the sense of the pure….
There is no happiness like this happiness: quiet mornings, light from the river, the weekend ahead. They lived a Russian life, a rich life, interwoven, in which the misfortune of one, a failure, illness, would stagger them all. It was like a garment, this life. Its beauty was outside, its warmth within.
Light Years moves airily, relentlessly, from an autumn in 1958 when Viri and Nedra are a young married couple in their late twenties, attractive, enviable, “beautiful” and “handsome” as characters in an American romance by F. Scott Fitzgerald, to a spring day decades later when Viri, divorced, returns to his former house, “an old man in the woods” who has outlived his wife and has seen his daughters drift from him: “It happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leave, we stand on the shore.”
Where novels of suburban marital unrest at mid-century by such contemporaries of Salter’s as Richard Yates, John Cheever, and John Updike are apt to be laced with a corrosive irony, Light Years is a more subtly modulated, Chekhovian testament to the passing of a way of life, or to the cultural elevation of that way of life: the sacred insularity of the American “nuclear family” in which adults live for, and through, their children. Viri’s love for Nedra is perceived as a kind of weakness: Viri is “a good father—that is to say, an ineffective man.” Eventually, he’s repudiated by Nedra for being a man who “had not wanted enough.”
Nedra, the novel’s most enigmatic character, is at once an earth mother (“Her love for [her children] was the love to which she had devoted her life, the only one which would not be consumed or vanish”) entranced by the routines and rituals of her family and a sexually restless, even predatory version of Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsey, who persists in having adulterous love affairs even after her husband has found her out. Nedra insists upon a divorce, moves out of the idyllic Hudson Valley house to travel in Europe. No longer young, she embarks upon sexual adventures in anticipation of entering “the underground river” where “not even courage will help.” It isn’t banal happiness Nedra wants, but something more elusive and undefinable: “She meant to be free.”
Like a riddle not readily solved, Light Years lingers in the memory. There is a melancholy enchantment in its pages redolent of Colette: prolonged happiness is a prison from which the self yearns to escape at any cost.
Fittingly, Salter’s next novel, Solo Faces, explores the search for the most extreme ecstatic freedom: solo mountain climbing in the French Alps. Where Light Years is a poetic meditation in prose interlarded with dramatic scenes, Solo Faces is an action film in prose interlarded with poetic passages. Its solitary protagonist Rand is a mountain climber of instinctive skill who becomes, over the course of the novel, a fanatic, a man for whom ordinary life, especially fatherhood, is terrifying. He’s a type not unlike certain of the ace pilots revered in Salter’s novels about flying, for whom the compulsion to risk their lives is visceral; there’s the yearning, too, to make oneself “heroic” in the most literal, unironic sense of the word. The pure man of action is a suicide, William Carlos Williams once noted, and so it seems, in Solo Faces, the purest mountain climbers are men like Rand, driven to ever more dangerous exploits as he tests his courage repeatedly, one successful climb provoking the need for another, and yet another:
He was happy, held there by the merest point of steel, above all difficulties somehow, above all fears. This is how it must feel at the end, he thought uneasily, a surge of joy before the final moment. He looked past his feet. The steepness was dazzling. Far above him was a great bulge of ice….
In the morning he woke among peaks incredibly white against the muted sky. There is something greater than the life of the cities, greater than money and possessions; there is a manhood that can never be taken away. For this, one gives everything.
Inevitably, Rand reaches the limit of his endurance, broken in spirit when he fails to complete a suicidal solo climb. Yet even as he retreats in shame from the brotherhood of mountain climbers to an anonymous and posthumous life in Florida, he passes into legend:
They talked of him, however, which was what he had always wanted. The acts themselves are surpassed but the singular figure lives on. The day finally came when they realized they would never know for certain. Rand had somehow succeeded. He had found the great river. He was gone.
Dusk and Last Night are appropriate titles for Salter’s slender collections of stories, which unfold with dreamlike fluidity in an atmosphere of shadows and indistinct forms, like watercolors in a dark palette. As Salter’s novels are comprised of exquisite set pieces, often self-contained, so his short stories suggest novellas or novels compressed into a few pages. Both Dusk and Last Night, the new collection, contain memorable stories, yet a number of others (“Am Strande von Tanger,” “The Cinema,” “Lost Sons,” “Via Negativa,” “The Destruction of the Goetheanum,” from Dusk; “Comet,” “Eyes of the Stars,” “Platinum,” “Arlington,” from Last Night) move so swiftly and disjointedly as to arouse expectation in the way of trailers for intriguing films that turn out to be the films themselves, abruptly truncated. It’s as if the writer’s imagination has leapt ahead of his capacity for, or interest in, the work of expression; an impatience with formal storytelling and chronological development:
This film that he had written, this important work of the newest of the arts, already existed complete in his mind. Its power came from its chasteness, the discipline of its images. It was a film of indirection, the surface was calm with the calm of daily life. That was not to say still. Beneath the visible were emotions more potent for their concealment. Only occasionally, like the head of an iceberg ominously rising from nowhere and then dropping from sight did the terror come into view.
(“The Cinema,” Dusk)
Where narration is indirect and images are employed as a kind of emotional synecdoche, perspective tends to be coolly detached and retrospective, as in the great experimental European films of the mid-twentieth century, or the short fiction of Colette. This accounts for the protracted openings of a number of Salter’s stories, their abrupt and sometimes disconcerting leaps in time, sudden endings that bring the reader up short, like sudden steps in dreams, unforeseen:
She has small breasts and large nipples. Also, as she herself says, a rather large behind. Her father has three secretaries. Hamburg is close to the sea.
(“Am Strande von Tanger,” Dusk)
And, in a swift and somewhat desultory summing-up of a poignant story of marital betrayal:
That was how she and Walter came to part, upon being discovered by his wife. They met two or three times afterward, at his insistence, but to no avail. Whatever holds people together was gone. She told him she could not help it. That was just the way it was.
(“Last Night,” Last Night)
In Dusk there’s a perplexing story titled “Akhnilo” that tracks in microscopic detail what seems to be the mental disintegration of a man about whom we know little (“Eddie Fenn was a carpenter though he’d gone to Dartmouth and majored in history…. He had thinning hair and a shy smile. Not much to say”), a feat of writerly obscurity that repeated readings can’t decode. (In Burning the Days, Salter acknowledges having written a story about a man whose imagined life consumes his identity, about which Salter’s wife says she “couldn’t make head or tail of it.”) Enough material for a substantial novel is crammed into the seven small pages of “Arlington”: complicated marital relations, exotic locales, thumbnail sketches of characters, abrupt death:
In his long, admired career, Westerveldt had been like a figure in a novel. In the elephant grass near Pleiku he’d gotten a wide scar through one eyebrow where a mortar fragment, half an inch lower, and a little closer, would have blinded or killed him. If anything, it enhanced his appearance. He’d had a long love affair with a woman in Naples when he’d been stationed there, a marquesa, in fact…. Women always liked him. In the end he married a woman from San Antonio, a divorcée with a child, and they had two more together. He was fifty-eight when he died from some kind of leukemia that began as a strange rash on his neck.
Like the self-absorbed suburbanites of Light Years, the characters of Salter’s short fiction tend to be men and women of privilege, worldly and yet vulnerable to hurt; people who perceive of themselves as passionate, or deserving of passion, though, in fact, like the rare book dealer of “Bangkok,” who has moved on to a domestic life of routine contentment (“You can’t have ecstasy daily”), they may have settled for “pretend” lives. Salter’s most powerful stories tend to be about women in extremis, who have abandoned all pretense, sometimes in a moment’s revelation, sometimes in a protracted and horrific contemplation of mortality, as in “Twenty Minutes,” in Dusk, when a woman living alone, a divorcée, is thrown from her horse in a desolate area, lies broken and paralyzed waiting for someone to discover her as flashes of her life scroll past her:
It was growing dark. Help me, someone, help me, she kept repeating. Someone would come, they had to. She tried not to be afraid. She thought of her father who could explain life in one sentence. “They knock you down and you get up. That’s what it’s all about.” He recognized only one virtue. He would hear what had happened, that she merely lay there. She had to try to get home, even if she went only a little way, even a few yards.
The two most poignant stories in Last Night are about women who have been diagnosed with inoperable cancer: “Such Fun” reads like a dark episode of Sex and the City, in which a woman can’t share news of her impending death with her closest women friends, who are bent upon having a good time getting drunk as they exchange revelations about their former husbands, but only with a stranger driving a taxi. In the harrowing “Last Night,” a terminally ill woman named Marit hopes to appropriate her death by making it into a ritual involving her husband, who will inject her with a lethal amount of morphine:
She no longer resembled herself. What she had been was gone: it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came.
Marit, anticipating death, longs for “certain memories” to take with her, but only memories from childhood: “The rest was a long novel so like your life; you were going through it without thinking and then one morning it ended: there were bloodstains.” But Marit’s plan for an easeful death brings unexpected results for her, her husband, and her husband’s appalled mistress.
It’s a measure of James Salter’s writerly gifts that one wishes each of his stories longer, as, at the somewhat premature conclusion of Burning the Days, one of the most engaging and beautifully composed of recent memoirs, one wishes the life, thus the art, extended:
It is only in books that one finds perfection, only in books that it cannot be spoiled. Art, in a sense, is life brought to a standstill, rescued from time.