John Masters is now an almost forgotten novelist, though there was a time when Bhowani Junction and Nightrunners of Bengal might be glimpsed on the paperback racks of any drugstore. Masters had been an officer in the British army in Burma during World War II, though he seldom spoke of the jungle fighting or the defense of hilltops and narrow places against overwhelming odds. A figure of quiet authority, he receives, in James Salter’s memoir Burning the Days (1997), the finest compliment a man could ever pay another: “It was to his house one would hurry in case of grave danger. He would know without hesitation what to do.”
Salter’s frank admiration for men of courage and competence is rather at odds these days with his reputation as a celebrant of “luxe, calme et volupté,” as a kind of male Colette whose compact, burnished sentences illuminate summer evenings and erotic crises in the lives of the rich and privileged. In A Sport and a Pastime (1967) and Light Years (1975), in the stories of Dusk (1988) and Last Night (2005), sex and marriage are the dominant themes, while the passage of time and impending mortality provide a subtle, inevitable counterpoint.
But in his two early novels, The Hunters (1957) and The Arm of Flesh (1961)—about combat pilots in Korea and peacetime Germany—and in his underappreciated 1979 classic, Solo Faces (about mountain climbing), these emphases are reversed. Here the protagonists hunger for glory, for recognition by their peers; they constantly test themselves against ancient ideals of courage and masculinity. These three novels are, fundamentally, studies in heroism and, often, the nobility of failure. “The deepest instinct,” Salter has said, “is to want to do something enduring, something worthwhile, and to be engaged by that, whether one achieves it or not.” In these books women serve mainly as the warrior’s rest, or they function as snares, pulling overreachers back to ordinary existence, to what Salter once called, ironically, “the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.”
The memoir Burning the Days reflects these two aspects of Salter’s immensely interesting life. It is largely a book about love and ambition. After graduating from West Point in 1945, Salter became a career Air Force officer (leaving the service only in 1957 when he’d published his first novel and sold it to the movies for $60,000). In sections with titles like “Icarus,” “A Single Daring Act,” and “Forgotten Kings” he memorializes the pilots he fought with in Korea and the many writers and friends he has admired and learned from. Nearly all are male, some famous. By contrast, the beautiful women he lusted after and adored, loved and lost are seldom named, or they are given pseudonyms. No doubt this largely reflects gentlemanly discretion. And yet these women trouble Salter too. Not because he is married, but because they are irresistible, at once the source of temporary happiness and ecstasy and yet, on some level, irrelevant. What truly matters is glorious acts of heroism or glorious books.
Consider one of the most famous sections of Burning the Days. Salter is in a hotel room with a young Italian woman. The television is on; a rocket is about to take three astronauts to the moon, one of them, Buzz Aldrin, a friend of his from the Air Force. Salter cuts back and forth between the countdown and the lovemaking. “As a boy,” he writes, “I had imagined grown men achieving scenes such as this.” Is he speaking of the launch or this rendezvous with his deliciously spirited mistress? Ultimately, alas, there is no comparison: “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.”
Salter was in his early seventies when he published Burning the Days, and his youthful ambitions for a life of consequence, as a hero or writer, are viewed indulgently. The glittering prizes may have gone to others, but he might still murmur, as the Wife of Bath once said, “I have had my world, as in my tyme.” Moreover, through his pen, it is Salter who rescues his loved ones and certain sacred moments from time’s maw, breathing new life into them on the page. As he observes in the epigraph to his superb new novel, All That Is, “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.”
Salter once remarked that he could almost write another memoir from the material he never used in Burning the Days. Not that he intended to. But in some ways, he’s done just that in All That Is, the theme of which he summed up for an interviewer as “more or less What Mattered to Me.” Always an autobiographical writer, Salter here verges on the roman à clef; incidents, anecdotes, and people from his past are repurposed into mesmerizing fiction. The book ends, sometime in the 1970s, when the protagonist, in his early fifties, finds the right woman with whom to share the rest of his life. Salter began to live with Kay Eldredge, now Kay Salter, at that age, at that time. As Evelyn Waugh once noted of a similarly personal book, Brideshead Revisited: “I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they.” But still. One feels the intensity of lived experience behind every line of All That Is. The facts may not reflect wie es eigentlich gewesen but the emotions are real, the events personally meaningful. Yet this is art too. Salter and his friends are not just transformed, they are transfigured, made radiant.
In essence, the plot follows the life of Philip Bowman from his naval service in 1945 until middle age. After graduation from Harvard, Bowman drifts into a job as a book editor for a distinguished publisher, and eventually marries a Southern belle from the Virginia hunt country. Salter describes, with much relish, the hothouse life of Vivian’s family, one where men dress well, insist on old-world gentility, and coolly seduce one another’s daughters.
Eventually, Bowman falls in love with another woman, and later another. A great many characters briefly cross his path, then disappear. Wonderful scenes are set in London, Spain, along the Hudson, near the sea. Bowman himself experiences reverses; some of his friends suffer life-altering tragedy. Yet the book ends with the promise of an ongoing happiness.
What makes all this so engaging is, first of all, Salter’s gravely serious, precise, and musical prose, the close attention to the diction and rhythms of every phrase and paragraph. Just a word or two and even a minor character springs to life. Bowman’s shipmate Kimmel, who is effortlessly successful with women, possesses an “indolent glamour.” Second, there is the book’s narrative architecture, the pleasing variousness of its scenes, chapters that might almost be short stories. These all circle around what Salter scholar William Dowie once called the writer’s twin themes: “The priceless and ineffable glory of certain moments in life, no matter how costly, and the way relationships can deteriorate.” Third, the book possesses, like virtually all of Salter’s work, a Japanese simplicity and purity of line. Nothing goes on too long. No one ever shouts. Hearts break and lives are broken, but Salter’s voice remains hushed, confiding, wise. Cheap art distracts, great art consoles.
There is, however, a surprisingly strong extraliterary dimension to the book. At Harvard Bowman pals around with Malcolm Pearson, scion of a well-to-do family:
He was tall, intelligent, and mumbling, only occasionally was Bowman able to make out what he was saying, but gradually he became accustomed and could hear. Pearson treated his expensive clothing with a lordly disdain and seemed rarely to go to meals.
In Pearson’s shadow flickers the real George Plimpton, Salter’s friend and occasional publisher. Similarly, when the young Bowman visits a classmate’s father, a legendary figure in public relations “who had virtually invented the business,” his encounter with the imperious Kindrigen could be an outtake from Lost Property, Ben Sonnenberg’s memoir of his own father, who really had invented modern public relations and was just such a monster.
When Bowman finally enters publishing, he finds work at a distinguished trade house run by Robert Baum, elegant, German-Jewish, and clearly modeled on Roger Straus (of Farrar, Straus and Giroux). On his first trip to London, the fledgling editor attends a costume party hosted by the ambitious publisher Bernard Wiberg, during which “an upper-class harlot who’d been dropped from the guest list but had come despite that…as an act of insolence had fellated five of the male guests, one after another, in a bedroom.” Salter relates the same anecdote in Burning the Days, only the party is thrown by the actual George Weidenfeld and the number of lucky gentlemen is said to be nine. Both the fictional Wiberg and the real Weidenfeld appear dressed as pashas.
Writers usually employ such funhouse mirrorings from sheer playfulness or for aesthetic effects and seldom because of lack of imagination. Salter, however, insists that the art he values most is nearly always autobiographical. His favorite writers include Isaac Babel, Celine, Colette, and Henry Miller, all of whom blur the barriers between fact and fiction. As Salter told interviewer Edward Hirsch:
The notion that anything can be invented wholly and that these invented things are classified as fiction and that other writing, presumably not made up, is called nonfiction strikes me as a very arbitrary separation of things. We know that most great novels and stories come not from things that are entirely invented, but from perfect knowledge and close observation. To say they are made up is an injustice in describing them. I sometimes say that I don’t make up anything—obviously, that’s not true. But I am uninterested in writers who say that everything comes out of the imagination. I would rather be in a room with someone who is telling the story of his life, which may be exaggerated and even have lies in it, but I want to hear the true story, essentially.