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The Glory of Certain Moments in Life’

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.

That said, unless wholly disguised, too many walk-ons and tips of the hat can disrupt a book’s narrative spell, that waking dream to which the reader surrenders. One starts to play guessing games. Could that painter be X or Y, didn’t Salter himself live in Piermont, wasn’t it Chris Mankiewicz’s little son, mentioned in Burning the Days, who spoke of his favorite book as one from which you could learn about anything? All That Is even repeats an anecdote from Salter’s memoir about an old man in a hospital, enjoying an illicit drink with his nurse, who suggests having “one for the road,” then lies back and dies. And surely that reference to Beth Ann Rigsby, who came down to dinner at Vassar in the required pearls and gloves but nothing else, is an anecdote associated with Jane Fonda? Salter has told us that his first wife hailed from the Virginia hunt country: How much of the action set there is drawn from life?

Such curiosity is only human, yet before long these speculations start to seem unworthy, puerile, when juxtaposed with the serene beauty of Salter’s art and prose. Here, for instance, is Vivian’s aristocratic Virginia:

It was a place of order and style, the Kingdom, from Middleburg to Upperville, a place and life apart, much of it intensely beautiful, the broad fields soft in the rain or gentle and bright in the sun. In the spring were the races, the Gold Cup in May, over the steeplechase hills, the crowd distractedly watching from the rows of parked cars with food and drink laid out. In the fall were the hunts that went on into the winter until February when the ground was hard and the streams frozen. Everyone had dogs.

That’s one aspect of the South. But Bowman’s friend Eddins, first an editor and later an agent, grew up in a quite different world:

This was in Ovid, South Carolina—Oh-vid, as they pronounced it—oyster shell driveways and tin advertising signs, churches, whiskey bottles in brown paper sacks, and white-skinned girls with wavy hair who worked in stores and offices, you were born to marry one. It was in his blood, hard-imprinted there like the bottle caps and bits of foil trampled into flat, fairground earth.

In truth, one can open to any page of Salter and find a striking image. “They made love simply, straightforwardly—she saw the ceiling, he the sheets.” A grande dame’s brother “had the handsome face of someone who had never done much.” Bowman’s uncle Frank “was understanding, humorous, given to writing songs and studying nudist magazines.” And while Salter’s fiction finds life anything but comic, that doesn’t preclude a certain dry wit. Vivian’s female relatives “were known for their style, their riding ability, and their husbands. Also their nerve. She had an aunt who had been robbed in her home at gunpoint by two black men and had said to them coolly, ‘We’ve been too good to you people.’”

Salter, however, shouldn’t be appreciated just for his epigrammatic sentences. The opening chapter of All That Is may well be the best piece of sustained descriptive prose he has ever written. After decades of chronicling the sexually urbane, in this opening Salter again writes of the grandeur and horror of battle, of men in extremis. He describes the last days of the war in the Pacific, the kamikaze planes, the attack on Bowman’s ship. Facing defeat, the desperate Japanese pin their hopes on the invincible battleship Yamato to turn the tide of the war:

Through the green water of the harbor, late in the day, long, dark, and powerful, moving slowly and gravely at first, a bow wave forming, gathering speed, almost silent, the large dock cranes passing in silhouette, the shore hidden in evening mist, leaving white swirls of foam trailing behind it, the Yamato headed for sea. The sounds that could be heard were muted; there was a feeling of good-bye. The captain addressed the entire crew massed on the deck. They had plentiful ammunition, lockers filled with great shells the size of coffins, but not the fuel, he told them, to return. Three thousand men and a vice admiral were aboard. They had written farewell letters home to their parents and wives and were sailing to their deaths. Find happiness with another, they wrote. Be proud of your son. Life was precious to them. They were somber and fearful. Many prayed. It was known that the ship was to perish as an emblem of the undying will of the nation not to surrender.

Note how the long opening sentence mimics the Yamato sailing out of port into the open sea. To suggest the quiet bravery of the men, Salter eschews any grand flourishes. A phrase or two can stand for an entire letter: Find happiness with another conveys just the right blend of formality, resignation, and love.

In Burning the Days Salter wrote:

I like men who have known the best and the worst, whose life has been anything but a smooth trip. Storms have battered them, they have lain, sometimes for months on end, becalmed. There is a residue even if they fail. It has not been all tinkling; there have been grand chords.

Salter, of course, is himself just such a man, just such a writer.

There was a period in the 1980s when all his books were out of print. When it first appeared, Light Years—arguably his masterpiece—sold only 7,000 copies; Solo Faces, after a vigorous publicity campaign, managed 12,000. Critics meanwhile regularly dismissed him as “mannered” and “chi-chi.” For years he paid the bills with screenwriting (Downhill Racer is his best-known movie), magazine pieces, and teaching gigs (Vassar, Iowa, Houston, Williams). The New Yorker repeatedly rejected his short stories (including all those from Dusk, which received the PEN-Faulkner Award); the Guggenheim application failed. As he wrote wearily to a friend, “It is always one step further, one more year.” After all, he was no longer young. His great hope, he told that same friend, was “to be an elegant older man that people believe may still achieve something.”

People did believe in him and his work (and, as many can testify, there are few more elegant men than Salter). That friend to whom he opened his heart, the critic and essayist Robert Phelps, proclaimed A Sport and a Pastime the best novel of the 1960s, taught the book in classes, gave copies to younger friends. (The one on my shelf is inscribed: “For Mike, from Robt—a book I love and envy. Dec. 7, 1974.”) The two writers corresponded until Phelps’s death, bolstering one another through periods of depression and setback. Memorable Days, their selected letters (to which I contributed a foreword), is one of the best literary correspondences you will ever read:

Dear Robert, I’ve struggled all day with a few paragraphs and only come up with two words that make me say ah, that’s interesting….
Dear James,… The thing that most gratifies me (and I mean gratify literally, as good cheese gratifies me, or a well-hung line of laundry snapping in the wind, or a Cavafy poem) is that if I stop at the end of almost any given sentence, I cannot guess what will come next—neither substance nor syntax. With most writers, there is maximum predictability. You can skim whole paragraphs. Like Isaac Babel, Salter arcs and makes right-angle turns. It is a little like riding in a flying saucer, or on the tail of a humming bird.
But the story itself—the ambience, the details, what you tell me, is so entirely your own, and no one else’s, that I find it hard to make a merely aesthetic judgment. You are a minority of one; a new herb in the cabinet; and, at the least, the most romantic writer we have.

The penultimate chapter of Burning the Days is Salter’s extended homage to Phelps: “He was one of the most important influences in my life and in whatever I wrote afterwards. Would this interest him, I often wondered? Would he find it deserving?”

Of course, Salter found other champions too. Jack Shoemaker at North Point Press reissued the early books, the first two in revised editions. (Today a signed copy of the true first of The Hunters could set you back $2,000.) Distinguished writers—Susan Sontag, Richard Ford, Ned Rorem (who compared Salter’s prose to the music of Debussy), John Irving—proclaimed him a master. Editors at The Paris Review, Grand Street, and Esquire brought out his short stories, memoirs, and sometimes controversial essays, such as “Younger Women, Older Men.”

Robert Phelps once told me that the true test of one’s devotion to a writer is a willingness to collect his or her journalism. Salter’s admirers hoarded old copies of People magazine in which he interviewed Nabokov, Graham Greene, Antonia Fraser. Even if you already owned A.J. Liebling’s memoir Between Meals, you needed the North Point Press edition because of Salter’s introduction. You absolutely had to acquire the Spring 1979 issue of Paris Review because it contained Salter’s essay on d’Annunzio, structured as a series of alphabetical entries. His travel pieces, however, appeared all over, and were hard to track down. Happily, in 2005 Salter collected the best of them in There and Then. In this handsome paperback he reflects on cemeteries, a summer in France, skiing, a stay at Yukio Mishima’s favorite hotel, and much else, but always the observations are unmistakably Salterian:

The thing that finally makes a woman irresistible, of course, is what she says and what she does not. You may doubt this, but in the long run it is true. Looks, fine legs, these are things you can find in the street, but listening to an intelligent voice talking of things lived and seen—to feel the experience in it and, for want of a better word, the gallantry—there are not many things in life more seductive.

The most unexpected of Salter’s late works may also be his most charming, at least partly because it was coauthored with his wife Kay. Life Is Meals (2006) is more a bedside book than a cookbook. For each day of the year the Salters proffer a concise and nourishing mini-essay or gastronomical anecdote, sometimes accompanied by a recipe. Many are about writers:

July 26—1885. On this day George Bernard Shaw celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday by losing his virginity to a widow fifteen years older. Some time later, at a formal dinner party in London at which, according to custom, the host invited guests to make a toast on particular topics, Shaw was asked for one on sex. He stood, raised his glass, and began, “It gives me great pleasure…,” and took his seat.

Others entries, however, take the form of worldly reflections, as in this one for April 19:

The link between quality and price is axiomatic. For the very best, you must pay a lot. It is a little like drinking grappa or marc—it stings at first, but warmth and a deep satisfaction follow.

Most of Life Is Meals is, obviously, collaborative, but a few entries bear the initials K.S. or J.S. Here is one of the latter for May 3, discussing “Solitary Dinners”:

Eating alone in a restaurant, sitting at a table, is usually tedious. First there is the wait for the menu, then to give your order, then a longer wait for the food itself, etc. You are marooned at the table with a rarely seen waiter as the only possible rescue, the light is probably not good enough to read by, and also you haven’t brought a book. If it is a decent restaurant, there is usually service at the bar, the best solution. There is no uncomfortable wait. The bartender usually has a place setting ready to lay before you, and you can drink in comfort until the food arrives. Drinking alone is not something admonishable—bars are made for that—and if you are in need of conversation, that is a bartender’s duty.

After years of being “becalmed,” James Salter has now rightly come to be regarded as one of the great writers of his generation. During the past three years alone he has been awarded the Hadada, Rea, Pen-Malamud and Windham-Campbell prizes, the last worth a tidy $150,000. All That Is could win him still others.

While all recognitions are gratifying, some, though, are more gratifying than others—especially the first. In 1989 the Pen-Faulkner Award was given to Dusk and Other Stories, and the audience at the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., was packed with the usual cultural and literary crowd. But never seen before or since, the front row was lined with generals, Salter’s former West Point classmates and Air Force buddies. The applause was deafening.

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