I read the news today, oh boy…
about a lucky man who made the grade….
-Lennon & McCartney, “A Day in the Life”
A literary hero of mine, James Salter, surely one of the most under-appreciated writers of the last century, died last week at age 90. His passing, after a long and remarkably multifaceted life, is both a personal loss and the closing of a chapter of American literature.
Favorite authors hold a special and somewhat peculiar place in our lives — they’re like celebrities who have befriended us, correspondents we’ve never met but whose inner lives we think we know, distant but admired relatives we can’t visit often enough. Their books have been companions at turning points in our lives, or the books themselves pointed us in directions we might never have gone but for our having happened upon them. We are jealous of them, believing our understanding of their work is special, even as we foist our favorites on our reading friends and relatives.
For those of us who fancy ourselves writers, the relationship is even more complex, as our love of these authors often derives from a perceived (or wished for) artistic kinship or shared sensibility. We see in their work what is possible; they are our silent shadow-mentors, showing us how it can be done. I have parsed Salter’s novel of domestic manners, Light Years, with an almost Talmudic obsessiveness, so taken was I with the wonderfully consistent and elegiac tone of his prose, so much was I inspired to want to write like him, or at least understand how he did it. I’m a susceptible reader, and I would come away from these sessions in a kind of emulative hypnosis, phrases in his style unfolding in my head for hours. Then the spell would pass and I’d be just me again, writing the way I do, for better or worse. There was only one James Salter.
He was a closet New York Jew (James Horowitz by birth), a West Point man and a fighter pilot during the Korean War, a screenwriter and a filmmaker, a novelist and journalist and memoirist and short story writer. He wrote many of my personal favorites in most of these categories: screenplay (Downhill Racer); novel (toss-up between Solo Faces and Light Years); memoir (Burning the Days); short story (“Platinum,” from the collection Last Night); travel journalism (There and Then); even cookbook/memoir (Life is Meals, co-authored with his wife Kay). He was, as all the obits say, a writer’s writer, which I take to mean, among other things, that only someone who has tried it can fully appreciate how rare and difficult it is to command one’s native language to such varied and finely-tuned effect.
Though ecumenical of genre, he was not prolific, certainly not by the standards of an Oates or an Updike or even a Jonathan Franzen. More than twenty years separated Solo Faces from his next and last novel (which we suspected it might be), the valedictory All That Is (certainly one of the bolder titles in all of literature). One wishes that he had written more, but then he would have been writing something else entirely.
Salter was an immediate descendant of the Hemingway school of alpha-male writers who approached narrative prose as a contact sport. His description of his flying years in Burning the Days and his autobiographical war novel, The Hunters, stand as some of the best writing about piloting aircraft since Saint-Exupéry, and Solo Faces is unsurpassed in the authenticity of its depiction of mountain climbing. The most beautiful evocations of the joy of skiing that I’ve ever read are to be found in his nonfiction collection There and Then. One imagines that he devoured life in huge masculine gulps and digested it into prose, yet the co-protagonist of Light Years is a rather effete, self-absorbed architect, and it is his wife, the elusive, exquisite Nedra, whose inner life is most vividly conveyed.
He lived, as it seems the greats of his generation always did, in France and New York and for a time in Hollywood, but he spent much of his later life in Aspen, CO. Every time I passed through Colorado (usually to ski), I fantasized about looking him up and knocking on his door, just to thank him and shake his hand, maybe ask him where to eat and which runs were good that day. I regret that I never did it, though he probably would have slammed the door in my face; he wanted fame (he as much as said so), but not, I suspect, that kind.
The elusiveness of fame and worldly success is a recurring concern in Salter’s writing. Nowhere is the inner man laid bare more starkly than in a passage from his memoir Burning the Days, in which the first moon landing vaults some of his former pilot colleagues into permanent renown on a summer night when Salter is pursuing mere sex:
“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.”
Romantic love as a great distraction from the important things in life is another Salter theme. I believe his view of life’s true reward, perhaps its true greatness, lies elsewhere, in family and the love of one’s children. His first child, a daughter, died in his arms at age 25. Here is a passage from Light Years, written several years earlier:
“Of them all, it was the true love. Of them all, it was the best. That other, that sumptuous love which made one drunk, which one longed for, envied, believed in, that was not life. It was what life was seeking; it was a suspension of life. But to be close to a child, for whom one spent everything, whose life was protected and nourished by one’s own, to have that child beside one, at peace, was the real, the deepest, the only joy.”
One of the pleasures of being an older reader is that you can revisit novels read long ago and experience them in an entirely new way. My encounters with Salter occurred in two widely-separated periods of my reading life; first, when I was in my thirties and discovered Solo Faces, his incomparable short novel of an American alpinist in France; A Sport and a Pastime, about a young American and his French girlfriend, motoring and ruminating and lovemaking their way through Provence, and Light Years, arguably his finest novel, about a couple and their daughters living on the banks of the Hudson, whose ambitions to live distinctive lives erode their marriage over decades. I remember finding Pastime rather impenetrable at the time, fascinated though I was by all the lyrically-described sex. Solo Faces seemed rather leadenly intellectual compared to The Eiger Sanction, a thriller involving mountain climbing that was published around the same time. And even though Light Years was recognizable even then as Salter’s claim to the pantheon of Great American Writers, I thought it too antique in style, not nearly as hip as my beloved Updike.
Some thirty years later, I re-read these books as part of a re-discovery of Salter, brought about when I began to work on a novel of domestic manners and returned to Light Years, with its beautifully elegiac depiction of the long, slow disintegration of a blessed and doomed marriage, for inspiration. Stunned by it as I had not been as a younger man, I made a study of everything Salter had ever written, revisiting Solo Faces as a reader who had, by then, been in alpine mountains and, more pertinently, been tutored in the ways life thwarts ambition; and revisiting A Sport and a Pastime as a reader who cared less about the sex than about the words perfectly chosen to describe it, who could recognize first-hand the uncanny emotional precision with which Salter captured the small towns and countryside and ineffable romanticism of France.
I re-read Burning the Days, luxuriating in its period (basically that of my parents), and in Salter’s magical ability to conjure immersive atmosphere out of a few exquisite strokes. And in the midst of this binge, during which I read nothing but Salter, not wanting to break the spell of his style, hoping that it would infect mine, came All That Is, out of the blue, basically a fictionalized autobiography, long and plotless, episodic and elegiac – an old man’s book, looking back, saluting the past from the high promontory of a life fully lived. It was all I could have hoped for from him.
So what do we do when a favorite author dies? Of mine, first Updike passed a few years ago; now James Salter. We go and pull their books from the shelves, finger them fondly, remember where we were in our lives when we first read them, flip through the pages and search for that passage that has never left us; maybe put them back, maybe sit down and read again. If we’re writers, we give thanks for what we learned from them, for the spaces in our language that they opened up to us.
If it is true that Salter wished for greater fame than he achieved in life, I would submit to him, if I could, that that is immortality enough.