On the one hand, Salter professes not to be concerned with such matters. "You know, that's all past," he says. "Anxieties and pains and even happinesses of the past, they don't continue to bother you. I don't think it's significant. I don't know what to say about it." On the other, when I mention The New York Times' stinging dismissal of Light Years, he quotes the review verbatim—"an overwritten, chi-chi, and rather silly novel." "That was a disaster," he says plainly. "That wasn't really a review. It was a dismissal of a book."

Salter himself has often discounted his first two novels, The Hunters (1957) and The Arm of Flesh (1961), both drawn from his flying years, as the work of a novice. (He revised each in later years.) In his memoir, the only reference to Solo Faces states that he preferred the title to the text, "because there was nothing ecstatic about the writing." Of his novels, that leaves only Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime (1967), the two for which Salter has said he wants to be remembered. The latter was his breakthrough—the book in which he found his true voice—and one of the great under-read works of American fiction. It is the story of an intensely sexual affair between a Yale dropout ambling through postwar Europe and a shopgirl he meets in Autun, all recalled by a narrator who warns us:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or re-arranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change.

Robert Redford honors Salter at The Paris Review’s 2011 Spring Revel.
Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com courtesy The Paris Review
Robert Redford honors Salter at The Paris Review’s 2011 Spring Revel.

That could be Salter describing his own writing process—one that has yielded a memoir that reads like a novel, and now a novel that often feels like memoir. He admits that he writes with specific people in mind, but "enhanced a bit; not necessarily made more admirable, just made clearer or more appropriate to their role. You say, 'Come backstage here just for a minute. I'd like to fasten this part of your coat—it looks a little funny when you turn profile—and then you'll be ready to go.' That's about what it's like."

And the writing, when it comes, comes slowly. By Salter's estimation, All That Is represents six years of steady work, and several more of false starts and detours. "I started a couple of novels that were more or less abandoned in preparation for this one—I don't know how better to describe it. I'd written about them, made notes about them, outlined them—began them, in effect—but then they began to dissolve into this book somehow. So in a sense, they were sacrificed for this." One of the few conscious objectives he set for himself was, whenever possible, to avoid the lyrical: "I didn't want people to be underlining anything in this book, which happened in Light Years. I'm not entirely comfortable with all that."

All That Is abounds with Salter's signature vivid imagery. Soldiers at Tarawa are "slaughtered in enemy fire as dense as bees." When Bowman meets Vivian, the woman who will become his wife, he imagines himself "tumbled with her among the bedclothes and fragrance of married life." Later, the Vietnam War is described as "some dissolute son who cannot ever be trusted or change but must always be taken in." In a taxicab, with a lover-to-be, Bowman sees Manhattan shimmering in the distance, "a long necklace of light across the river."

And once again, there are unabashedly erotic scenes that border on the operatic—passages that may come as an outright shock to some in a culture where a cumshot on Girls can send the Twitterverse into a tailspin:

She lay face down and he knelt between her legs for what seemed a long time, then began to arrange them a little, unhurriedly, like setting up a tripod. In the early light she was without a flaw, her beautiful back, her hips' roundness. She felt him slowly enter, she reached beneath, it was there, becoming part of her. The slow, profound rhythm began, hardly varying but as time passed somehow more and more intense. Outside, the street was completely silent, in adjoining rooms people were asleep. She began to cry out. He was trying to slow himself, to prevent it and make it go on, but she was trembling like a tree about to fall, her cries were leaking beneath the door.

"Somebody quoted a line of Saul Bellow's the other day—at the end of his life, he's supposed to have said, 'It's the women,'" Salter says. "Now, I don't know what he meant by that, of course. He may have meant that it's the women who really control so much of your life and interests, or he may have meant it's the women and your times with them—and certainly sexual times with them—that you remember. I really don't know, but I like the line."

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5 comments
mchasewalker
mchasewalker

Flew up to Santa Barbara to lunch with the great James Salter for my adaptation of Mount Analogue: A great writer, a great American and an elegant man. Sydney Pollack told me he learned how to make a Martini from him.

mchasewalker
mchasewalker

Great writer American & elegant man Sydney Pollack told me he learned how to make a Martini from him

lauriemuchnick
lauriemuchnick

@danijshapiro It was such a nice surprise to find it in the Voice -- two full pages. Interview at Salter's house in Aspen.

 
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