The Old Master
About suffering they were never wrong/The old Masters: On Thursday night, October the 3rd, 2013, I had the great privilege of interviewing James Salter. He’s 88, born 1925. There’s a poem of W.H. Auden’s, Musee des Beaux Arts, that was running through my head all the time I was preparing. People often requested it when I hosted Poetry Please on BBC Radio Four, and I heard its music in my mind again during the evening - curated by Ruda Dauphin at a packed Irish Arts Center on West 51st street in New York; How well they understood/Its human position: how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.
Someone said of Salter that were there a Mount Rushmore for writers he’d be on it – he certainly has the face for it now, and the life of his books is written in his eyes and in the texture of his face. In his work and his person he is and has been extraordinary. As far back as 1984, Esquire magazine was saying, “He has been more appreciated by more serious literary authors than any other American writer.”
Many people in the audience had come along because they revere Mr. Salter, and with justification. Six novels between his first, The Hunters, in 1957 and All That Is this year – his reputation rests on those; six works of lapidary, often poetic prose; six canvasses in oils, all significant, frequently magnificent. Plus a slew of miniatures – by which I mean short stories. No, he’s not a reporter, he said, nor a documentarian, nor an autobiographer in disguise – he’s a painter, he agreed.
I first read him in my twenties; that was The Hunters, a book about fighter pilots in the Korean War. We had a strong awareness in the south of Ireland of Rineanna, the place that eventually became Shannon Airport; we went there for outings, to see the big planes, silver on the ground by the river. Though I don’t recall anybody voicing it, these huge glinting birds had, so to speak, replaced the emigrant ships; instead of awful race memory, America was now reachable by glamorous means.
Thus, flying became part of a boy’s romantic connection to the world. Its literature was scarce, though, and only Saint-Exupery had something to offer. Then came Salter with his somewhat autobiographical The Hunters, and his hero, Cleve Connell, a thoughtful American in the Korean war, pursuing Russian-made MIG fighters – and Death - over the infamous Yalu River that we all thought was spelled “yellow.” Not since then have I read a book that brought me into the cockpit.
It’s difficult to pin down James Salter’s work: he’s multifarious. Let’s start with his urgent readability. Often seen as unfashionable in a “literary” writer, he is astringently compelling: you read, then you read more, then you read on, deep into the night. Scrutinize it: how does he do it, how does he keep you wanting to know what happens next? That’s the next point: He brings it off by settling for ever – to my satisfaction anyway – the hoary question, “Is plot character or is character plot?” From the moment they appear on the page, he interests you in his leading men and women. Here’s the unforgettable young wife in Light Years;
“Nedra was working in the kitchen, her rings set aside. She was tall, preoccupied; her neck was bare. When she paused to read a recipe, her head bent, she was stunning in her concentration, her air of obedience. She wore her wrist watch, her best shoes. Beneath the apron, she was dressed for the evening. People were coming for dinner.”
Key word there, for me, anyway? “Obedience.” Defining obedience as a component of concentration – that’s pure Salter. “Who cleans this large house, who scrubs the floors? She does everything, this woman, she does nothing. She is dressed in her oat-colored sweater, slim as a pike, her long hair fastened, the fire crackling. Her real concern is the heat of existence: meals, bed linen, clothing.” Nedra was somebody whom Salter knew, and her husband, called “Viri” in the novel; they lived on the Hudson, by the wide water up above New York City, and he had been a friend and neighbor, and fascinated by them.
They didn’t know that he had observed them so closely, and then written about them. When the book was about to be published, he bumped into “Nedra” on the street one day and handed her a copy and told her. He said that he never heard what she thought of the book and the whole enterprise – but Mrs. Salter, from the audience, told us that Nedra had said there was a sentence in the novel that she, Nedra, would have carved on her gravestone.
We didn’t learn what the sentence might be; perhaps it’s, “Her dreams still cling to her, adorn her”? Or, “She had accepted the limitations of her life. It was this anguish, this contentment which created her grace.” Or, “She was easily kind, Nedra, easily or not at all.”
James Salter was born in New York and when The Hunters was published he quit the U.S. Air Force to become one of the new “Few,” a fulltime professional writer. In a few sporadic visits to the movies, he wrote the screenplay for Downhill Racer, the Robert Redford skiing film; he also directed Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling in Three, a feature film that he also wrote.
However versatile – in the novel, Solo Faces, he’s so almost ferally arresting on the subject of mountain climbing that you know it must be firsthand (and it is) - he does have certain trademarkings. In this year’s novel, All That Is, the protagonist, Philip Bowman, is an ordinary man. “An archer in the ranks of archers?” I suggested. Mr. Salter nodded. Part of the book’s drive is the “ordinariness” of Bowman as he goes about his reasonably well-to-do life, and his bleak adventures of the heart and soul. We’re back to James Joyce again; in the ordinary is the extraordinary; in the particular is the universal.
If you haven’t read the novels of James Salter do so now. Then you’ll likely respond as Stephen King did when he read his first Elmore Leonard – rush out and buy them all. I remember where I was and what I was wearing when I read this from Light Years; “The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in rivers and enter the bodies of swimmers.”
Life-changing: that’s what the Old Masters did - and do every time we visit them. How did they bring it off in those great works of art? They understood life, the downs as well as the ups. They never forgot/That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot/Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.