An author flips back through the pages of memory
Bookshelves can be found throughout James Salter’s house, arranged alphabetically and by subject matter. When the author’s eye happens to fall upon the fiction section, letter “S,” he will on occasion give in and reach for one of his own novels.
“I might say, ‘Ah, here’s “Light Years.” Let’s have a look.’ And I turn to a page and I might read three to four pages, hoping to be filled with satisfaction,” he explains. “Modesty aside, I read parts of a certain book and I think, ‘Wow, I can’t write like that. How did I do that?’ ”
An admired author for nearly 50 years of such books as “Light Years” and “A Sport and a Pastime,” Salter has been writing long enough to watch himself evolve on paper, as if his works constituted a kind of parallel life that he has simultaneously observed and created.
The books themselves are stories of memory, love, war and the passage of time, how we change and how we don’t, whether there is any connection between our young selves and our older selves.
Writing can accelerate that change. “In describing a world you extinguish it,” Salter observes in “Burning the Days,” a memoir published in 1997.
Salter, whose story collection “Last Night” was just released, hasn’t enjoyed much commercial success. But among his peers he has the honored, if unprofitable, label of “writer’s writer.” Susan Sontag, Joseph Heller and Peter Matthiessen, his longtime neighbor on Long Island, are some of the authors who have praised him.
“I think there is an integrity and an honesty in his work that everyone in the world of the written word recognizes,” says John Irving, author of “The World According to Garp” and many other novels. “I don’t just admire those sentences, which strike you as so wonderful that you immediately want to read them again. I think he is as good, if not better, at making the uncomfortable observation about human beings.”
The 79-year-old Salter, a relaxed conservationist with a warm, raspy voice and prankster’s crooked smile, was interviewed in his living room on a recent afternoon, his easygoing Welsh corgi, Paavo, at his feet. He was still tender from hurting his knee while skiing. Salter divides his time between Aspen, Colo., and this sunny, cedar-shingled Long Island home.
Salter’s own life has been a story of reinvention. He was born James Horowitz but as a writer became “James Salter,” a change that “started an entirely new life.” He has been an Air Force pilot, a swimming pool salesman and a filmmaker, his credits including the short documentary “Team, Team, Team” and the feature film “Three,” starring Sam Waterston.
“It does seem that all those things happened to someone else,” he says. “But that’s what happens. If you were the same person in your 40s as you were as a high school sophomore, you would be a very strange creation.”
A native New Yorker, the son of a real estate salesman who had graduated from West Point, Salter recalled in his memoir that he was an “obedient” child who was “close to my parents and in awe of my teachers. I had no crude or delinquent companions.”
Like his father, he attended West Point and entered the Army Air Corps. He flew more than 100 missions during the Korean War and resigned from the Air Force as a major, in 1957. He found his calling as a writer while serving in the military, reading widely and working on stories. And he found his subject, not just war, which he wrote about in his first two novels, but the whole idea of transience, of bonds formed and then severed.
The same year he left the military, he debuted as an author with “The Hunters,” a tough, straightforward novel in the Hemingway tradition that remains in print even though the author finds it “a little bit purple-y, a little bit sophomoric.”
After a second novel, “The Arm of Flesh,” so dissatisfied him that he rewrote it years later, Salter read “exalted” short novels such as William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and crafted a story that would be “licentious but pure,” a book “filled with images of an unchaste world more desirable than our own.”
“A Sport and a Pastime” was a brief, poetic, almost supernaturally erotic novel about a Yale University dropout and his French girlfriend. Rejected by several publishers before George Plimpton agreed to release it, in 1967, through the Paris Review, the novel is now regarded as a classic work of erotic literature.
“There’s no question it was a breakthrough,” Salter says. “Look, by that time I had read [Albert] Camus, I had read [Andre] Gide. I had read writers of greater elegance and greater intellectual sinew than you usually find in American writers.”
John Irving jokes that Salter’s novel was the rare erotic text “that you didn’t have to put under your bed. You could put it on your night table and defend it to anyone, even your mother.”
“A Sport and a Pastime,” like such future Salter works as “Light Years,” demonstrated the heights and the limits of sex and love. Paradise is gained, but only for a moment, or a series of moments. Relationships break up, people move on. They change so much that what happened before seems to have happened to somebody else.
The twice-married Salter doesn’t pretend he is the first to notice that inseparable couples can separate or that the love of your life can be succeeded by an even greater love. His fiction doesn’t work as sermon or cautionary tale, but as a renewal of experiences fated to be relived again and again.
“It’s no use telling someone, ‘My boy, dear boy, you’re going to meet someone else just like the one you lost. And if you live long enough, four others, seven others,’ ” Salter says. “There’s no use saying that. That’s not what one feels. Rational discourse is no weapon against emotion.”
In his new collection, you don’t just meet his characters as they’re living now, but you learn how they looked and lived before. You discover that a man has gained weight over the years, or, in “My Lord You,” observe a woman looking in the mirror and not recognizing her reflection. In the title story of “Last Night,” an unfaithful husband, about to honor his ailing wife’s wish that he end her life, remembers her in her 20s.
The stories are compact, intimate, some born from a single sentence, with Matthiessen joking that knowing Salter means finding your private remarks immortalized in prose. The title piece from “Last Night” was inspired by a friend’s confession that he was supposed to help his wife commit suicide but botched the job. “Bangkok” began after another friend told Salter about getting a call from an old lover.
Salter works slowly and has only published nine full-length books in five decades. Inspiration is not the problem; the catch is getting himself to sit down and write. And experience doesn’t make the process any easier.
“Every time you start at zero,” he says. “You start with a certain confidence that you have written books, but on the other hand, there’s a voice saying, ‘Yes, yes, you did it before, but now there’s this book. Let’s get back to business, you and I.’ ”
“Last Night” is a collection preoccupied with time and legacy. In “Platinum,” a woman observes that “Brian was someone she would remember, perhaps someone she could always call.” In “Palm Court,” a man recalls a former lover he once saw constantly but to whom he no longer speaks.
“I think memory is the most important aspect of one’s personal life. If you didn’t remember, it’s as if you didn’t exist,” Salter says.
“There’s a lot back there in one’s own past: people, places, things, events. My view, and it’s the final view of many writers, is like the title of that great Spanish play, ‘Life Is a Dream.’ And, like a dream, when you awake in the morning, some parts stay with you and some parts seem to completely disappear.”