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Home Uncategorized All the Known World

All the Known World

Kevin Stevens
All That Is, by James Salter, Picador, 290 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-1447238263 Forty years ago, in the slightly grubby, less than cinematic tiers of University College Dublin’s Theatre L, I attended a film society showing of Three, starring a young and sexy Charlotte Rampling, a smitten Sam Waterston, and handsome Robie Porter. It was enchanting viewing for a first-year arts student suspended between foggy notions of aesthetic and sexual liberation and the hard realities of 1970s Ireland. Seductively set in exotic Mediterranean locations, the film tells the meandering story of two American college buddies adrift in Europe who are joined on their summer tour by a sophisticated and free-spirited young Englishwoman. The sexual rivalry that follows ends as you suspect it will, but the movie’s languid tone and French New Wave influences have a lasting impact. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Three was my introduction to one of America’s best writers. It would be many years before I discovered that James Salter’s film – the only one he directed, though he scripted many – was a pale reflection of his 1967 paean to postwar France, A Sport and a Pastime, a novel so erotically explicit that most publishers refused to consider it. Salter would flirt with Hollywood for much of his life, but came to the conclusion about screenwriting that “the time you’ve spent doing that, if you are interested in writing, is wasted time”. Fiction was his métier, his passport, as he would see it, to immortality. And though he published rarely – six novels, a memoir, and two collections of short stories spread across fifty-six years – he has slowly acquired the reputation of being American fiction’s finest craftsman. Now eighty-eight, Salter has published what will inevitably be his swansong, All That Is, his first novel since 1979’s Solo Faces and a fitting finish to a literary career spent mostly outside the limelight. Spanning four decades, it tells the story of Philip Bowman, a New York book editor and bon viveur who, like many a Salter protagonist, pursues sexual fulfilment as the only fitting follow-up to the experience of war. In the making for at least fifteen years, the novel does not disappoint. A lifetime’s refinement of his famous style makes reading All That Is a delight, sentence by sentence, page by page. Like Isaac Babel, Salter builds narratives that are simple but surprising, with scenes and chapters that unfold like life itself and yet feel, once…

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