I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized Two Kinds of Life

Two Kinds of Life

Kevin Stevens
Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre, Counterpoint, 212 pp, $25.00, ISBN: 978-1582436050 “Somewhere the ancient clerks, amid stacks of faint interest to them, are sorting literary reputations. The work goes on endlessly and without haste. There are names passed over and names revered, names of heroes and of those long thought to be, names of every sort and level of importance.” These elegant sentences, from James Salter’s 1997 memoir Burning the Days, appear in the middle of his chapter-length reminiscence of the playwright and novelist Irwin Shaw. The two American writers first met on a winter’s evening in Paris in 1961, the beginning of a close friendship that would last until Shaw’s death in 1984. Twelve years Shaw’s junior, Salter approached the meeting with awe. He was not disappointed. “That first night was for me like the ball that Emma Bovary never forgot.” Shaw was to become his “unknowing Virgil”, a “great force”, a “father like Dumas or an ex-boxing champion”. Salter’s hero worship is poignant, his plea for Shaw’s recognition as a revered literary figure tinged with irony. Though he sported the bright badges of literary success – money and fame, a wide readership and steady inspiration – Shaw’s reputation was well on the wane by the time the two men met. He did not reverse the trend with made-for-TV novels like Rich Man, Poor Man. Salter, on the other hand, when he wrote these sentences, had toiled for four decades in near obscurity, producing several masterpieces of American fiction and rarely publishing work that wasn’t timeless and original. Being starstruck in Paris in 1961 was excusable. By the end of the century however, Salter should have known that it is his name, not Shaw’s, that the ancient clerks will move to the top of the stack. Modesty is partly at work here, but other forces as well. A former fighter pilot, Salter found deep satisfaction in the company of certain men, and the barracks room virtues of loyalty and camaraderie were crucial to his conception of friendship, often at the expense of critical judgment. But Shaw also represented Salter’s ideal of how a writer should live. Capacious. Reckless. Overindulgent. At loose in Europe, displaying appreciation for its old world pleasures without being in awe of it. Extravagantly American. “He lived a life superior to mine,” Salter wrote after Shaw’s death, “a…

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