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 life I envied and could barely fathom, his courage, loves, embraces, were all so large. We lived, I felt, in their shadow.”
It was the life, not the work, that attracted him. “His fame was unshakable,” he wrote elsewhere. Much of Salter’s admiration, you feel, had to do with the public success. In Burning the Days he paints a glittering portrait of Shaw at the height of his celebrity: “On the move, sheathed in glamour like [a] movie star … Irwin flew back to the States one time to attend a dinner Jackie Kennedy was giving for Malraux. John Cheever described him in a letter, blowing into Rome to pick up an Alfa Romeo and give a dinner party.”
Though it may have bent his judgment at times, this ambiguous attitude to fame did not tarnish Salter’s own work. On the contrary, he has made good use in his fiction of this personal tension while continuing to write books that seem calculated not to gain their author notoriety. Salter weighs each sentence so carefully, each story so artfully, that in fifty-five years devoted exclusively to writing he has published, in addition to his memoir, only five slim novels and a score of short stories. Though all have been critically acclaimed, none has sold more than 12,000 copies. Never, like Shaw, has he composed fiction for the masses. His books are an acquired taste.
“I’m a frotteur,” he has said, “someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything?” His refinement and economy lead to sentences, stories, and novels that must be read and reread slowly. He is stylish, balanced, dense. He leaves much out. There are challenges to reading Salter and great rewards.
Yet this is also a man who graduated from West Point and pursued wartime glory, piloting F-86s in the Korean War and carrying into his post-military life, with no little bitterness, the knowledge that he had only one “kill” to his name (an “ace” must down five enemy jets; doing so is the highest honour). Many American writers have championed the hero’s life. Salter lived it. And though he left the military in 1957 to earn a living from writing, he kept in touch, as it were, with the stratosphere by writing for Hollywood, collaborating on several projects with his friend Robert Redford (Salter wrote the script for Downhill Racer, which Roger Ebert called “the best movie ever made about sports”) and observing, even sharing, the effect of Redford’s fame firsthand:
To go into New York restaurants with him and his wife, in the beautiful filthy city, the autumn air in the streets outside, eyes turned to watch as we cross the room. The glory seems to be yours as well. There was a dreamlike quality also, perhaps because Redford seemed to be just passing through, not really involved. It was washing over him, like a casual love affair.
Glory. With Salter you are never far from its expression and pursuit. “In the past I have written about gods and have sometimes done that here,” he wrote in the preface to Burning the Days. “It seems to be an inclination. I do not worship the gods but I like to know they are there. Frailty, human though it may be, interests me less. So I have written only about certain things, the essential, in my view, the world as it was, at least for me.”
He began his writing career while still in the Air Force. After Korea he stayed in the service for another five years, at gunnery camps in North Africa, cross-country alone in thousand-mile legs, in squadrons with future astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Ed White. At night and on the weekends he was recording and shaping his wartime experience into fiction and in 1956 published The Hunters, a study of the desire for glory in the face of death and one of the great novels about flying. In this concise, intense narrative, the protagonist, Cleve Connell, is nearly destroyed by the jet fighter’s conflict between ensuring the safety of his fellow pilots and the individual daring required to achieve a kill. The action sequences are riveting, the psychological portrayals are accurate and powerful, and the writing is sublime:
When the ships returned from a mission, everybody watched for them. Usually, they came lining back to the field in flights of four, flying tight show formation with the black smoke fading in parallel streams behind as they turned in toward the runway and landing pattern. They seemed to be most indestructible then. They were of frozen silver. Nothing could possibly dim that grace. No enemy could deny them. Departures were stirring; but every return, even the most uneventful, was somehow transcendent and a call to the heart to rise in joy. Out of the north they had come again, brief strokes of splendor.
As Geoff Dyer has said, The Hunters is “the most concise expression of [Salter’s] talents”. Yet for many years Salter disparaged his early work (both this book and its companion novel, The Arm of Flesh, first published four years later), considering them callow. In his account of that first meeting in Paris, he says that Irwin Shaw “saw in me the arrogance of failure. I had written two books, but the power I had was that I had accomplished nothing. My strength, like the evil-tempered dwarf’s, was that my name was unknown. He, on the other hand, was a writer of magnitude.”
Again the poison of ambition. In 1961 he had been out of the military for four years, but the desire for glory was still intense. The Hunters had been serialised in Collier’s and made into a 1958 movie starring Robert Mitchum, but sales were modest and both early novels soon went out of print. For decades Salter continued to view them as juvenilia, perhaps because, in his own mind, they did not compare with the drama of war itself. He scarcely mentioned these books in Burning the Days, though soon after publication of his memoir he revised and republished both.
The Hunters marked the end of one career and the beginning of another. It also spurred a crucial personal change when it was published under a nom de plume. “It was essential not to be identified,” Salter decided, knowing identification would jeopardise his military prospects. Born James Horowitz, Salter chose an Anglo-Saxon surname that he not only continued to use once he was out of the Air Force but which he legally adopted within a few years. He does not speak of the reasons for the permanent change, but several critics have wondered how much it had to do with his ethnicity. Though Jewish, Salter, like his father, seems to have been thoroughly deracinated. Burning the Days discusses at some length how his family celebrated Christmas. At West Point he chose to attend chapel rather than Jewish services, also offered. And in his fiction, his Jewish characters are often described from what feels like a WASP perspective, as in this description of the male protagonist of his novel Light Years:
He was a Jew, the most elegant Jew, the most romantic, a hint of weariness in his features, the intelligent features everyone envied, his hair dry, his clothes oddly threadbare – that is to say, not overly cared for, a button missing, the edge of a cuff stained, his breath faintly bad like the breath of an uncle who is no longer well. He was small. He had soft hands, and no sense of money, almost none at all. He was an albino in that, a freak. A Jew without money is like a dog without teeth.
Salter’s entry into the literary world happened at a time when Jewish novelists were moving centre stage in the United States. Bellow, Malamud, Roth, Heller, Mailer – these writers not only dominated American letters in the early sixties but made a point of mining their ethnicity in ways that altered significantly the landscape of postwar American fiction. Exactly their contemporary, Salter never saw himself as Jewish, at least not in any public way. Like Mailer and Heller, he would write about war; like Roth and Bellow, he was a master of dialogue. But he did not, as Anthony Burgess said of Malamud, search for meaning in “the situation of a Jew in urban American society”.
Salter’s exploration of identity took other forms. When asked by the Paris Review what books he would choose to be remembered by, Salter mentioned A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years. These novels, published in 1967 and 1975 respectively, offer very different, very personal versions of the pursuit of the ideal, written in a style that is one of the great achievements of American fiction. The precision, balance, and depth of the early work are there, but now with an added delicacy and certainty of touch that rarely fail. His narrative technique is more mature, and setting and theme have broadened, from military life and its attendant concerns to the personal journeys of sexual and family love.
A Sport and a Pastime records in disarming erotic detail the love affair between a Yale dropout determined to know “the real France” and an eighteen-year-old French shop girl. The story is told in flashbacks by an unnamed narrator, an acquaintance of the young man, who himself covets the girl. Though there are hints early in the novel of a postmodern stance (“None of this is true … It’s a story of things that never existed …”), the narrative proceeds quite conventionally until, almost halfway through, the narrator confides thus in the reader: “I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.”
From this point, the distinction between the narrator and the couple he observes is blurred as the sexual detail of the affair thickens and we move freely in and out of the consciousness of one character or another in the trio. The metafictional pose is not, as it might have been with a different novelist, a philosophical probing of the nature of reality, but rather a narrative trope: “I don’t know who this narrator is,” Salter has said. “You could say it’s me; well, possibly. But truly, there is no such person. He’s a device. He’s like the figure in black that moves the furniture in a play, so to speak, essential, but not part of the action.”
This narrative ambiguity intensifies the action and creates a voyeuristic atmosphere in which the unrequited longing of an excluded observer exists alongside a fully revealed sexual intimacy. As Reynolds Price remarks in his introduction to the 2006 edition of the novel, “Salter means us to feel … the vivid and literally palpable reality of Philip Dean and Anne-Marie Costallat, to feel it through a growing awareness of the simple splendor of their physical bodies.” The language that achieves such vividness is lyrical but direct. And though published a year or two before Couples and Portnoy’s Complaint, Salter’s explicitness did not earn the attention (or the sales) that the sexually graphic novels of Updike and Roth did. “Doubleday didn’t know what to do with it,” Salter said in a 1992 interview. “Nobody wanted to review it. It was too sexual. It had a certain language in it that is in no way obscene, but was unacceptable at the dinner table at that time. Now, in an era where even anal sex is discussed on prime-time TV, the book is completely inoffensive.”
Selling only a few thousand copies upon publication, and still off the radar of many educated readers, A Sport and a Pastime has nevertheless quietly assumed the status of a modern classic. And readers who discover it will find that it is Salter’s style, more than his subject matter or narrative mode, that is the most durable feature of the book. In itself a continuous pleasure, the style also creates a fusion of setting and character from which the story derives so much of its power. In words and phrases carefully chosen and poetically woven, he sets the narrator’s longing and the love affair of Philip and Anne-Marie against a French provincial landscape that is both exotic and familiar:
Autun, still as a churchyard. Tile roofs, dark with moss. The amphitheatre. The great, central square: the Champ de Mars. Now, in the blue of autumn, it reappears, this old town, provincial autumn that touches the bone. The summer has ended. The garden withers. The mornings become chill. I am thirty, I am thirty-four – the years turn dry as leaves.
Re-creating France was, for Salter, as important a journey as the examination of sexual awakening. “Europe gave me my manhood,” he would later write, “or at least the image of it. It was not a matter of pleasure, but something more enduring: a ranking of things, how to value them.” This assessment and ordering of taste and experience are also at the core of Light Years, his fictional account of “the worn stones of conjugal life” that is for many his finest novel.
The legendary Random House editor Joe Fox, when asked which of the books he had worked on would be called great in years to come, named two: In Cold Blood and Light Years. “There is a way for words to go together which is invincible,” Salter wrote in 1974, “and a way in which to live which is not stale.”Phrase by invincible phrase, Light Years paints a picture of this way in which to live. It tells the story of Viri and Nedra Berland, a successful upper middle class couple living in a big house on the Hudson River, and provides an impressionistic account of marriage and family across twenty years. Made up of brief scenes, moments in time, it charts an arc of personal existence that, though sparse in conventional plot, is unfailingly compelling, pushed by the power of Salter’s narrative voice and the richness of his language:
There is no happiness like this happiness: quiet mornings, light from the river, the weekend ahead. They lived a Russian life, a rich life, interwoven, in which the misfortune of one, a failure, illness, would stagger them all. It was like a garment, this life. Its beauty was outside, its warmth within.
The technique is cinematic and impressionistic. “Someone said that I write the way Sargent painted,” Salter has said. “Sargent based his style on direct observation and an economical use of paint – which is close to my own method.” Applied to the beauties of landscape, architecture, food and the body, this impressionism is the novel’s foundation:
Nedra was working in the kitchen, her rings set aside … I am going to describe her life from the inside outward, from its core, the house as well, rooms in which life was gathered, rooms in the morning sunlight, the floors spread with Oriental rugs that had been her mother-in-law’s, apricot, rouge and tan, rugs which though worn seemed to drink the sun, to collect its warmth; books, potpourris, cushions in colors of Matisse, objects glistening like evidence, many of which might, had they been possessed by ancient peoples, have been placed in tombs for another life: clear crystal dice, pieces of staghorn, amber beads, boxes, sculptures, wooden balls, magazines in which were photographs of women to whom she compared herself.
The stately and precise accumulation of detail in this passage is typical. So too is the way the narrator draws attention to himself, and the clinching final clause, which raises the description from still life to character study. The book presents a full canvas, a moving canvas. Salter shows us Viri and Nedra hosting dinners, shopping in Manhattan, playing with their children on the beach, in bed with each other and with their lovers. Across the decades – and Salter is brilliant at suggesting the slow turn of the seasons and the passing of the years – the marriage decays, the family breaks up, and the harmony is revealed as illusory. Post-divorce, Nedra flowers, but Viri becomes the failure he always feared he might be. He alienates friends, remarries badly, loses ambition. The reader suffers with him, remembering the point early in the novel when all is well and he muses:“Fame was not only part of greatness, it was more. It was the evidence, the only proof. All the rest was nothing, in vain. He who is famous cannot fail; he has already succeeded.”
And it is in this novel, published when he was fifty, that Salter appears to have reconciled the demands of ambition and the reality of obscurity – or at least made fruitful aesthetic use of the tension. In Salter’s fiction, the way we are perceived, or perceive ourselves, often at odds with the directions in which we are pulled by our longings (and by chance), can lead to isolation and chaos. But this is how the world works. “There are really two kinds of life,” the narrator asserts. “There is … the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.” This insight, and the narrative that supports it, would be worthy of Chekhov.
Early in this period of his career, Salter, then living in Colorado, received a fan letter from the New York critic Robert Phelps. Phelps wrote that he considered A Sport and a Pastime the best American novel of the decade. Salter responded in kind, and a few weeks later the two men had dinner at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, a meeting that so affected Salter that he never again passed the Chelsea “without remembering, in the manner of a love affair”. Throughout the 1970s they kept up a correspondence that was remarkable for its intimacy, its prose (Phelps was a colourful stylist, Salter as careful in his epistolary composition as he was in his fiction), and the sharpness of its observations.
Memorable Days captures a selection of these letters, almost all of which were written before 1980, when Phelps’s health deteriorated (he died of colon cancer in 1989). Salter has always been a writer as careful about personal revelation as he is about the words he uses, which makes the appearance of this collection a valuable resource. The book gives us a view of Salter’s writing character that is less guarded than usual, more direct in the expression of ambition, the pursuit of the ideal life, the bond between men. The letters map a passage of intense friendship, when both men were in the prime of their literary lives. They define in all kinds of ways how life and literature should be shaped, and together they offer us an intriguing gloss on Salter’s oeuvre.
Phelps was the perfect friend for Salter at this stage. Here is a description of him from Burning the Days:
He was fond of books; steak tartare; gin from a green bottle poured over brilliant cubes each afternoon at five, the ice bursting into applause; cats; beautiful sentences; Stravinsky; and France … He also loved movie stars, money in the abstract sense, and glamour – at least he liked to think about them … He had a keen appetite for gossip, without which most conversation is flavorless, and a great personal modesty.
Phelps’s literary interest was Alexandrian – “all margin and barely any text”. “Parable, fable, fiction,” he wrote, “are all fine. I want them. But whether I gracefully justify it or not, I also want diaries, letters, marginalia, table-talk, all the non-official forms by which men have revealed their mystery, disguises, wishes, feints.” Such a range paralleled Salter’s interest in the surface of a writing life – the meals, drinks, conversation, travel, sex, and money that he believed sustained his fiction. But there was something more than that; as with Shaw, Salter was smitten from the start. “You are my alter ego,” he wrote soon after meeting Phelps at the Chelsea. “I feel I’m swarming in and taking too much of your time.” And a month later: “Your letters are very strong, even narcotic.”
This tone is sustained throughout the collection: a powerful male intimacy underlying exchanged views on life and writing. And there is much that is entertaining and insightful, from both sides. An authority on Colette, Phelps edited her letters and stories, but he struggled to write fiction and criticism that was more than gloss and compendium. Yet he could nail a book or a writer in a single, devastating sentence: “I’m trying to read Updike’s new book [Bech: A Book], which is his emptiest yet, like a row of toothpicks – plastic toothpicks, in assorted colors.” He also captures Salter’s strengths with images that are original and illuminating. After reading the short story “Cinema”, he wrote:
If I stop at the end of almost any given sentence, I cannot guess what will come next – neither substance nor syntax. With most writers, there is maximum predictability. You can skim whole paragraphs. Like Isaac Babel, Salter arcs and makes right-angle turns. It is a little like riding in a flying saucer, or on the tail of a hummingbird.
Salter had much to offer Phelps (and now his readers) in return. “We must consume whole worlds to write a single sentence and yet we never use up a part of what is available. I love the infinities, the endlessness involved …” As he was outlining Light Years, he wrote: “I love this book. I’m writing it for myself and an audience composed of me’s. I expect nothing of it but the refusal of certain eminent writers to endorse it. It’s going to have many beautiful jumps, sauts, perhaps it will be a ballet.” And there are small gems on the writing process: “It’s astonishing how the crossing out of a line, sometimes a phrase, or the substitution of something right for something false can suddenly let light in on an entire chapter.”
During the 1970s, the great American postwar literary flowering, centred in New York, was entering its autumn, and Phelps was in the thick of the colourful foliage. The letters are full of references to Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Auden, Saul Bellow. Also forgotten figures such as John Masters and Glenway Westcott. “Did you see Gore Vidal in the Times?” Phelps asks. “We must take care to outlive him.” The gossip and occasional bitchiness are fun, but there is plenty of serious engagement with this golden generation. In December 1973, Salter passed through Chicago and met Bellow, who had offered to read a draft of Light Years. Salter reported Bellow’s comments to Phelps. “It would be better if shorter, he said. Its repetitiousness causes it to lose power. I am perhaps a little too indulgent toward the people, and the book would be better if the angles were sharper.” He found the reactions and thoughts “exact, well-taken, I have been sleeping on them, along with others, sleepless on them would be more truthful, for weeks”. It would be interesting to compare the draft read by Bellow with the finished novel, if only to see how Salter responded to the Nobel laureate’s criticism.
The early letters make frequent reference to the writing and publication of Light Years – the thrill of composition, the frustration of bad reviews and poor sales. But Memorable Days also sheds light on two other aspects of Salter’s writing life, one disappointing, the other triumphant, which took definite shape in the 1970s.
Salter had been involved in the film business since the late fifties, when he collaborated with the New York television writer Lane Slate on a series of short documentaries, one of which won a prize at the Venice Film Festival. Ten years later, he wrote and directed the feature film Three, starring Charlotte Rampling and Sam Waterston, which, though it did poorly at the box office, attracted attention at Cannes and established him in the industry as a writer with a literary touch. He would take on many screenwriting projects in the years that followed, a few of which reached the screen, most of which did not. Many of his letters to Phelps complain about the grubbiness of the film world, and the stale feeling of taking on hack work for money. But there are also good stories – about Redford, Polanski, Paul Scofield, Dennis Hopper and many others. In the end, though, it was time he concluded was not well spent:
I talk to writing students occasionally, and naturally that’s the first thing they’re interested in. I even speak to accomplished writers and writing teachers whose dream is to write a movie. We know why they have this dream. Part of it is the money, part of it is walking into a crowded restaurant with a famous actor … perhaps it’s the same feeling one gets traveling with the president. The illusion is of some kind of authenticity. But by and large it all disappears, and the time you’ve spent doing that, if you are interested in writing, is wasted time.
After the critical success of Downhill Racer, Salter spent many years working with Redford on a script about mountain climbing. The project went nowhere, but Robert Ginna, movie producer turned editor-in-chief at Little Brown, urged Salter to adapt the script into a novel. The result was Solo Faces, which sold more first edition copies than any of Salter’s other books, but which in spite of its dramatic subject lacks the transcendence of his earlier novels. Meanwhile, however, he was also slowly writing short stories – about one a year – which provided the finest vehicle yet for his narrative gifts and would cement his reputation as a stylist par excellence. As he usually sent these stories to Phelps to read, the letters in Memorable Days also chronicle Salter’s thoughts and the methods involved in writing the pieces that would ultimately be collected in Dusk and Other Stories, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1988.
Phelps recognised the greatness of Salter’s short fiction and encouraged him, both with perceptive criticism and editorial contacts who might be equally sympathetic to his friend’s genius. He also shared the benefit of his broad reading, recommending many writers, including Isaac Babel. Salter’s assessment of “My First Goose”, read at Phelps’s suggestion, could as easily be applied to many of his own stories: “The opening paragraph … was stunning. I examined every word over and over. They were straightforward but at the same time unimaginable, and set a level which it seemed the rest of the story could not meet but astonishingly did.”
The stories in Dusk are masterly. The 2005 collection Last Night is even better. Salter’s short stories, twenty-one in all, build on the strengths of his novels and constitute a refined study of desire and deceit, intimacy and loneliness. Salter’s tendencies to compress, sift, and omit are naturally suited to these brief, ambiguous tales, which repay many readings. They typically begin in medias resand end unresolved. There is usually an arc of anticipation and disappointment. Spectacular betrayals. Chaos and isolation. As one of his characters remarks: “You think you know someone, you think because you have dinner with them or play cards, but you really don’t. It’s always a surprise. You know nothing.”
It is appropriate that Salter, who began by aiming for the heavens, has in his final years published exclusively in the short form, so commercially difficult, so narrow in its readership. “I’m sick of being known as a writer’s writer,” he said after publication fourteen years ago of Burning the Days. He spoke then of working on a novel. It hasn’t appeared. But the stories have. And though he may still have few readers, those he does have know his worth.
Last April, not long before Salter’s eighty-sixth birthday, five hundred people gathered at Cipriani’s in Manhattan to honour him as he received the Paris Review’s Hadada Prize, previously awarded to Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Joan Didion among others. There to present the award was Robert Redford, who said at the podium: “I am lucky to be here tonight to honour a man who is my friend and whom I respect deeply.” Forty years ago, Salter sought reflected glory in Redford’s company. But this night, Redford was the one in accompaniment; all eyes in the restaurant searched for Salter. “This is my Stockholm,” he said in his acceptance speech. Indeed. He has become an ace at last.
Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.