The Daily

In Memoriam

The Skiing Life

June 25, 2015 | by

In memory of James Salter, who died last week, the Daily is republishing a series of essays from 2011, when Salter received The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. In today’s piece, Louisa Thomas examines Salter’s essay “The Skiing Life.”

To learn more about Salter, read his 1993 Art of Fiction interview or one of his stories from the magazine: “Sundays” (1966), “Am Strande von Tanger” (1968), “Via Negativa” (1972), and “Bangkok” (2003) are available in full online.

I read There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter for the parts about skiing the way one reads A Sport and a Pastime for the sex. In fact Salter writes about skiing the way he writes about sex: as something luminous, clean, somehow moral. This was a few years ago, when I was obsessed with skiing; I thought about it all the time. In Salter I sensed a sympathetic hunger, the longing for something transcendent, pointless, permanent, and always vanishing. There aren’t many good authors who write about skiing. Hemingway does a little. Salter does it a lot, as a way of writing about something else, just as writing about sex is a way of writing about other things: beauty, courage, obsession, mastery—mostly, someone else’s mastery.

When I skied, or when I thought about skiing, a beautiful skier would stop me in my tracks. He would slide over a lip into a bowl or glade, or drop into a little chute out of bounds. His solid body would become liquid, slipping through the snow, as he found the fall line. I would watch his back and then fly after him, tracking him, fearless and afraid. “What enables you to learn?” Salter asks. “It’s simple: desire.”

In “The Skiing Life,” Salter describes learning to ski from an instructor:

Follow me closely, he says, as if you can, turn where I turn. Trying to do what he does, forgetting some things, remembering others, somehow you follow. The trail is narrowing, you are going faster than you should and farther, beyond your endurance … One morning you awake unaware that, mysteriously, something has changed. This day it comes to you … All day, run after run, filled with an immense, unequaled happiness, and at the end into town together, down the last, easy slopes, and so weary that you fall asleep after supper in your ski clothes, the lights burning throughout the night.

There are of course some who don’t need to learn, some who are almost born with it. Kids who grow up on eastern mountains are at home on ice and cruddy snow, although they dream of powder days. The kids out west have no idea how lucky they are. It is thrilling to watch a child hurtle past. You can see her future: she will slip through bumps, sleep on the floor, hike up mountains to ski down them. She will be powerful and fast. Years later, you will spot her from the chairlift, graceful and unmistakable. Even on my best days, the days when I belonged to the mountains, I would look for that girl. “There is always that lone skier,” Salter writes, “oddly dressed, off to the side past the edge of the run, going down where it is steepest and the snow untouched, in absolute grace, marking each dazzling turn with a brief jab of the pole—there is always him, the skier you cannot be.”

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Sex and Salter

June 24, 2015 | by

In memory of James Salter, who died last week, the Daily is republishing a series of essays from 2011, when Salter received The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. In today’s piece, Alexander Chee looks at Salter’s approach to sex in A Sport and a Pastime.

To learn more about Salter, read his 1993 Art of Fiction interview or one of his stories from the magazine: “Sundays” (1966), “Am Strande von Tanger” (1968), “Via Negativa” (1972), and “Bangkok” (2003) are available in full online.

Photograph by Guillaume Flandre.

When I try to write about sex, I think back to when I was just out of college and, handy with a makeup brush, took a job to make some extra money doing makeup on a gay-porn film set. On the second day, we filmed a three-way that took up most of the day. The actors struggled: one was hard, the others weren’t, then the others were and the first was not, and so on. After a few hours, the director sent us all out of the room and turned out the lights so the actors could work it out. This was before Viagra—you had to have an honest hard-on to shoot. We waited outside the dark room, the lights out, even the cameramen outside, waiting, until finally we heard the signal, and then the crew rushed back in to film. We turned on the lights.

The actors were made to pause, immediately. I had to touch them up.

They were panting, sweating like athletes. They’d rubbed off most of what I’d put on them. As they held their positions, I touched them up. I thought about how something had happened in the dark that we couldn’t see, an excitement that couldn’t be in the film. It was probably better than what we would film, more interesting.

It seems to me I am always in pursuit of that.

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The Hunters

June 23, 2015 | by

In memory of James Salter, who died last week, the Daily is republishing a series of essays from 2011, when Salter received The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. In today’s piece, Geoff Dyer looks at Salter’s first novel, The Hunters.

To learn more about Salter, read his 1993 Art of Fiction interview or one of his stories from the magazine: “Sundays” (1966), “Am Strande von Tanger” (1968), “Via Negativa” (1972), and “Bangkok” (2003) are available in full online.

James Salter in a fighter plane.

The Hunters (1957) was Salter’s first novel and remains the most concise expression of his talents. It is based closely on his own experience as a pilot flying combat missions in Korea. The war in the air proceeds in tandem with a near civil war on the ground as the pilots vie with each other to achieve the coveted five kills that will make them aces. The conflicting demands between ensuring the safety of comrades (the “sacred” duty of the wingman) and the individual daring—recklessness even—needed to shoot down MiGs threaten to destroy the central character, Cleve Connell.

In Burning the Days Salter recalls a friend’s advising him that “the original form of storytelling is someone saying, I was there and this is what I beheld.” As soon as he began writing, Salter knew that his time as a fighter pilot would give his storytelling this elemental immediacy and power. (The magnificent climactic scene of the novel involves an incident mentioned briefly in the memoir, when two planes, out of fuel, are forced to glide back to base.) Earlier still, when he was learning to fly, Salter had fallen under the spell of the most famous writer-pilot of them all, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “it was his knowledge I admired, his wholeness of mind, more than his exploits. ... In [his] footsteps I would follow.” (This tradition—or perhaps trajectory is a better word—has recently been extended by Jed Mercurio. Part of his novel Ascent (2007), about Soviet pilots flying MiGs in Korea, can be read as a commentary on—or duel with?—Salter, whose novel, presumably, served as template and inspiration.) Cassada has at its core an event that is in some ways a reworking of the kind of crisis imaginatively depicted by Saint-Exupéry in Night Flight as two lost planes drift past their landing strip, cut off from the earth by darkness and rain clouds. The Hunters contains a direct allusion to the master, a translation of the lyricism of Wind, Sand and Stars (“Below the sea of clouds lies eternity”) into the argot of the jet age, the dawn of the right stuff: “There was a mission when they conned across seas of eternity, never catching sight of the ground except at the beginning and end.” Not that Salter is lacking in his own lyric gifts. The experience of flight, the mysteries of the sky, remain as intoxicating and magical as they were for the pilots of propeller-driven biplanes:

Suddenly Pell called out something at three o’clock. Cleve looked. He could not tell what it was at first. Far out, a strange, dreamy rain was falling, silver and wavering. It was a group of drop tanks, tumbling down from above, the fuel and vapor streaming from them. Cleve counted them at a glance. There were a dozen or more, going down like thin cries fading in silence. That many tanks meant MiGs. He searched the sky above, but saw nothing.

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James Salter, 1925–2015

June 22, 2015 | by

Photograph by Neil Rasmus.

Salter accepting the Hadada Prize in 2011. Photograph by Neil Rasmus.

We were sad to learn that James Salter died on Friday at ninety. “He once called himself a ‘frotteur,’ saying he liked to rub words between his fingers,” Louisa Thomas wrote today in Grantland. “He wrote for the ear, not the eye, in lines that are long and unspooling or short and taut as bowstrings … It is in their quiet accumulation, the way they weave together, that they become transparent, graceful, and devastating.”

Salter had a long affiliation with The Paris Review; the quarterly published many of his stories, beginning with “Sundays”, which appeared in our Summer 1966 issue. George Plimpton published Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime through Paris Review Editions, a short-lived imprint attached to Doubleday. “Although I have never managed to appear on the masthead, which has innumerable people on it,” Salter said in his 1993 Art of Fiction interview, “I feel I am a member of the family.”

In 2011, we awarded Salter our Hadada Prize, given annually to a “distinguished member of the literary community who has demonstrated a strong and unique commitment to literature.” This week, to celebrate and remember him, the Daily will rerun a series of pieces about him written in anticipation of that award. To begin, we’re reprinting his acceptance speech, given April 12, 2011.
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Adrift: Remembering Yoshihiro Tatsumi

April 3, 2015 | by

Tatsumi in Tokyo, November 2012.

Tatsumi in Tokyo, November 2012.

About a dozen years ago, while I was on a business trip to the Bay Area, the cartoonist Adrian Tomine asked if we could meet to discuss an idea he had of publishing the work of an obscure, mostly forgotten Japanese cartoonist named Yoshihiro Tatsumi. At that point, only one collection of Tatsumi’s comics had been translated and published in English, and that edition, from 1987, wasn’t produced in the best of circumstances: it was a bootleg, published without Tatsumi’s permission, featuring poorly reproduced artwork and somewhat stilted dialogue as a result of a subpar translation. And yet somehow that lone volume managed to find its way to Sacramento in the late 1980s, into the hands of then-fourteen-year-old Adrian Tomine at precisely the moment when his own sensibility as a cartoonist was beginning to take form.

During our meeting, Adrian showed me this book, as well as many more untranslated pages that he had managed to track down. It didn’t take much (if any) convincing on his part: I was immediately impressed with Tatsumi’s stark artwork, and there was a definite appeal in the narrative representation of the dark underside of late sixties Tokyo. Drawn & Quarterly managed to secure the rights and commission proper translations, which led to the publication of several volumes of Tatsumi’s short stories, with Adrian working very closely on every aspect—as editor, designer, and even letterer of the series.

We were little surprised when the series received immediate acclaim. After all, the everyday realism portrayed in Tatsumi’s comics has a particular affinity with literary graphic novels of North America, with one important exception: Tatsumi’s comics (which he called gekiga, meaning “dramatic pictures”) predated any similar material being produced here by at least a couple of decades. Read More »

Terry Pratchett, 1948–2015

March 12, 2015 | by


The T-shirt Pratchett wore to conventions. Image via Fashionably Geek

The BBC has just reported that Terry Pratchett has died at sixty-six. Pratchett wrote more than seventy books, most of them part of his Discworld series: satirical, philosophical fantasy novels that earned him a wide readership, sometimes at the expense of the critical attention his work merits. “Terry Pratchett is not one to go gentle into any night, good or otherwise,” his friend Neil Gaiman wrote of him last June, as he was beginning to slip away to Alzheimer’s. “He will rage, as he leaves, against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and shortsightedness, not just the dying of the light … Terry Pratchett is not a jolly old elf at all. Not even close.”

Here’s a bit from Pratchett’s 2007 essay, “Notes from a Successful Fantasy Author: Keep it Real.” It speaks to genre fiction’s unique position as a vehicle for social commentary, and to the set of logic puzzles a fantasy novelist faces in trying to build a new world. You can find it in A Slip of the Keyboard, a collection of his nonfiction published last year. Read More »