The Daily

James Salter Month

Dreams and Work: On ‘Light Years’

April 6, 2011 | by

Our Spring Revel is April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.

I discovered James Salter just late enough, in grad school, at the suggestion of a brooding alcoholic, the best writer in the room, with whom I’d become entangled in a very Salter-esque doomed affair. I was the writer who’d gush about the stylists, steer the conversations from plot and story to diction and syntax, the one who’d make over-earnest pleas about art over mechanics, always to the rolled eyes of the Ivy Leaguers who made up most the program. Most everything I wrote failed on a story level as much as it succeeded on a sentence level, and so this writer-fling of mine one day said, “You should read Salter. Because he does that thing you like. But he also tells stories. He can help you.”

I dashed to Light Years—Salter’s fourth novel, published in 1975—as I did to any of his suggestions. Up to that point, stylists meant maximalists, hysterical realists, the breathless and the sprawling: William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Stephen Dixon. I had never encountered a minimalist I could live inside of. But as minimal as Light Years was aesthetically, it was maximal emotionally. The sentences were sharp and piercing, alarmingly brief, and yet they contained entire lifetimes rendered in stream of consciousness within three-word observations about the seasons. “I’m a frotteur, 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,” Salter said in his Paris Review interview. I lived for that poet’s spirit in my storytellers. That taut and yet tender surface simplicity was applied to amplifying the elemental in this world destroyed me, as if trees and desks and fog and smoke are their own metaphors in a universe that is essentially figurative:

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Document: An Outline for ‘Light Years’

April 5, 2011 | by

Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center. Click to enlarge.

James Salter’s outline for his novel, Light Years, which Jhumpa Lahiri wrote about today. Writes Lahiri, “In the beginning it was the light, the warmth of the novel that enchanted me.” Note how Salter is careful to think of the seasons as he moves through the chapters. At the top of the page, Salter identifies a short list of possible titles for the novel, including The Feast Is Ended, New Life, and New Lives. On the bottom portion of this page, in his notes related to the fifth chapter, Salter writes, Life Is Meals. More than thirty years later, he would repurpose this phrase as the title of his 2006 book, cowritten with his wife, Kay Salter.

The Salter archives reside with the Harry Ransom Center, in Austin Texas.

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Spellbound

April 5, 2011 | by

Our Spring Revel is on April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.

For over half my life, I have returned repeatedly to Light Years. It was the first of James Salter’s books I discovered; it has since led me to all his others. Light Years is the one I know best. The first copy was borrowed. It belonged to my college roommate and was among the handful of books she’d brought with her from home, having nothing to do with our classes. It was a beautiful paperback published by North Point Press: yellow border, rough edges, thickly woven pages, a Bonnard painting on the cover. It was 1985. The book was ten years old; I was eighteen. I was new to New York, a freshman at Barnard College. I was unsophisticated, unmoored, bewildered by college and by the city. Reading the novel was like opening a window for the first time in spring, after a long winter has passed. Something worn out was set aside, something invigorating ushered in.

At the time I had not read much contemporary literature. I had certainly never read sentences so precise, so clean, so fervent and yet so calm. I reacted to the novel as I did to the books of my childhood: it cast a spell in the same way, provoking a reaction that was visceral and dreamlike and whole. But here was a book that was about adulthood, the undiscovered country that lay on the other side of a bridge I was only beginning to cross.

I loved the mood of the book, which was sober and sophisticated, but also casual, playful. I loved its structure, restrained and orderly, while at the same time loose and unspooling. I loved its intimate texture and its images: Nedra’s hands flat on a table, her oat-colored sweater. Pigeons crowding into the R of a furniture store, a martini that is like a change in the weather. I loved the devotional rendering of meals, peoples’ faces, rooms and the objects they contained. Though it felt startlingly modern, I recognized certain ancient forms of literature I was studying in my classes: myth, elegy, ode. The five acts of Shakespeare. Long passages of conversation, as unadorned but as revelatory as dialogue in a classical play.

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The Last Night

March 30, 2011 | by

Our Spring Revel is on April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.

Walter Such, the man at the center of James Salter’s short story “Last Night,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 2002, is a particular, exacting man. He is a translator who, Salter writes, “could recite lines of Blok in Russian and then give Rilke’s translation of them in German, pointing out their beauty.” He has a stutter; he and his wife, Marit, have no children; he uses a pen “almost as if his hand were a mechanical device.” He is an unremarkable bourgeois intellectual; as a translator, he has spent his life reinterpreting and reworking the literary output of others.

The story hinges on what is literally the last night of Marit’s life. She is terminally ill with cancer, and she and Walter are about to go out for the final dinner of Marit’s existence, after which they will come home and Walter will inject Marit with a lethal drug cocktail that will kill her. “You look re-really nice,” Walter stutters to Marit when she comes downstairs in a red silk dress “in which she had always been seductive.” Here is a man who still thinks his wife, who is about to die, looks beautiful, and at this moment, Walter is overwhelmingly sympathetic. But it's sympathy tinged with guilt, because Walter is a pathetic man.

The Such’s have invited their younger friend along for the meal: Susanna, who is wearing a short skirt and whom Salter describes as looking like the “slightly errant daughter of a professor or banker.” At dinner, Walter orders two bottles of $575 Cheval-Blanc, a splurge. “We don’t usually order wine this good,” says Merit. They have never ordered a bottle that cost more than $35.

The mood at the meal is not grim, despite the fact that Marit already seems half dead: “her skin, pallid, seemed to emanate a darkness … She had a face that was now for the afterlife and those she would meet there.” Susanna feels uncomfortable, and Marit dimly perceives their differences: “Susanna’s long hair and freshness meant something, though she was not sure what.” After the meal, back at home, Walter is almost unable to do the deed; he cringes at the sight of the sharp syringe in the refrigerator. Who would have the strength or presence of mind to do what he is about to do? Who could kill their most beloved, even if it were because they were in unmitigated pain?

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The Hunters

March 29, 2011 | by

Our Spring Revel is on April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.

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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The Skiing Life

March 22, 2011 | by

Our Spring Revel is on April 12, and starting today, The Daily will feature a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.

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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