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.
There may have been less startling primers on adult sexuality than James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime for me to read as a young man, but few could have been as illuminating or comprehensive. Anyway, as with cold water, it is best to jump in. Or as the novel’s narrator explains, citing Rilke, “there are no classes for beginners in life, the most difficult thing is always asked of one right away.” The erotic passages are justly famous, scandalous in 1967 and still instructional, in a practical sense, decades later. There was much to learn: about terminology (the male organ is rightly called a prick), positions (nothing tantric, but interesting for a teenager), and accessories (“In his clothing he conceals, like an assassin, a small tube of lubricant”). Salter is a great celebrant of the human anatomy and its various uses, but is equivocal about the emotions that sex produces: it can be tender, selfish, thrilling, boring, and, at times, even murderous, producing a “satanic happiness.”
The more significant education, however, came from Salter’s sensibility, his mature insistence that sex is more than just a private act conducted by two people in the dark, that it exists as a part of history, with a past and future as well as a present. Also: that sex is central to love, which is central to life; that greatness and heroism exist in even the most common of places; and perhaps most striking, that “straight” men could be in love with each other.
The novel follows an affair in France between Phillip Dean, an American, and his lover, a young Frenchwoman named Anne-Marie, and is told from the perspective of a voyeuristic, sometimes obsessive third person, the narrator, who feels from Dean “the pull of a dark star.” Dean may be petulant and inconstant, but he is in some essential way pure.
Dean is still asleep. His clothes are strewn about. The shutters are closed. He never dreams. He’s like a dead musician, like a spent runner. He hasn’t the strength to dream, or rather, his dreams take place while he is awake and they are marvelous for at least one quality: he has the power to prolong them.
Terms like homoerotic and homosocial seem crudely scientific and beside the point. We didn’t need Leslie Fiedler to tell us about such feelings of envy and admiration; they are manifest in life, but rarely revealed so beautifully as by Salter, in his small but polished collection of novels, short stories, and memoir writing from the past half century.
Salter has written about fighter pilots and mountain climbers but also about poets and novelists, notably in two fine short-story collections, Dusk and Last Night. He has created persuasive and robust female characters, but it would be correct, I think, to identify him as a writer of men—though his prose is not muscular in some senselessly macho vein. (He has written, after all, such lines as “There is love when you lose the power to speak, when you cannot even breathe.”) One thinks, in terms of tone, of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, of Hemingway at his most tender, and the best of Irwin Shaw. In his memoir Burning the Days, Salter writes about the sometimes distant friendship he conducted with Shaw, whom he met in France after Shaw had already achieved his stardom. He is protective of Shaw’s literary reputation, which has faded, but mostly he admires a man who “had known glory” and found “a way of living that seemed his alone.”
There are men who seem to have seized the trunk of life, and he was one of them. It might not be for everyone, the great, scarring thing you could not get your arms around, but it was there for him.
Shaw had once said, perhaps dismissively, that Salter was a “lyric” writer. That may be right; Salter’s narratives, even in his nonfiction, are elliptical and dedicated to what could be seen as a limited set of preoccupations: sex, love, money and its lack, art (though a life limited to such things would remain rich indeed). His fiction is remarkable for its absences: children exist off to the side, politics is absent, the particularities of work are never much explored, and there is a striking lack of humor. Instead, you get luminosity, an evocation of mood, as if life were scenes of various natural light—dying hours, sunrises, gray afternoons—or else, a liquid substance, and its events appeared as ripples and, occasionally, as waves.
We appreciate Salter’s earnestness, though, because life in his telling is a serious undertaking, a gesture toward glory and immortality through love and a kind of private ethics revealed in the large and small choices that add up to tell a story. Salter stands out as a writer with a devotional purpose, though not religious in a modern sense. Instead, there are ancient, perhaps unspoken, tests to pass. Salter was a cadet at West Point and an Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War, and in his prose about flying, we see his guiding assumptions:
It was among the knowledgeable others that one hoped to be talked about and admired. It was not impossible—the world of squadrons is small. The years would bow to you; you would be remembered, your name like a thoroughbred’s, a horse that ran and won.
Pilots were the elegant gladiators of the twentieth century, their battles were distilled examinations of mettle and will. Later, as Geoff Dyer points out, writers replaced pilots for Salter—the stakes were different, the outcomes less plain. And yet still there was the push for glory. “Nothing is heavier than paper,” Salter writes in the story collection Dusk. Of another writer:
If he was not great, he was following the path of greatness which is the same as disaster, and he had the power to make one devote oneself to his life.
If we take seriously the idea that fiction can teach us something (maybe everything) about how to live, then Salter’s lessons extend beyond manners and moods to an unfamiliar place where we are challenged to live at an emotional extreme. Love (like sex, flying, and writing) is experienced as a faith, and as Salter writes, “Beliefs are meant to cleave us to the bone.” His characters give themselves completely, perhaps dangerously, to each other. A man leaves his wife to spend a glorious season with a younger woman in Mexico; a married woman develops an irrational attachment to a mysterious writer whom she barely knows. In A Sport and a Pastime, Phillip Dean and Anne-Marie are torn apart. Most of Salter’s characters end up heartbroken and alone with their memories, aware that moments of glory leave only paler times in their wake. Most of us will opt to play it safer, preferring consistency to perfection; Salter’s characters go for broke. In Burning the Days, he writes:
The poets, writers, the sages and voices of their time, they are a chorus, the anthem they share is the same: the great and the small are joined, the beautiful lives, the other dies, and all is foolish except honor, love, and what little is known by the heart.
Ian Crouch is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog.
To read more essays for James Salter Month, click here.