Issue 214, Fall 2015
When James Salter died in June, at the age of ninety, the Review lost one of its defining voices. Over the past four decades, Jim published short stories, reminiscences, and an Art of Fiction interview in the Review; his novel A Sport and a Pastime first appeared with the short-lived Paris Review Editions in 1967. In 2011, he received our lifetime-achievement award, the Hadada Prize. Jim delivered the following lecture last October at the University of Virginia. We are grateful to the Salter family for allowing us to print it here.
In Bertolt Brecht’s diaries he writes about such things as the essence of art, which he describes as “simplicity, grandeur, and sensitivity,” and its form, coolness.
Looking through the journals that I kept through the heart, so to speak, of my writing life, from 1962 on, I don’t find much of this sort of conclusion. There are more names than ideas, not necessarily well-known names and sometimes names that I don’t recognize—Iris Gazelle, who could that be? Jay Julian. There are good descriptions and a lot of conversation—talk—but less than I would expect about writing—what I was writing, what I felt about something I’d written. The journals themselves are written comme ça. They’re meant to be used, not read by anyone. Some pages are written with more care, things I would regret not remembering the smallest detail of.
I had kept diaries or journals since my midtwenties, but like writing itself, I hadn’t known just how to do it. I began by writing down everything—that is, if I wrote anything at all. Eventually I saw that I should not be saving trash.
I had written some short stories but they were not any good. I didn’t know how to go on with writing. The trouble with the stories was their lack of shape and their earnestness. I read stories in The New Yorker and Esquire and tried to imitate them. This imitation was a discouraging thing. My stories seemed like theirs, but somehow they could be distinguished from the genuine, or so I was convinced. Of course, in some cases they were just imitations of imitations, and no one is looking for that.
My problem was also belief, even after I finished a novel. When I had finally decided to change course, to resign my commission and begin another life, it was a simple act physically: I wrote a letter of resignation and delivered it by hand. I thought there would be some reaction, someone would shake his head with regret at the departure of a regular officer with twelve years of service, but there was none. It was taken matter-of-factly, as if I were turning in a pair of boots. That afternoon I felt shaken and depressed. I wanted to talk to someone who would understand. My former wing commander, whom I respected and who liked me, was at the time stationed in Washington, and I called him. He immediately invited me to dinner. I told him what I had just done and why, and what I hoped to do. He said, You idiot.
I didn’t want to write in the city. In the city, everyone was working or on their way to work, or it was afterward and they had done their work for the day. And there was always the faint hum of the city like some huge generators buried deep underground that fell silent sometimes but not really. If you listened, in the silence they were always going.
I had two or three friends, artists, who also had unconventional lives, but they weren’t married or had no children, although one of them was married to Yoko Ono—this was long before John Lennon—and they did.
I tried to work in some borrowed places, but I couldn’t bring any belief with me. I felt it was only possible at home, in the house early in the morning before my wife and two young daughters were awake or when they had gone to bed. I wrote in our bedroom on a long table. I was able to be at peace with myself then. In the daytime I worried about how I was going to earn a living. I had some money from the movie sale of my one novel, the novel that let me believe I could change my life, but that wouldn’t last very long. I’d been a flying officer with experience, so I joined the Air National Guard. That paid a little.
One of my first published stories was about Barcelona. There are two German girls in the story, both of them unhappy. I would describe it further by saying that not a lot happens. One of the girls is based on someone I met at a Fasching ball. I don’t remember her costume exactly, but it was like a bathing suit with gold scales and a skirt. Her friend—a man—in Barcelona was a literary person and also seemed something of a playboy. He knew everything about the city but disappeared after that first night. The next day we went to the beach. And that’s it. That’s the story, but the difference this time was that I was able to write it. It was the language, the assurance. I knew only a limited amount about the German girls, but I pressed down hard, so to speak. I somehow made it count.
I expected people to be impressed by the story. Most of them didn’t understand the title, which was unnecessarily written in German, or know that it was also the title of a painting. It didn’t occur to me that anyone might not be bothered to find that out—the authority of it would compel them to.
Is the story good? It’s hard to know; it was then. Now it appeals to me because of its allusion to the whole nihilistic business of Tangier—Paul Bowles, Ginsberg, Burroughs, but especially Francis Bacon and his sadistic, drunken ex-RAF lover, Peter Lacy, and the moving landscape painting Bacon did of Tangier.
The writer is usually not the one to go to for an evaluation of his own work, in any case. I heard Joe Heller one evening ask a woman if she had read Something Happened, his lesser-known but significant novel. Yes, she’d read it. Isn’t that a wonderful book? he said.
He was consistent. I overheard him in an interview with a French journalist during a writer’s conference in Paris. After a few questions, the journalist said, But, Monsieur Heller, after Catch-22, you never wrote anything that good again.
Who has, Heller said.
Writers are always judging other writers, but it’s against their interests to closely evaluate themselves.
The writer is writing something. Because of a book’s length and the various, even if slightly different, meanings of certain words, ways of usage, the reader may actually be reading something else, even the reader it was intended for.
At bottom, writing is simple. It’s fundamental, like a hammer and nails, or putting it another way, like singing a song. Or talking to yourself. It does have rules of order. It has grammar and syntax, the form and structure of sentences and the relationship and arrangement of words, most of which you learn, even if incorrectly, as a child by listening and imitating, repetition. Winston Churchill was a poor student. In preparatory school he was considered too stupid or stubborn to do Latin and Greek and was put instead into the English class with the other dullards who were considered unfit to learn anything more difficult. As he said,
We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English . . . mere English . . . Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry . . . had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage.
Making the shape and rhythm of sentences intensely felt was part of the teaching method at the writing school that James Jones and a woman named Lowney Handy established in Illinois in the years after the war. Jones was in the long process of writing his novel From Here to Eternity, and Lowney Handy was his muse. Students at the school sat for several hours every day copying out by hand passages written by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe to imbibe their strength and quality. It was the mimetic method, perhaps not as ridiculous as it sounds.
I would say that teaching writing is more like teaching dancing. If someone has a sense of rhythm, you might teach them something. There’s a great longing in people to be able to write, and the teaching of it, fiction and poetry, has become widespread in colleges and universities and outside of them as well. The teachers are often well-known and eagerly sought. Some are virtual gurus with doctrines and followers. In various cities there are private classes with selected students. You hear of a dramatic figure striking in appearance wearing boots and jodhpurs, perhaps with long white hair like a prophet, and bearing a kind of literary ichor, the fluid in the veins of the gods. He has a limitless number of great—known and lesser-known—books and authors at his fingertips, just as a musician knows a thousand pieces. He speaks only the truth, the core truth about everything and the truth about you, as a writer and as a person, which of necessity is likely to be hard. The class sessions are long, lasting for hours, and cannot be interrupted. Questions are not permitted. In this intensely charged atmosphere, the students read their stories aloud, and he stops them when they have made enough mistakes. For some, that is after a few sentences. Others are allowed to go to the end. The importance of the first sentence, he insists, can’t be overemphasized. It leads the way into the story. It sets its tone and also dictates the sentence that follows. Never begin a sentence with an adverb—it only tells what the sentence itself should reveal.
So, his passion, energy, and commitment are enormous. This is the boot-camp method. You either drop out or become one of them. Somehow it goes against the idea of freedom of art. And yet, he reveals things to them. I never met one of his former students who wasn’t loyal to, even loved, him.