Some authors’ lives are a great deal more interesting than others — James Salter’s, for one. Born in 1925 and educated at West Point, a fighter pilot in Korea and afterwards in Cold War Europe, the chiselled flyboy soon jettisoned this for writing and became a cosmopolitan and a worldly adventurer. He made a film in the Alps with Robert Redford, and climbed at Chamonix to produce what was meant to be another film but became the novel Solo Faces. He had homes in Aspen and the Hamptons, frequented the parlours of Paris and Rome but was always, always, too reticent, and, by his code, too honour-bound to divulge all he had seen. Privacy — his own and others’ — was all.
Now, aged 87, he has written All That Is, his first novel since Solo Faces came out 34 years ago. One shouldn’t draw too much attention to that second number — 13 years ago he published Cassada, fully revised from a repudiated 1961 novel about fighter pilots. And not long before that, one of the great literary memoirs, Burning the Days, which he called a ‘recollection’, but which reads like a novel. There is nothing better in English about what it is like to fly — including combat flying.
There have also been two volumes ofshort stories, and accompanying the publication of this latest novel is the Collected Stories, introduced by John Banville. And some lighter fare: a book on meals written with his wife, and a collection of travel writing. All of Salter can be read in three days with no interruptions. No one should want to break the spell.
The new work presents the narrative sweep of a man’s life that might appear close to the author’s. Philip Bowman, also born in 1925, serves in a war (but in the navy, and it’s the second world war), having been brought up in an indeterminate area spilling out from Manhattan to parts of New Jersey, the Hudson River valley and those Hamptons of Long Island.
Bowman is an editor at a prestigious publishing house — Salter has praised, and demonstrates here, the attractiveness of this particular kind of literary life. He marries once, briefly, young, and is childless. (though neither fact is true of Salter). All That Is presents a reckoning of Bowman’s postwar decades: a life neither heroic nor classically honourable, nor even always interesting. These are all aspects that Salter — who has mentioned a fondness for ‘men who have known the best and worst, whose life has been anything but a smooth trip’ — is known to prize in his fiction. Here the author has made other choices. Often, the book steps aside to study closely an acquaintance, a lover, even a stranger, as Bowman himself disappears: the view he can’t have had, the facts he would not have known.
When it’s back to Bowman, the years move on; the acquaintances and lovers have generally moved on, too, with the publishing career and associated European travel remaining the true constants of his life — never without reflection, though, on that lover, house, trip, or someone close who has died.
Except that it is never that humdrum. Bowman gains self-knowledge, and soon discovers his ‘ability to turn people against him’. Above it all hangs the inevitability of death, although one of the novel’s many delicate ironies is that when it ends — and Bowman is perhaps 60 — the moment for him seems the farthest it’s ever been. The book’s epigraph is Salter quoting himself, of the time ‘when you realise that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real’. A further irony is that Bowman does not write, he edits, although he seems best at the social aspects of the job.
One appeal of All That Is for Salter devotees is how it presents a shadow, or alternate, life of the figure we thought we knew from his books and interviews. We remember the novel Light Years (1975), regarded by many as his masterpiece, about a long-disintegrating but first-beautiful marriage; and the astonishing descriptions of sex between a restless American and a local girl, set in rural Burgundy in the novel A Sport and a Pastime (1967). Reviewers in America have rightly pointed out how much All That Is evokes the settings and themes of these two earlier novels. The way men become voyeurs of their own sex acts (‘He stayed unmoving, waiting, imagining unhurriedly everything that was to follow. He was making it known to her’) goes straight back to A Sport and a Pastime.
It’s as if, all these years later, Salter has evoked the counterlife of a rough contemporary who is more passive, solitary and sex-obsessed than most men would admit to being. Also more vain and foolish: the kind of man who ‘had felt himself above other people, knowing more than they did, even pitying them. He was not related to other people — his life was another kind of life.’ This is what Bowman thinks when he cannot understand how a woman has betrayed him utterly. Worst of all is that ‘she would never look back. He knew that.’ Fiction is the place where we can come to terms with such a catastrophe.
Salter has said: ‘I admire myself more on the page than I do in life’, which is ironic, considering that Bowman, if he is some kind of alter ego, is not an especially admirable person. The sub-irony is that his creation Bowman might allow Salter to admire something in himself, the exactitude and wisdom, in the most economical language, with which he can depict a life, or as Banville says about the stories (but with an eye to the new novel) his ‘muscular grasp on the everyday realities’ as the ‘master chronicler of quotidian lives’. Such grasp and chronicling, however, are tedious without the larger picture, which isn’t plot but the sense of how life moves, a kind of argument about, for example, age, which ‘doesn’t arrive slowly, it comes in a rush. One day nothing has changed, a week later, everything has.’ There is also ‘a lesser speed, that of fate’.
Often one finds in Salter a character who will outlast all others — ‘a lone figure surviving history’ is how Bowman is described at one point. When he is on the point of death, he reflects that everything he has known — all that is — will die with him, which includes the simplest things he has seen: even a butler pouring coffee. But whatever happens to Bowman is OK. Salter, true to his creed, has written it down; so not only was it real, it will last.