Memories We Get to Keep

James Meek

  • BuyAll That Is by James Salter
    Picador, 290 pp, £18.99, May 2013, ISBN 978 1 4472 3824 9
  • BuyCollected Stories by James Salter
    Picador, 303 pp, £18.99, May 2013, ISBN 978 1 4472 3938 3

It isn’t Salter’s language alone that numbers him among the masters, but it is what strikes you first. From Light Years of 1975: ‘On the stands in nearby orchards were hard, yellow apples filled with powerful juice. They exploded against the teeth, they spat white flecks like arguments.’ From the story ‘Am Strande von Tanger, on the death of a bird: ‘A heart no bigger than an orange seed has ceased to beat.’ From his first novel, The Hunters of 1957, a description of fuel tanks jettisoned by fighters, falling from high altitude over Korea: ‘There were a dozen or more, going down like thin cries fading in silence.’

There is the imagery of human actions and mannerisms. From ‘Comet’, a short story, the characterisation of desire: ‘He could have licked her palms like a calf does salt.’ From the same story: ‘He was mannerly and elegant, his head held back a bit as he talked, as though you were a menu.’ From Light Years, a young girl smitten by love: ‘She could not eat, like a dog that has been sold.’ And there is another kind, the imagery of states of being. In The Hunters, he writes of disappointment: ‘There had been many ambitions … They were scattered behind him like the ashes of old campfires.’ In Light Years, Nedra describes her marriage: ‘I love the familiarity of it … It’s like a tattoo. You wanted it at the time, you have it, it’s implanted in your skin, you can’t get rid of it. You’re hardly even aware of it any more.’ From All That Is, Salter’s new novel, an image for the urgency and sacrifice of love: ‘Love, the furnace into which everything is dropped.’

Besides their precision each image is distinguished by dynamism, by an organic nature. Apples explode and spit, a heart is a seed; the human life is the dog’s life, the life of the skin. Salter’s images are not static points observed by a character or narrator but conduits through which narrative flows. They are an aspect of the virtuosity that makes him singular, his mastery of time, the raw material of narrative fiction. There is a Salterian unit of time that partakes of a moment (when you live it, intensely), a season (it is that time of year), and eternity (there have been such seasons, and always will be). The particular instant of time emerges from the general mood of the season, its light and temperature and smells and colours. Others do this but few achieve it so smoothly, in such a way as to create, in the reader, the duality that is the trick of our consciousness of the actual passage of time, where a specific event, and the mood of the era in which it occurred, are two linked but distinct memories. The moments we remember are embedded in states it seems we have always known.

Salter was still working out this technique in The Hunters, set among American air-force pilots dogfighting Communist MiGs in the skies over Korea. ‘In June came ponderous heat and mornings like eggshells, pale and smooth,’ one chapter begins; the paragraph continues in the same mode. But the next paragraph starts with the conventional ‘It was on such a morning that’. Ten years later, the opening paragraph of A Sport and a Pastime shows how he has moved on:

September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, from trips on roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps. I make my way among them. It’s like being in a tunnel. Finally I emerge onto the brilliance of the quai, beneath a roof of glass panels which seems to magnify the light.

In a short space the time-focus tightens from season to the days of the Parisian rentrée, to a moment in the life of the narrator. The sentence ‘The station is very crowded’ acts as a hinge, referring back to the generality of the beginning of the paragraph and forward to the specificity of the end.

The Salter of Light Years is even bolder. Early on, telling us about the architect Viri, he gives us this short paragraph about Viri’s general state of being:

His friends were Arnaud, Peter, Larry Vern. All friends are friends in a different way. Arnaud was his closest friend; Peter, his oldest.

But what comes next is this:

He lingered before the counter, his eye passing over coloured bolts of cloth.

‘Have we made shirts for you before, sir?’ a voice asked, an assured voice, immensely wise.

An unsympathetic editor might have balked at this. What counter? It hasn’t been mentioned before. How did Viri get there? Where’s the transition? Salter jumps the gap from one kind of time to another, from broad narrative time to tight episodic time, without a safety net, trusting the reader to follow him. Over the pages of sharp, clever dialogue between Viri and the shirtmaker that follow we learn about Viri’s vanity, his limited means, his wit, the comfortableness of his life and, in the end, his affection for his friend Arnaud, to whom he recommends the shirtmaker – the circle does close.

Asked by Edward Hirsch, who interviewed him for the Paris Review, how he ‘hit upon’ his ‘distinctive, beautiful and implacable’ prose style, Salter answered tersely, almost evasively: ‘I like to write. I’m moved by writing. One can’t analyse it beyond that.’ He only went so far as to call himself a frotteur, ‘who likes to rub words in his hand … to wonder if that really is the best word possible’. Implicitly he was talking about subject, object, modifier, but on the page you can see him working his queerest alchemy in the more obscure realm of tense. His reluctance to analyse his style publicly is in inverse proportion to the degree by which he must analyse it privately in writing it; only a writer very confident in his craft, very confident in his readers and, most of all, deeply interested in the snick and swing of tense shift could get away with the opening of the 1993 story ‘Comet’:

Philip married Adele on a day in June. It was cloudy and the wind was blowing. Later the sun came out. It had been a while since Adele had married and she wore white.

It is the most radical economy to convey a life encompassing two marriages by repeating the verb ‘married’ and slipping the auxiliary ‘had’ in front of one of them. Or, in another story, ‘The Cinema’, to contract time from timelessness to a single point in three terse sentences: ‘There were dinners. Guivi sat with Anna beside him. It was the fourth day.’

There are passages in Light Years where Salter, following a single character over a day, will move from one tense to another – half a dozen times on one page alone, from past to present to past perfect to past to present to present continuous, Nedra’s day in town and rolling life in the eternal New York braided together by verbal nudges. Late in the novel there is even an enactment of the significance of tense, when Viri, rejected by Nedra, falls briefly in love with an Italian, Lia, who is determined they should be together for ever.

‘You will find happiness,’ he told her. They were at lunch. The winter held days of sunshine, noons of infinite calm. He broke a piece of bread to cover his confusion, dismayed at the tense of his verb.

‘Do you think so?’ she said coolly. Nothing escaped her.

The lover, like the reader, notices everything.

Last autumn, just before the leaves turned, I took the train from Manhattan up the Hudson Valley to visit the Dia gallery in Beacon. The line takes you north along the east bank of the river – ‘vast here, vast and unmoving. A dark country, a country of sturgeon and carp’, as Light Years, written and set in the area, describes it. About fifty miles north of New York City I caught glimpses through the trees of a fantastical set of fortifications on the bluff on the far side of the river, a sprawling polyhedron of grey stone walls and ramparts and towers, like a mini Edinburgh perched on the banks of the Rhine. Of course I’d heard of West Point, where the officer class of the US military is trained. I’d just never known exactly where it was, and hadn’t expected to see it. It makes the west bank of the Hudson still more Salterian country; besides raising a family on either side of the Tappan Zee Bridge in the 1960s and 1970s, Salter attended West Point as a military cadet during the Second World War, which led to a 12-year career in the US Air Force, mainly as a pilot. The superficial disjunction between the mildly bohemian domestic gentility of Light Years and the world of The Hunters is every bit as extreme as the sight of that vast American officer factory rearing up among the commuter homes of Orange County.

The Hunters is a shock to those accustomed to the prevailing contemporary portrayal of the American military, by American fiction writers, largely as victims of war. In its attitude towards combat Salter’s first novel has more in common with Beowulf or the Iliad than with The Things They Carried or Catch-22. The US fighter pilots going up against their Communist counterparts in the sky over the Yalu River, on the Korea-China border, are warrior aristocrats in the most primal sense, in the last and fastest planes to fly in combat without computers or missiles. There is no politics and no morality outside the peer group; inside it, only their own code of honour. They are hunters in the way of the ancient continuity between hunting game and fighting war, where the aim, in each case, was honourable quarry, the slaying of a champion and the return with the spoils and the glory. Their reason for being is to fight and to down MiGs, whether the enemy pilots survive or not, and they exult in it, as soldiers will to this day. ‘It’s not much of a war …’ one of the combatants declares, ‘but what can we do? It’s the only war we’ve got.’ The central character, the fighter pilot Cleve Connell, reflects: ‘We’re in a child’s dream and a man’s heaven, living a medieval life under sanitary conditions, flying the last shreds of something irreplaceable, I don’t know what, in a sport too kingly even for kings.’ Connell expresses the ultimate boast of the warrior-aristocrat clique, that he is an intimate of the Reaper. ‘He would sometimes recall, as if it had happened to another person, the compulsion to press close to death, to feel the purity that followed.’ Salter flew in Korea and shot down a single MiG. In his introduction to a revised 1997 edition of the novel, he concluded:

It was said of Lord Byron that he was more proud of his Norman ancestors who had accompanied William the Conqueror in the invasion of England than of having written famed works. The name de Burun, not yet Anglicised, was inscribed in the Domesday book. Looking back, I feel a pride akin to that in having flown and fought along the Yalu.

As there are love stories, so The Hunters is a hate story; the story of Connell’s growing hatred for a rival, another pilot, Pell, who bests him in the thing that matters most, the tally of MiGs shot down. Connell downs one; Pell, a liar and cynical manipulator as well as a brilliant pilot, surpasses him to become an ace, with more than five kills. Until the last moment Connell’s failure has less to do with his inability to be a great warrior than with his inability to redefine the terms of failure. Apart from an interlude of boozing and whoring in Japan, it’s a clear, tragic arc; Hollywood, Salter’s paymaster for a spell, paid it the compliment of taking it to pieces to find out what was pleasing in it and breaking it when it put it back together for a movie. But the structure of hero and rival in neo-aristocratic competition for the conquest of the elemental returns in Salter’s later, more complex novels. Solo Faces was originally written as a screenplay, after Salter had seen a script realised in film, the skiing drama Downhill Racer, directed by Michael Ritchie and starring Robert Redford. Solo Faces is the story of a rock-climbing drifter and his friend and rival and their pursuit of glory through heroic feats on the mountain. In the earlier A Sport and a Pastime, the quarry, the struggled for peak, is perfect sexual love, though not, redeemingly, for the sake of a man’s fame among his peers. Here the friend-rivals are an American photographer working in a small town in the French provinces and a second young American, Phillip Dean, a charming, penniless college dropout Grand Touring it around pre-1967 Europe in a borrowed sports car of mythic magnificence. In an era when fornication still carried the glamour and danger of scandal and shame, Dean and a local girl in her late teens, Anne-Marie, become lovers. The photographer, who narrates and, as he breaks off to explain to the reader, invents the details of Dean and Anne-Marie’s sexual journey, nonetheless frames the story in terms of his own frustration and failure to get what Dean has, which is not so much the beautiful Anne-Marie as the realisation of the ideal of a grand passion.

In Light Years, Salter’s mastery of time, his themes of nobility, ruthlessness and failure in the quest for love and glory, his interest in the erotic and the aesthetics of pleasure, achieve their richest realisation. To the portrayal of moments, seasons and years is added the portrayal of entire adult lives, Viri’s and Nedra’s, in a long marriage and its aftermath. When we meet them they are in their twenties, living in a beautiful house in the country. Viri has an architectural practice in the city, Nedra makes exquisite dinners for their wonderful friends, their two little daughters have a pet pony. We follow them over two decades through the breaking of their marriage, to disappointment and death and the flourishing of their children. When the book first came out some critics were repelled by the beauty of the family’s life at the beginning of the book, but equally scornful of the subsequent doom of the idyll. Even at the time this might have seemed contradictory, as if what were required was doom all day, every day. In fact the serpent appears in the garden of Light Years not much later than it does in Revolutionary Road; as early as page 14 one of the couple’s friends tells his wife that Nedra is ‘the most selfish woman on earth’. But the story, what the book is ‘about’, matters less than what the book is: an extraordinary replication not of the experience of a marriage but of the memory of the experience of a marriage. For while we remember stories, memory is not a story. Salter strips out the narrative transitions and explanations and contextualisations, the novelistic linkages that don’t exist in our actual memories, to leave us with a set of remembered fragments, some bright, some ugly, some bafflingly trivial, that don’t easily connect and can’t be put together as a whole, except in the sense of chronology, and in the sense that they are all that remains. Over these surviving fragments of the past, where the distinction between the unique and the repeated is blurred, Salter sets the characters’ reflections hovering, in the way our present thoughts will flutter back to burnish and brood over, and find connections between, the same small set of memories we get to keep:

And he reads to them, as he does every night, as if watering them, as if turning the earth at their feet … What is the real meaning of these stories, he wonders, of creatures that no longer exist even in the imagination: princes, woodcutters, honest fishermen who live in hovels. He wants his children to have an old life and a new life, a life that is indivisible from all lives past, that grows from them, exceeds them, and another that is original, pure, free, that is beyond the prejudice which protects us, the habit which gives us shape. He wants them to know both degradation and sainthood, the one without humiliation, the other without ignorance. He is preparing them for this voyage. It is as if there is only a single hour, and in that hour all the provender must be gathered, all the advice offered. He longs for the one line to give them that they will always remember, that will embrace everything, that will point the way, but he cannot find the line, he cannot recognise it. It is more precious, he knows, than anything else they might own, but he does not have it. Instead, in his even, sensuous voice he laves them in the petty myths of Europe, of snowy Russia, the East.

A recurring Salterian idea is of a peak in a man or woman’s life, usually in their early thirties, after which action is tainted by age. Elsewhere he presents it as the moment fit for the most heroic feat, but in Light Years the moment of one’s natural peak in time is presented as a substitute for achievement. Viri yearns to be a great architect; he believes in greatness ‘as if it were a virtue, as if it could be his own’. But he never gets to be great. Instead, there is a moment of urbanity, when ‘in that room, at that hour, he seemed the age one longs to be, the age of accomplishments, of acceptance, the age we never achieve.’

Viri doesn’t get to enjoy his hour of man’s estate; he’s not aware of it. It exists only in the perception of others. That’s the tragedy described in Light Years, that one cannot live the appearance one presents to other people. The appearance of happiness in Viri and Nedra’s marriage is enjoyed by others in a way they can’t enjoy it themselves. The hour of Viri’s maturity, unperceived by him, is mirrored by the hour after he and Nedra are married, the only time he feels that the love and desire they felt for each other before the wedding are carried over into the era after. As husband and wife they don’t have sex; each has a lover. Viri wants to be famous, Nedra wishes she was rich. Everyone they know delights in the ambience of warmth, charm and beauty the couple creates in the house near the Hudson, yet Viri believes it is his wife’s sense that she has deliberately sacrificed herself to be his prisoner that gives her the brave face, the sense of grace in adversity, that those who see them from the outside delight in.

*

For there to be lives lived and lives as appearances, there must be different points of view. In All That Is, Salter’s first novel since Solo Faces 34 years ago (he was born in 1925), the generosity of perspective overflows. The book follows the life of a New Yorker, Philip Bowman, from service in a Pacific naval battle in the closing months of the Second World War, through his career as an editor at a publishing house, his travels, his unsuccessful marriage to a Southern beauty from Virginia horse and hound country and his subsequent loves, to his late middle age in the 1980s. Bowman is in the foreground of the book but his are not the only heart, eyes and mind in play.

As readers we’ve become used to the ubiquity of free indirect speech in novels, fixed to a single character through whose point of view we experience the world, at the smallest remove from the first person ‘I’ – as James Kelman put it, not so much written from a character’s viewpoint as over his shoulder. In a writer like Kelman, Bellow or Coetzee, it’s a means to great work. Used as a default by less accomplished writers, the single-perspective free indirect speech approach can slip into a solipsistic, narrow worldview, a crude vehicle for the artist’s autobiography, grudges and obsessions. From the beginning Salter sought a wider range of viewpoints, giving us the world as seen from the perspective of many characters, and from the perspective of implied narrators who stand at various distances from the author and characters. He attenuates the moral judgments of the classical 19th-century narrator without eliminating them entirely. There’s a wonderful characterisation at the end of The Hunters of the bad good pilot Pell, now a famous ace, being interviewed by a journalist: ‘He had a thoughtful expression on his face. His eyes, those exceptional eyes, had apparently seen things he could not tell about, and that he never could be old enough not to be too young to have seen.’ Most of the story up to now has been told from the point of view of the good good pilot Connell, but Connell’s point of view has been erased from the story; he’s been shot down. A discreet implied narrator fills in – or it could be a glimpse of how things look from the journalist’s perspective. The same ambiguity is displayed earlier, when there’s a characterisation of another warrior, the good bad pilot Abbott, who is coming to be seen as a coward and a failure:

Suddenly, though, the past was being counted as nothing, like rescinded currency. What he had had for so long, what he had grown old in possession of, was gone now, sickeningly, and there was nothing else of importance to him, as with men who have given their lives to their children.

It works. But the location of the point of view is not clear. Is it Abbott’s own self-awareness we are reading? Is it the view of Connell, whom he is with? Is it a detached, authoritative, implied narrator?

The mobility and occasional ambiguity of perspective becomes more complex in Salter’s later works. In A Sport and a Pastime we have a single narrator, a character who continually affirms his unreliability to the reader. In Light Years, rather bafflingly, a first person slips into view for a short time at the beginning and end. The first word of the book is ‘We’. Whose voice is it? A friend, presumably, but we don’t find out. The bulk of the novel is narrated by an implied narrator and through the consciousness of Viri and Nedra.

In All That Is, the breadth of points of view exceeds all bounds. There are few characters so obscure that we aren’t admitted to their thoughts, or don’t know things about that the central character can’t know. Perspectives cascade. Bowman marries Vivian, whose mother is Caroline, whose father is Warren Wain, whose son is Cook, of whose life we get a tiny vignette before he is dropped, not to reappear. The munificence of access gives All That Is an excitable, digressive quality that sits strangely with the measured, sometimes workaday nature of its narrative of the years, so much more explainy than his earlier works: ‘It was a day Bowman would never forget’, ‘a man of about thirty, of medium height’, ‘Franco, the ageing dictator, the victor in the savage civil war’. The book stands in relation to Light Years as Ravelstein does to Herzog – recognisably by the hand of the same artist, but with a capacity for craft more implied than employed, by turns exuding a wry contentment and a zany youthfulness.

There has always been a paradox to Salter’s work, in that his willingness to take us deep inside multiple characters to show us how they perceive the world reveals a set of people preoccupied with surface. All That Is exhibits the characteristic patina of Salter’s writing, the lending of a grandeur to characters’ externality and a golden varnish to inanimate things. He passes over the squalid and the mean; he doesn’t exclude the conventionally ugly but incorporates it by main force into the general magnificent canvas of existence. Crooked teeth and bad breath become part of a character’s attractiveness. In A Sport and a Pastime coal smoke belching from the furnace of a locomotive becomes ‘that marvellous corrosive smoke that eats steel and turns terminals black as coal’. He exoticises Western Europe – even England – as other Western writers have exoticised Asia. ‘In many English women there is, despite reputation, a strong sensuality, even if denied,’ he writes in Solo Faces. Europe is the home of complaisant (a favourite Salter epithet) women willing to join American men in transgressive heterosexual sex. As it is in Japan that Connell pays for sex with a woman ‘as obliging as a new wife’, in France that Dean of A Sport and a Pastime finds Anne-Marie, the lover who embraces all his desires, including to penetrate her anally, and in Italy that two American lawyers in the story ‘American Express’ find the schoolgirl who will have sex with both of them, so the transgressive seduction of a young woman by the much older Bowman in All That Is, consummated in America, is completed in Paris, where Bowman takes her to see Picasso’s pictures of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, who ‘had been naive and docile when he met her … he taught her to make love on his terms.’

Salter portrays sexual man as voyeur and hunter, subject to an appetite-based, appearance-based lust that has need and admiration as its own justification. Man constructs the object of his adoration and turns his worship into an exhaustive consumption of pleasure that reifies her. ‘Women fall in love when they get to know you. Men are just the opposite. When they finally know you they’re ready to leave,’ Frank says to his (adult) lover Nan in ‘American Express’, explaining why, despite his perhaps having loved her once, they can’t get married. His friend Alan complains that the women he meets are ‘too human’. A woman in another story, ‘Such Fun’, observes of men: ‘My theory is, they remember you longer if you don’t do it.’

For all its myriad perspectives, and the occasional feeling that what Salter is doing in All That Is is knitting together a set of short stories, there is disappointment in the unbalanced power and success of its central character, Bowman. He experiences setbacks and reversals but there is a sense of his life as a series of loves and sexual conquests which, by the end of the novel, seem repetitive. The mood of a story about a powerful, attractive man living a life of tasteful elegance and seductions becomes what Salter’s work risked being earlier but never was, boastful: boastful not in an autobiographical sense, but in the sense of a smug character, and disappointing because of the skill with which he erodes his characters’ Ozymandian tendencies elsewhere. Everyone who has been married for more than a few years, happily or otherwise, should read Light Years, where the ruin is as terrible as the characters’ lives are gilded or, equally true, the gilded lives redeem the ruin to come:

On the counter was a glass bowl green as the sea, filled with bleached shells like scraps from the summer. Three photographs, each of a different female eye, were pinned one above the other to the wall. Keys hung in an old gilt frame. There were drawings of birds, beautiful onyx eggs, a framed postcard from Gaudí to a man named Francisco Aron.

They were talking about the day ahead as if they had only happiness in common. This gentle hour, this comfortable room, this death. For everything, in fact, every plate and object, utensil, bowl, illustrated what did not exist; they were fragments borne forward from the past, shards of a vanished whole.