James Salter: write or perish

Themes of war, sport and sex might run through his prose, but the subtlety and exactitude of his literary portraits are leading this writer to finally be recognised as one of the greatest in the English language

James Salter
2013 was James Salter’s year. After decades on the margins, known and revered among writers but largely ignored by the rest of the world – Vanity Fair once called him ‘the most underrated underrated writer… whose best novels are all brilliant’ – he was raised at last into the limelight. All That Is, his first novel in 30 years, was lavished with praise on both sides of the Atlantic.

I met the 87-year-old Salter in London. There was the ghost of a swagger about the way he walked across the lobby of the Langham Hotel, and I had an immediate and vivid sense of Salter as a younger man – the pilot he once famously was, strolling across the runway to his F-86 jet fighter. We were shown to a windowless room, muzak droning in the background, a jug of water and two glasses on the table. During the hour and a half we spent together Salter was modest and courteous, and often displayed an unexpected dry humour. At the same time I sensed that he didn’t suffer fools. There was steel beneath his exquisite manners.

James Salter was born James Horowitz in Passaic, New Jersey in 1925. His parents moved to an apartment in Manhattan when he was two. He was an only child. His mother, a native of Washington DC, was one of four sisters, the most beautiful and also the most wilful. His father, who worked in the real estate business, suffered a number of financial calamities and set, according to one critic, ‘a continuing example of failure’, though Salter remembers him as “a wonderful big man who knew everything”. It was Salter’s father who urged him to apply for West Point, “absolutely the worst place in the world,” as Salter would later say, “for anybody who wants to be a writer to go.” He struggled, accumulating endless demerits, but in the second year his attitude changed and he “bought into the programme completely”. At West Point, Salter came into contact with qualities that would become central to his fiction, qualities the critic David Profumo identifies as ‘disdain, lustre, and virtue’. There was very little time for writing, Salter said, sipping his water. “I didn’t know what a story was actually,” he went on, “but I tried.” A friend expanded his horizons by introducing him to the work of Ivy Compton-Burnett. I confessed that I had never read her. He laughed. “Who has?” 

Salter writing in his studio, Bridgehampton, NY
Salter writing in his studio, Bridgehampton, NY

Salter graduated in June 1945. He spent the next 12 years on active duty, including a tour in the Pacific – he met his first wife, Anne, in a hotel on Waikiki Beach – several stints in Germany and over a hundred combat missions as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, but there was a part of him that was uncatered for, unfulfilled. In the early 50s he began to make notes for a novel, stealing moments wherever he could – “in the evenings,” he told me, “if I had the energy. At weekends too, and on leave.” In his memoir, Burning the Days, he recalls reading Under Milk Wood on a train to Frankfurt. The language made him giddy, and the longing to write something “sacred and beautiful” rose up in him.

He took a step towards that goal when his first novel, The Hunters, was published in 1956. It was at this time that he changed his name to Salter. This was a practical move, since the Air Force forbade the publication of anything it had not approved, but Salter might also have been dissociating himself both from a poor role model – his father – and from a Jewish background that neither described nor defined him. A year later, he resigned his commission. It was a difficult decision. “Everything that had meant anything to me… everything I had done in my life up to that point, I was throwing away,” he said in an interview in 1992. “I felt absolutely miserable, and a failure. It was like a divorce.” But he was obsessed with the idea of “making something lasting” – he would “write or perish”. He was married, with two young daughters. He was 32 years old. When he told his former wing commander what he had done, the response was predictable and blunt: you idiot.

A photograph of Salter from his flying days
A photograph of Salter from his flying days

In 1957 the Salters moved into a house near Piermont, on the Hudson River. “You can’t see New York ,” Salter told me, “and you’re beyond its magnetic pull.” But he found it impossible to work in the house. “The noise was incredible, and finally, after about six months, I found a place in the industrial part of New York, down near the fish market. Things were very cheap, and I rented a room there, on Peck Slip. Just a bare room with a table. I drove there four or five times a week.” He had been keeping small black notebooks that were unlined and ‘soft to the pen’, but as a writer he was still feeling his way. He took a job selling swimming pools to supplement his income. He sold three. He worked doggedly on his second novel, The Arm of Flesh, with very little guidance or support.

“Writing is self-taught, completely,” he told me. I asked what he thought of creative writing courses. “I’d be too inhibited to go to one,” he said, “even now.”He broke off to ask a passing waitress for some English breakfast tea. He drank his tea black, but when he tried to select a lump of brown sugar with the tongs his hand trembled and he couldn’t pick it up. I asked if I could help. “No, no,” he said, “I can do it.” He tried again, and failed. “Oh the hell with it,” he said, and threw down the tongs. I glimpsed the younger Salter again – impatient, vigorous. I quickly dropped a sugar lump into his tea. He thanked me.

“This is the core of Salter’s gift, to convey the intense beauty and brutal transience of life in language that is exalted, crystalline”

When our conversation resumed, we talked about France, the mise-en-scène for his incandescent, erotic third novel, A Sport and a Pastime, published in 1967. Salter first visited France in 1950 – he read Gide, Céline and Genet; he learned “how to look at nakedness, architecture, streets” – but for him the crucial year was 1961. “Almost everything I feel and cherish about France came from that year,” he once said. As a result of the Berlin crisis he was recalled to Air Force duty. While stationed in Chaumont he met a young French woman, and they explored the towns and countryside together. The notes he took formed the basis of a novel that documents an affair between a charismatic 24-year-old American dropout, Dean, and a pretty French shop girl, Anne-Marie. The book is a love letter to France, as well as a hymn to sexual pleasure; in fact the two are, at times, inseparable. The shadowy narrator is never in the bedroom with the couple, but his imaginings are so vivid that it feels as if he is. When I asked Salter, cheekily, if he’d had a relationship with the girl, he paused for a moment and then said, “I knew enough to write the book.” He saw her again, he told me – years later, in New York – and instantly knew from her conversation that she hadn’t read his portrait of her. It’s a pity. Pure but licentious, detailed yet transcendent, A Sport and a Pastime is a profoundly ecstatic novel that captures and celebrates the moments and fragments that make up our lives.

Salter when in the US Air Force. Picture courtesy of the author
Salter when in the US Air Force. Picture courtesy of the author

Perhaps because his subjects encompass war, sport and sex, Salter has sometimes been labelled a macho writer, but when I referred to his female sensibility – his ability, in his fiction, to create believable women – he readily agreed. This ability is perhaps most evident in his masterpiece, Light Years, published in 1975. Set in the post-war period in upstate New York, the novel paints a portrait of a glamorous couple, Viri and Nedra Berland, and their marriage, which is gilded and magical but ultimately doomed. Even as we read about languorous days on the beach, glittering dinner parties and the intimacies and delights of love and children, there is the keen sense that paradise is slipping through their fingers. This is the core of Salter’s gift, to convey the intense beauty and brutal transience of life in language that is exalted, crystalline. Like Anne-Marie, Nedra was based on a real woman, he told me. “She’s still alive, and lives in Maine. She likes the book. I haven’t seen her for a long time.” 

Some of Salter’s fictional techniques – jump cuts, montage – appear to have been honed during his years in the film industry. In the mid-60s, following a feature film of The Hunters that starred Robert Mitchum, and prompted by the successful documentaries Salter made with TV writer Lane Slate, Salter began to be courted by Hollywood. Though still married, he spent time in Europe and on the West Coast. He became friends with Robert Redford and wrote Downhill Racer for him. He worked with Polanski. In Rome he met Fellini and had an affair with “Ilena”, the 23-year-old mistress both of the film director John Huston and of Farouk, the former king of Egypt. I once asked Salter’s daughter, Nina, why there had been such long gaps between her father’s books. She told me, with an enigmatic smile, that he had spent a lot of time “living”. But after a decade working intermittently as a screenwriter there came a point when money and luxury were not enough. As a screenwriter, he once said, “you’re at most a preliminary figure.” His final word on the industry is that “it demanded more than I was willing to give.” 

From Salter's and his wife Kay's kitchen, Bridgehampton, NY
From Salter’s and his wife Kay’s kitchen, Bridgehampton, NY

He met a lot of famous people – Polanski, Lotte Lenya, Yoko Ono, Fellini, Nureyev – and when I asked what effect they’d had on him he talked of Redford’s generosity and how the actor had done favours for him. Then there was a wonderful moment when he searched for the right word, without success, and I learned more about his stubborn perfectionism, and how much precision mattered to him as a writer, than I did about the legacy of the legends whose lives had brushed against his own. “I think you learn from those people,” he said cautiously. “You learn what people of some magnitude – that’s the wrong word, that’s too grand a word – but people of some quality – that’s also the wrong word – people of some eminence, let’s say – still the wrong word – but that kind of thing, what they’re like. You reach a point where you’re no longer in awe, being in their presence.” I reminded him of his friend Irwin Shaw’s advice, which Salter quotes in Burning the Days: never be in awe of anyone. “It’s still good advice,” Salter said.

For Salter, recognition has been a long time coming. There were times when he looked at the achievements of fellow pilots – he flew with Buzz Aldrin, Virgil Grissom and Edward White, all of whom went on to become astronauts – and felt a sense of regret for missed opportunities. Watching Ed White walk in space, he “felt a kind of loneliness and terror. Whatever I might do, it would not be as overwhelming as this.” He would never say he has taken the wrong path, only that it has failed to provide him with equivalent glories. I asked him how he felt about fame. “Well, I’d say it’s like a white linen suit,” he said. “It’s there in the window. You’d give anything in the world to have it. And then somebody buys it for you and you don’t wear it very much.” He paused. “It’s not that it’s not a beautiful suit – it still is – but it’s no longer sacred to you.”James Salter

In past interviews, Salter had confessed that he didn’t trust men who hadn’t known the worst as well as the best – and Salter has certainly known the worst. To use David Profumo’s words, the second half of Burning the Days feels ‘strangely cauterised’, with very little mention of Salter’s family – and with good reason. In 1980 Salter’s eldest daughter, Allan, died in a freak accident while in the shower. It was Salter who found her. He attempted artificial respiration – to no avail. She had been electrocuted. There are things you never get over, no matter how many years go by. As he writes in his memoir, ‘Time with its broad thumb has blurred nothing.’

“Everything that had meant anything to me… everything I had done in my life up to that point, I was throwing away”

Perhaps the most illuminating moment in my meeting with Salter was prompted by this loss. When I mentioned a paragraph in Light Years, saying that I had never read a more exquisite description of a parent’s love for a child, he didn’t appear to remember it. I found the passage and handed him the book. He read it quietly to himself. ‘Of them all it was the true love. Of them all, it was the best. That other, sumptuous love which made one drunk, which one longed for, envied, believed in, that was not life. It was what life was seeking; it was a suspension of life. But to be close to a child, for whom one spent everything, whose life was protected and nourished by one’s own, to have that child beside one, at peace, was the real, the deepest, the only joy.’ I noticed that his eyes had filled with tears. For a moment I thought he had been moved by his own words, but I was wrong.

James Salter

When he looked up from the page, he said, “God, they savaged this book.” He laughed with an edge of bitterness; the wound seemed raw, even though almost 40 years had passed. He remembered his editor, Joe Fox, ringing up to tell him he had an early copy of The New York Times’ review, and that it wasn’t good. “I said, ‘How bad is it?’ He said, ‘Very bad’. I said, ‘Well there must be something in it. Isn’t there a line you could use? A word?’ And he said, ‘No.’” When I told Salter I found such a negative reaction unbelievable, he said, “Well, I’m satisfied now,” and I took it he was referring to the rapturous reception for All That Is. But I couldn’t help thinking of the old photographs of him, in which he often looks wistful or melancholy.

From Thanksgiving to Easter, Salter lives in Aspen, Colorado, in a simple two-storey Victorian clapboard house with a porch and a peaked roof. From the upstairs windows he can see Aspen Mountain. He can also see spruce trees, cottonwoods. Ski-runs. It’s a modest place. “You’d think some honest, probably boring couple lived there,” he told me with a wry smile. When spring comes, he moves to a similar house in Bridgehampton on Long Island. Built in 1985, “it’s cosy, but not cramped. You feel comfortable in there. Well taken care of.” I was curious to know if he had a sea view. He smiled. The sea was a mile away, he said. If he wanted to be any closer, it would cost him a million dollars. There was the sense of a life that had been whittled down, refined – a life reduced to necessary and beautiful essentials. Our talk shifted to wine, one of his great loves. “I’ve had several bottles of Cheval Blanc,” he told me. “I’ve tasted all those wines. [These days] I can get along with an ordinary $10 bottle very well.”

Salter with his wife, writer Kay Eldredge at their house in Bridgehamptopn, NY
Salter with his wife, writer Kay Eldredge at their house in Bridgehamptopn, NY

He has been with his second wife, Kay, since 1976. I asked how they met, and he told me a story that could have been lifted from one of his own books. “We met in Aspen,” he said. “She came round with a documentary crew. She threw her watch in the bushes.”

I was laughing. “She came back later and said, Did I leave my watch here? Where were we standing?” He looked directly at me. “That’s how it happened.” They have been together ever since. “That’s a long relationship,” I said. “Only she thinks it’s long,” he said with a faint smile. “Seems fresher to me.”

He had to go, but there was just time for one more question. When interviewed for the Paris Review in 1992, he had been asked which of his books he would keep if he could only keep two. Light Years, he said, and A Sport and a Pastime. In the light of the success of All That Is, I wondered how he felt now.

He paused. “I might ask them to give me an extra one.”
“You mean the new one?”
He nodded.

I remembered a moment in Burning the Days when the wife of a friend reads Salter’s palm and says, ‘A great renown awaits you finally.’

I was happy that he had lived long enough to see the prophecy come true.

Words Rupert Thomson
Photography Andrew Southam