James Salter - a beginner's guide
James Salter has a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest writers of our time. Picador Senior Editor, Kris Doyle offers some expert advice to anyone unsure of where to get started.
James Salter has a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest writers of our time and has been compared to great American writers from Ernest Hemingway to Richard Yates.
Picador Senior Editor, Kris Doyle, explains why he finds himself continually returning to Salter's work and offers some expert advice to anyone unsure of where to get started.
'When I want to find the best writing about sex, about meals, about love, about time's indifference, about ambition and disappointment, about the human heart brim-full of joy and the human soul shattered, abandoned, indelibly marked by another's cruelty, I read James Salter.'
My faith in James Salter's writing is unshakable. I am drawn back to his work frequently, consistently finding greatness there. For me, it's not just Salter's art that means something; his values mean something too. I respond to his prose, an unusual blend of lushness and restraint, but I think I'm particularly susceptible to his sensibility: an epicurean veneration of human life, formed not in spite of its vicissitudes but because of them.
Nearly everyone who knows anything about James Salter cites the variety of his accomplishments. He flew combat missions in Korea; he quit the air force to become a lauded writer; he had a career in moviemaking and worked with Roman Polanski, Vanessa Redgrave and Robert Redford. The list goes on; you can look it up.
I tell you this because Salter is a life writer. I mean both that he draws a lot of his material from his own life, so it helps his ninety years were so replete; and that his writing respects the consequence of life, sanctifies the felt experience of the moment, tries to shore it up against destruction by time.
Here is the epigraph from his final novel, All That Is: ‘There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.' With everything he wrote, Salter was engaged in a serious endeavour: to make something lasting from the great heap of days. This is not an insignificant challenge. For him, it was everything. He told Adam Begley in 1990: ‘There came a time when I felt I was not going to be satisfied with life unless I could write. So I did what was essential for me, or else perhaps the most important part of me would have perished.' I have never read this as melodrama.
Salter has the technical command to realize this bold intention. He clearly delights in noticing the particulars that constitute a life, a character, a scene; he has a pilot's eye and will give details, clear and succinct, but only ever what is necessary. (Perhaps he never lost the judiciousness required on the radio and the discipline instilled in him by the military.)
He captures the beautiful and the sad; he shifts bravely from the quotidian to the poetic, bluntly from the heartfelt to the heartless; he ceaselessly portrays the ecstasy of being alive but never loses the awareness of how soon it all ends.
When I want to find the best writing about sex, about meals, about love, about time's indifference, about ambition and disappointment, about the human heart brim-full of joy and the human soul shattered, abandoned, indelibly marked by another's cruelty, I read James Salter.
For this and more, I call Salter a great writer. I think he should be famous. I cannot imagine he will ever achieve a faultless literary glory commensurate with my admiration. I commend him to you.
The Picador Classic edition of A Sport and a Pastime, with a new introduction from Sarah Hall, is out now.