Saturday, March 15, 2008

James Salter: Burning the Days

James Salter’s reputation is of a curious kind. He’s written great books, yet many lovers of literary fiction would be hard pressed to name one—or perhaps even recognize his name (I feel quite lonely as a fan).

Salter is said to be a writer’s writer, and that is one way to view him. He’s a stylist—preferring the moment over the plot—which might count for a lot, but for some reason it doesn’t in his case. Richard Ford says he writes the best sentences of any living writer. Perhaps people don’t admire sentences like they used to.

(I should note that after writing this, I listened to a podcast where Salter calls the characterization of himself as a writer's writer “ghastly”).

Burning the Days is primarily for Salter’s fans, despite its typically elegant prose, the intriguing snippets of Hollywood life in the ‘60s (a film with Robert Redford, anecdotes about Roman Polanski, and more), the stories about Irwin Shaw, or the section on Ben Sonnenberg, who founded the journal Grand Street. But then what author memoir isn’t meant almost solely for his or her fans?

Salter’s a born aesthete. How else could one be such a stylist? Because of that, and his New York/European sophisticate lifestyle, it’s fascinating that he went to West Point, and then served in the military (enjoyably, it seems) and flew planes as a fighter pilot for 15 years. Although Salter’s prose occasionally nods to Hemingway in its evocative terseness and control, he’s not exactly a macho writer, although he is a masculine writer. Still, even his manliness tends more to the Fitzgerald or Cheever camp (a man with a drink, teetering on the edge of losing control, maintaining his style, or not).

As with any memoir, what isn’t told can be as interesting as what is told. The things I want to know more about, he resists telling. I think his first wife got a single sentence, maybe two. She deserved more, if only because he mentions affairs with glamorous women (including a mistress of John Huston’s) and prefaces his first encounter with her with a chapter on his love for the wife of a friend.

So, this isn’t a tell-all memoir. Salter mentions two of his daughters, and briefly tells of the harrowing story of finding one of them dead in the shower, but there’s little more. His family life is off limits, even though that’s the story that begs to be told.

Burning the Days is imagistic in the same sense that Salter’s prose is—the pace of his narrative travels through sketches, snapshots, the sharp and telling impression of a moment. He’s somehow able to capture a passage of time in a sentence or two in a singular way. I don’t think he can truly be imitated when he’s at his best. And he’s the kind of author that I can’t quote to prove this point—his great sentences reside within the context of his stories somehow. They need to be felt in a particular moment.

And perhaps that is one reason for his lack of fame.

"What is it you want?'' a woman asks Salter late in the book, and a friend replies for him, knowing what the answer will be: ''To be an immortal.''

Unfortunately, Salter’s immortality seems on hold. He’s probably not going to see much evidence of it in his lifetime, although he deserves it.

Charlie Rose Interview with Salter