Thursday, June 25, 2015

James Salter dead at 90

The fiction and screen writer James Salter died a week ago, on Friday the 19th, while at a gym. A week earlier, he'd celebrated his 90th birthday.

Against all the odds, he lived a long, full life, filled with incident, action, movement, excitement, meditation, and considerable success. 

A modest man, with large ambitions, sophisticated, svelte, soigné, equally seduced by elegance and devotion to solitary craftsmanship. 

He was among the first novelists I really admired. Fowles. Steinbeck. Hemingway. Salinger. Forster. Salter. A compelling style, an investment in gesture, in the perfect metaphor, the transparent phrase. A sense of the vividness of a certain time, of the memorable, the sublime. 

A man for whom, like Hemingway, life itself was more seductive that his art. And yet at the same time a patient artist, tinkering, revising, turning sentences and paragraphs over and over, seeing them from all angles, inside out, then coming back and seeing them fresh, again, before letting go of them. 

The early "air force" novels don't mean much to me. His work begins with A Sport and a Pastime, continues with Light Years, Solo Faces, and ends with All That Is (which is a kind of foil for the muted autobiography Burning the Days). 

It turns out that, for good or ill, most of what he wrote about came directly from his life experiences, appropriating real people into his stories, often thinly disguised. 

The experience of reading his work is for me an astonishment, at the exquisite surface, the shrewd and wonderful description. The deepening sadness of his characters. Their obsessions. Their pleasures. Their regrets. 

If I could have been the sort of writer I once dreamed of being, it would be something like Salter. A figure undisturbed by the distractions of fame, but with a devoted audience of admirers. Living an interesting life in interesting places. And writing a handful of nearly perfect books. 

Salter thought the only thing that lasts is what we're able to record in language. 

As the world gradually forgets who the man James Salter (née Horowitz) was (in life), the books will linger on into the decades, as distinct vessels of the alembic of who he might have been. Not as an alternative, but as a speculation. 

Who were we? Look into our books to find us. 

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