NOTE: This article makes reference to sexually explicit material.
In the run-up to publication of James Salter’s sixth novel, All That Is – and no doubt long before – he was hailed as one of the great American novelists, unknown to me, perhaps because he hadn’t published a novel in 30 years. I read All That Is and his previous work, the story collection Last Night (2006) before seeing James Salter at the London Literature Festival at Southbank this weekend, in conversation with James Runcie, Head of Literature at Southbank University. It seems that many others are only just discovering his work and are as excited about it as I am.
James Salter is 87 years old. Whilst it is extraordinary to still be writing novels – and particularly this novel – at that age, it’s both pertinent and irrelevant. In person, he appears undiminished by age; quite the opposite, he is razor sharp and very funny. Anything written with almost nine decades of life experience carries some weight of significance, reinforced by the title All That Is, and yet there is a vigour and energy to his writing which suggests the lights never went down on his younger years.
Salter was born in 1925 and grew up in New York City. He was a pilot in the US Air Force and flew over 100 combat missions in the Korean war. He was still in the military when his first novel The Hunters (1956) was published but its success soon prompted him to leave. His five novels prior to All That Is, two memoirs and two collections have earned numerous literary prizes including the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award. Salter says the stakes have always been the same with everything he’s published, regardless of his age.
All That Is tells the story of a man’s life. That man is Philip Bowman, born the same year as the author, and the book covers a period of some 40 years from Bowman’s service as a young naval officer at the end of WWII to the mid 1980s. Any novel with this timespan is liable to be called ‘sweeping’ but this really is. Apparently Salter is often described as ‘the writers’ writer’ and whilst he doesn’t seem overly keen on this potentially off-putting label (you certainly don’t need to be a writer to appreciate his work), it’s entirely apposite. This is a fascinating novel to read and consider from a writer’s perspective, with far more points of interest than any review can cover.
For a start, the role of story within a novel is called into question – there is no plot as such, not that it matters. On leaving the navy Bowman takes a job as an editor in a New York publishing house; his successful literary career along with his travels and his eventful personal life give rise to an intimate and compelling ‘narrative’, as the author calls it, speaking of wanting to ‘find a form to adequately make [his] view of life and the world known without it being visible’. Those familiar with Salter’s body of work have commented that this novel brings together prevalent themes from earlier work, notably marriage, love and especially sex.
Bowman had the other. Without a wife or girlfriend he had seemed settled into a single life, of habit, not uncomfortably, appearing in a dark blue suit at restaurants and readings, at ease in the visible world, familiar. It turned out to be other than that.
One of the most remarkable features of this novel is Salter’s use of swivelling point of view. Whilst the main, always third-person narrative belongs to Bowman, it frequently lapses, sometimes at length, sometimes briefly, into the perspective of another character who may never reappear. Usually known as ‘head-hopping’, this practice has negative connotations which are completely unjustified here, where it lends a richness not often achieved in 300 pages. Any disorientation felt by the reader is shortlived. When asked if he was effectively ‘wasting good characters’ by letting them go so quickly, Salter dismissed the suggestion that he was splicing the narrative with short stories off to the side – his aim was to ‘create a fabric’, and he does.
Surprisingly, it’s possible to be bowled over by this novel without empathising very much with Bowman. Unlike his colleague Neil Eddins, I didn’t find Bowman sympathetic or attractive but I did feel strongly about some of his behaviour and was captivated by his life and the portrayal of places (NY, London, Paris, Spain) and eras: the antiquated gentility of his wife’s southern background, the mercurial (even then) nature of the publishing world, the sexual politics which may grate now but were true to the time. It hadn’t occurred to me, but it’s true that Salter captures the passing of time with little reference to contemporary historical or political events (on the assassination of JFK: A frightening thing had happened. The president had been shot in Dallas.)
Much of the action in the novel takes place at parties, bars, in taxis and in bed. There is a lot of sex, and whilst it’s perfectly realistic in the context of a (mostly) single man’s life over four decades, when reading the book over a few days, the effect is multiplied – and a bit relentless. Salter is considered good at writing sex, although it’s hard to think of anything more subjective. He doesn’t challenge the view that male and female writers approach the subject in different ways. For his reading at Southbank he chose a scene which included Eddins getting a blowjob, written (one could argue how convincingly) from the woman’s point of view. His sex scenes are explicit but not too self-indulgent; apart from one or two lapses (‘he came like a drinking horse’ has attracted a lot of comment) they are sensual rather than repulsive and just as well, because bad sex scenes – even by Great American Novelists – can be horribly memorable.
James Salter’s prose is outstandingly beautiful and luminous. He is an amazing discovery, even if he has been there all along. This novel is deeply moving because so much within it is universal and speaks of life, love and loss; his words seem to reach out, to convey something beyond what is written. In the epigraph to All That Is, Salter writes:
There comes a time when you
realise that everything is a dream,
and only those things that are preserved in writing
have any possibility of being real
A writer needs no greater inspiration, a reader no greater promise than that.
There’s been a fantastic response to my Top 10 Summer Reads – thanks to everyone who has read and shared it. There’s still time to enter the competition to win the title of your choice from the list. Closing FRIDAY 31 MAY 6pm GMT.
Great review Isabel. I haven’t read any of his work so far but All That Is was also reviewed this weekend in the Glasgow Herald and confirmed your view that it’s well worth reading. But damn it, that’s my TBR increased again!!!
‘All That Is’ has barged to the front of my TBR queue. Having listened to him recently at the Southbank Literary Festival (failed to spot you among the crowds), I plunged into his marvellous ‘Last Night’ collection of short stories.They’re on a par with the best of Carver, Cheever – and one of them could have been about Cheever.