A review of James Salter, ‘All That Is’: Opera and Tortoises

The English edition (from the Guardian website)

The English edition published by Picador (from the Guardian website)

 

I’ve been an admirer of the literary works of James Salter for some time.  I began with A Sport and a Pastime (1967), about a passionate affair in 1950s France.  Light Years (1975) traces the decline of a marriage.  In both novels, the style is a mix of Hemingway’s  concision, blended with baroque poeticism.  In his latest novel (his first in over thirty years, though he has published short fiction, memoirs and non-fiction in that time) that was published this spring in his 87th year, Salter has largely reduced the prose voltage to suit the protagonist.

A Sport aap cover via Millions

Philip Bowman, born like Salter in New Jersey in 1925, is introduced in chapter one as a young naval officer heading for Okinawa towards the end of World War II; here’s the opening sentence: ‘All night in darkness the water sped past’.  No apparent attempt to create a jaw-droppingly memorable line.  But that sentence is typical of what follows: the two foregrounded adverbial phrases emphasise the long, terrifyingly inexorable voyage to potential oblivion for the crew.  By making the water the agent of the verb, there’s a slightly skewed perception introduced, for it is the ship which is speeding Bowman to his destiny.  This displaced or strangely angled point of view is appropriate for the initially naive Bowman, a bruised soul with a quiet, almost innocent approach to life in the early chapters.

In that sense this is a bildungsroman: Bowman at the novel’s end is in his 60s, at ease in exalted literary circles, no longer entirely bemused by the ways and wiles of women, sexually confident (though emotionally scarred by divorce, betrayal and abandonment by previous partners).

There isn’t much of a plot in the conventional sense; what we get is numerous episodes related across 31 short chapters, many of which condense numerous scenes and cameo performances from a large cast of minor characters.  Drifting almost invisibly through most of these scenes is the increasingly confident figure of Bowman, whose capacity and appetite for life are never entirely diminished by the frequent disappointments it puts in his way.  He graduates from Harvard and enters unobtrusively into the ostensibly gentlemanly pre-war, pre-corporate sphere of publishing.  He spends most of the novel as an editor for the house owned by Robert Baum and his finance partner.  Baum has a caustic awareness of the vagaries of best-sellerdom: on his wall is a framed letter from a colleague editor, describing an ‘utterly worthless’ book he’d rejected – ‘It sold two hundred thousand copies’, says Baum; ‘I keep it there as a reminder’.

Against this backdrop of the conflicted sensibilities of the editors, working in the shark-tank of commercial publishing (the idea, says Baum, is to ‘pay little and sell a truckful’ – though he describes his firm as ‘literary’ in principle), Bowman’s character fits neatly.  Salter is mostly interested, though, in his amorous life.  He falls ill-advisedly for a girl called Vivian from landed Virginia society; she’s all horse-riding, hunting and money, but Bowman is smitten by ‘a riveting face that God had stamped with the simple answer to life’.  I know I began by saying he’d toned down the flashy style, but these touches of Scott Fitzgerald-like grandeur still bedeck the narrative.  The clash of cultures and humiliating denouement of this marriage show American class consciousness in all its raw nastiness. 

Bowman’s judgement in women, one would expect, can only improve.  It does, but not straight away.

 

Photo: Guernica online magazine

James Salter.  Photo: Guernica online magazine

 

As he ages he goes through several more intense, scarring affairs.  Each time the woman seems to be destined to be the love of his life; each time love eludes him.  The cruel betrayal towards the end of the novel is matched by Bowman’s transgressive, callous revenge (in a chapter called, with chilling cruelty, ‘Forgiveness’).  I was about to say this response of his was uncharacteristic, but it’s not; we don’t really get to know what motivates Bowman’s actions – he’s not depicted as self-aware, though his musings on life, death and love are frequently presented.

As the novel closes he seems to have found a muted but triumphant peace; he still believes in love, but accepts it’s ‘now likely to be too late’.  But here one of my reservations about the novel becomes felt: some readers have found Salter’s fiction tends towards male-oriented, even chauvinistic portrayals of relationships.  In All That Is there is an unedifying preoccupation with how women look, and how their looks fade as they age, while Bowman continues to be praised by women right through to his 60s for his attractiveness.  He also has a slightly unsettling, voyeuristic interest in women much younger than himself.  His final partner is thirty years younger than he is; she’s ‘desirable, life-giving’ and had ‘slipped through the net, the fruit that had fallen to the ground’ – an unfortunate set of metaphors.

On the other hand, Salter is quoted in Numero Cinq magazine as saying: ‘I deem as heroic those who have the harder task, face it unflinchingly and live. In this world women do that.’

Salter is noted for the carnality and sex in his novels, and there’s some of this in All That Is.  Usually it’s not likely to qualify him for the Bad Sex literary award; it’s difficult to avoid prurience or cliché in such scenes, but he mostly succeeds in surprising us with his mix of lyricism and wry humour; in one such moment he describes Eddins with his new lover:

The bold, Assyrian parts of him were brushing her lips, stifling her moans.  Afterwards they slept like thieves…He loved everything, her small navel, her loose dark hair, her feet with their long, naked toes in the morning. Her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery, and when she cried out it was like a dying woman, one that had crawled to a shrine.

That Assyrian reference, the ‘thieves’ simile and the ‘shrine’ are clunky, but in context Salter just about gets away with it: the woman has a thing about ancient Egypt; after their first sexual encounter she says ‘in Egypt I would be your slave’.  Unfortunately there’s that slight touch of chauvinism again, the separated, appraising male gaze.

Descriptions are sparse, but when they appear they glow with life; here he writes of the Maryland coast:

On an inlet nearby he had seen a white goose that lived with the ducks there. Whenever a plane passed overhead, the goose looked up, watching and talking as he did.  He watched it all across the sky.

Salter at his best eschews fancy vocabulary and pyrotechnical imagery; this passage consists almost entirely of words of one or two syllables, more like Carver than Fitzgerald.  What distinguishes it as Salter is the curious ambiguity of the pronouns; who is talking and watching – the goose, or the man?  It turns a monochrome snapshot into an almost mystical experience.

The dialogue is often superb.  Early in his marriage to Vivian, Bowman upbraids her for her domestic negligence (another touch of sexism?):

‘Vivian, why don’t you spend a little time cleaning up the place?’

‘It’s not my ambition.’

Her use of the word, whatever that meant, annoyed him.

This isn’t a perfect novel, then; its pace is sometimes slow to the point of tedium, and the focus on such a reserved, apparently unreflecting man’s trials, repeated sexual conquests and reversals results in a narrative that isn’t always entirely successful.  The digressions into Eddins’ similarly fraught, occasionally tragic amatory life are entertaining but somehow don’t fully cohere with the rest of the novel; maybe Salter would have been better off making the slightly more vivacious Eddins his protagonist, and Bowman secondary.   But the novel is ultimately worth reading, if only for the beautiful brushstrokes in the prose (I’ve tried to quote a few here): the evocation of romantic visions in old Europe of which Salter is so fond in his other novels; the conflicting appeal of country and city life, and the tiny miniatures of the minor characters (Bowman’s genial uncle Frank; the publisher in England, Wiberg, with his ‘eighteenth-century face’) that often compress into a few words or sentences what would take lesser authors a whole chapter or novel to convey.  Here in a meeting with one of Bowman’s clients and his wife, for example, by focusing on Bowman, Salter  sketches impressionistically and tellingly his preoccupations and ambitions:

Although there was little evidence of discord between them, there must have been some, but from the pair of them Bowman felt a strong pull towards connubial life, joined life, somewhere in the country, the early morning, misty fields, the snake in the garden, tortoise in the woods.  Against that was the city with its myriad attractions, art, carnality, the amplification of desires.  It was like a tremendous opera with an infinite cast and tumultuous as well as solitary scenes.

Bowman, like the rest of us, just needs somebody to love and to love him.  Maybe his penchant for opera and tortoises explains why he has such a hard time realising that ambition.

The American cover (photo from LARB website)

The American cover (photo from LARB website)