There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
What is a sentence? That just was. There are simple and complex sentences. Some hold words remote, some ideas off key. Some lightly kiss your cheek like a European friend and some incense with their grandeur or insouciance.
Recently, two elderly statesmen of letters released books of non-fiction, though some of their best known works are novels and novellas penned decades earlier. William H. Gass, now 87, has written his most personal book, Life Sentences, with essays touching on his father’s minor league baseball career, his early days as a PhD student, the first Fourth of July following 9/11 as compared to the first following Pearl Harbor, and the crown jewel of the book’s opening section, “Retrospection.” No one has written a better introduction to Gass’s fiction than he does here, laying out why he wrote his magnum opus in one stark sentence: “I wrote The Tunnel out of the conviction that no race or nation is better than any other, and no nation or race is worse…”
Gass, a former philosophy professor, but more appropriately a philosopher of the word and an esthete, concludes the book with the short section “Theoretic.” In recent years he has taken to developing spindle diagrams of sentences, diagrams that he first debuted when speaking of the work of Gertrude Stein in the 1970s. In the essay “Narrative Sentences,” Gass examines a dozen sentences from some of the greatest English prose writers, including Henry James, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. As Gass lays out some of these sentences in diagrams, scrolls, and bullet points, one sees their structure, harmonics, and meaning much better. His project is to notate sentences like a composer writing music, but notating in reverse — the music is already evident as Gass leads the reader from the balcony into opening of the oboe in the orchestra pit. In a lifetime of showing how the world is within the word and how a sentence is its own story, the final essay, “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence,” is both valedictory and a commanding compliment to his parsing of language, in which he recalls an English teacher who “regarded [him] with scornful indifference [his] claim the news, “David slew Goliath,” was seriously not the same as, “Goliath was slain by David,” but that each registered joy or woe depending on whose side you are on.”
In “Kafka: Half a Man, Half a Metaphor,” Gass’s review of a recent biography of the famous man turned adjective, Gass fictionalizes Kafka’s voice by starting in a familiar enough first-person, a nod to what in Prague the famous recluse once created, “I awoke one morning to find myself transformed.” The reverence imbibes its own subject and Gass creates a book review like few others — a creative non-fiction fictionalization of a real person’s artistic creation. Here Kafka/Gass muses on the over 100 passionate letters written to Felice Bauer in 1912 — letters “requir[ing] that postal distance the letters can then complain of. Their words make love of the kind the mind makes when the mind fears its body may not measure up.” The music of the last sentence, the “kind” against the “minds,” the m-consonance mid-stream to be doubly compounded in its last beats — thrusts its measuring synecdoche of separation forward with the panache of a Renaissance sonneteer.
Like Gass, Alexander Theroux is also a celebrator of fine words and creator of ornate sentences, but with a few more inches of fury to his hat size. Estonia is as much about Theroux and his own country as that “collapsing tiny box-set of a republic that is dark as a cave in winter, shit-cold for most of the year, a strange ignored dorp with no ice-free ports, a queer language, curious laws, rummy food, eccentric people, funny money, and a veritable forest of unreadable signs.”
The subtitle, A Ramble Through the Periphery, especially seems to speak not so much of boundary lines, but the bumptious, vertiginous, and at times vengeful mind of its littérateur. His periscope is many-focaled and what one gets in Estonia, along with a wonderful working knowledge of the country, is his many years of erudite commentaries and factoids (Cervantes began writing Don Quixote in a debtor’s prison; Estonians created Skype) on civilizations, culture, and arts, but especially literature and the shortcomings, politics, and pock marks of the superpower currently occupying the world. Such an approach is apropos — don’t we see foreign lands through the lens of our own experiences and our own homeland?
Sometimes his literary and pop immersions are expertly placed, as when Theroux, lonely and left cold by a foreign land and people, finds solace in Judy Garland’s “Lose that Long Face” — reportedly singing it to himself and providing the reader with the lyrics. Yet the divagations into marginalia and widespread panic (the amount of annual U.S. aid to Israel) both crystallize and corrode this “travel” book. The episodes with less than kind people he met in his time there — many being Fulbright scholars (as was his painter wife) enjoying or enduring their research year — are still hot on the surface of his skin, continually stinging like some Inferno-like torment, and at times they override the richly wrought compendia of such a learned soul. The relentless use of “smug” to describe people Theroux viewed less than sympathetically stains the enterprise. How could so many appear smug? I’m not calling Theroux’s veracity into question but I am calling foul. As much as I admire his writing, it is hard to stay in his stream of sentences that might soon spit another spiteful judgment at someone who has crossed him — sometimes the water is magical and sometimes the pen goes awry, squid-mad, and suddenly one is afloat in toxins.
At the book party for All That Is, the new novel by James Salter, Paris Review editor Lorin Stein held forth on Salter as a “colossus” for many young writers and declared the book his favorite of Salter’s work. It was significant that Stein, who is barely 40, introduced Salter: the party was populated by equal parts Silent Generation and Baby Boomers, and Stein — along with a few journalists and a smattering of publicity and editorial assistants — was among the youngest in attendance. Whether Jim Salter himself requested the introduction I don’t know; but at 87, a friend of his told me, he is finally embracing the possibility that his work will influence generations to come, whereas a few years ago he was pessimistic. Stein also told a story about Salter running late to the party at which he would be honored with the TPR’s Hadada Award, because of a flat tire: while Stein wrung his hands, anticipating a ruined evening, a colleague reminded him, “It’s Jim Salter; I think he knows how to change a tire.” (And of course, he did.) Hearty laughter followed Stein’s punchline, as the room was filled with friends and admirers who know Salter as exemplar of a dying breed, the model of a certain kind of manhood — air force pilot, rock climber, linen-suited world traveler, reticent charmer, master of the martini.
I am one young writer who has been influenced by Salter’s work, but I do find that there is a cultishness to Salter fandom: either your eyes go wide and your heart goes pitter-patter, or you don’t really get the hype. A Sport and a Pastime is the book that the uninitiated are encouraged to read in order to encounter the full potency of Salterism, and it’s not a book about which one can feel lukewarm. The provocative sex scenes between Phillip Dean and Anne-Marie are too straightforward and anatomical to be read as arty erotica, too emotionally serious and lyrical to be dismissed (or enjoyed) as cheap pornography. That the nameless narrator claims repeatedly throughout the novel, “I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him out of my own inadequacies” has the effect of making Dean and Anne-Marie’s every word and act feel even more sensually alive, enlarged, insistent:
In solitude one must penetrate, one must endure. The icy beginning is where it is the worst. One must pass all that. One must go forward all the way, through bitterness, through righteous feelings, advancing upon it like a holy city, sensing the true joy.
When reading a Salter story or novel, you’re either all in, or else a battle will ensue in which you resist the text’s inherent demand for surrender — of your analytical cleverness and ironic distance, your progressive social politics, your graduate-school-honed fidelity to the underwhelming epiphany.
A feast of love is beginning…They have founded their domain. A satanic happiness follows.
This is not George Saunders or Lorrie Moore making fun of the ineffectualness of romantic impulses; this is for real.
Feasts, domains, and a happiness so-good-that-it’s-bad are the stuff of greatness, of heroes. In his recent profile for The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten wrote that Salter’s having “fixated on heroism” has contributed to “grounds for a slender reputation.” This supposed “fixation,” which I would characterize in more positive terms — an interest, a belief, a vision — is at the heart of what draws me to Salter’s work, and perhaps, yes, herein is where the road divides: if fumbling, self-undermining antiheroes are your thing, Salter may not be. “I believe there’s a right way to live and to die. The people who can do that are interesting to me,” he said in a 1993 interview. The nameless narrator of Sport, Vernon Rand of Solo Faces, Viri Berland of Light Years, and the many solitary, teeming souls of his short stories may not be heroes or heroines per se, but they are deeply in pursuit of a “right way” — which is a life of greatness and goodness, feeling and fortitude, lust and love. In Salter’s universe, pleasure-seeking is a kind of courage; sexual ecstasy aligned with holiness. A man’s search for pride, honor, triumph, are not separate from, nor opposed to, the sensual, the bodily; rather, these are — must be — of a piece, in a life fully lived. From Solo Faces:
[Rand’s] image cleansed the air like rain. He was the envoy of a breed one had forgotten, generous, unafraid, with a saintly smile and the vascular system of a marathon runner.
And later, we get this narrative declaration, typical of Salter’s omniscient authorial voice: “The act of love…is still the most serious act of all.”
Age comes up frequently in reference to All That Is. Presumably it is Salter’s final major work, which is both a delicate and unavoidable subtext to any consideration of it.
The novel’s epigraph — “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” — is a quote by… James Salter. To my mind, it announces to the reader that the author has reached that stage of life that warrants staking out his own ideas and insights, deference and deflection be damned. When you’ve lived as long and fully as Jim Salter has, it is perhaps as good a time as any to be forthrightly self-referential. Of course the quotation is printed without attribution — four lines in a sea of white space. So too, the protagonist Phillip Bowman is an unexplicit incarnation of Salter — a young man returning from war and going on to find his way in life, letters, and love.
The “factual” alignments are both skeletal and notable: both men born in 1925, in Manhattan, raised as the only child of a doting mother in New Jersey; both serving in the military and recognizing the experience as the most important of their lives, “the pride he would never lose.” Bowman’s early marriage is to a girl named Vivian Amussen from a Virginia horse-country family, like Salter’s first wife Ann; the fictional marriage ends as the real-life one did, in divorce. Vivian thinks of herself as daring, “taking the train up to see a man she had met in a bar, whose background she did not know but who seemed to have depth and originality.” It does not feel like an effort to hear a youthful Salter thinking of himself in this way, through Vivian’s, or Ann’s, eyes. Of course there are divergences: Bowman is an editor, not a writer. He fought in Okinawa in the Navy, Salter in Korea as an Air Force pilot. Bowman goes to Harvard, Salter graduated West Point. Bowman and Vivian divorce before there are any children, Jim and Ann Salter had four children, one of whom died tragically as a young adult.
Still, “facts” aside, All That Is strikes me as the most autobiographical of Salter’s work to date, which is to say the author is more present in these pages than he’s ever been. His final novel reads like his own particular bird’s-eye of the reality he believes in, cherishes, proffers to readers as worthy of transcription from “dream” to immortality — the criteria for which may be rather straightforward: “All you have in life is what you remember,” he said once, his paraphrase of the Renoir quote he used as the epigraph for Light Years. I read All That Is as a kind of impressionistic record of Salter’s memory — the people, places, emotions, perceptions, and anecdotes that have stuck, and have thus mattered. Bowman’s story, for example, begins at age 20, returns in flashback to memories of childhood (his mother primarily), and ends as he approaches 60; these, presumably, are the years in a man’s life that most matter. “What has your life been like?” asks “an older woman with a marvelous face like a prune” whom Bowman meets at a dinner in England. “What are the things that have mattered?” He is 45 years old and goes on to say something about the war, but
He was not sure he had told the truth. His mind had just drifted back to it [the war] involuntarily. And among his dreams it had been the one that most consistently recurred.
The author, the narrator, and the character are all present in this scene: Bowman thinks maybe being a naval officer has so far mattered most; the narrator reveals to us that this is a provisional notion; and the author, it seems to me, suggests that the woman’s “marvelous face,” along with her line and manner of questioning, contend for the truly immortal element. At 45, there were dreams, and uncertainty; but at 87, dear reader, here is reality, and a record of what has mattered. Fiction (character) and memory (author) dance together elegantly here, with a signature strangeness. The minor character feels as important, surely as memorable, as the major one.
All That Is is filled with moments and episodes like these, where a minor player’s story comes forth in full color, detail, and mystery, only to never reappear again.
[One] of his writers had been to school only through the seventh grade though he didn’t explain why. His mother had given him a library card and told him, go and read the books.
“The books. That’s what she said. She’d wanted to be a teacher but she had these children. She was a disappointed woman. She said, you come from decent, hardworking people. Serious people.”
Serious was the word that had haunted his life…
His name was Keith Crowley. He was a slight man who looked to the side when he talked. Bowman liked him and liked his writing, but his novel didn’t sell, two or three thousand copies was all. He wrote two more, one of which Bowman published, and then dropped from sight.
There are other writers that Salter wants us to remember — individuals and types at once, like the aging William Swangren, who told stories about Greta Garbo, Somerset Maugham, Thornton Wilder, and “talked about…homosexuality in the ancient world, the intercrural pleasures of the Greeks and his own experiences with gonorrhea. It took eighteenth months to cure with a French doctor putting a tube up him every day and painting the lesions with Argyrol.” Bowman was supposed to reject Swangren’s book, but he “liked him so much that he changed his mind about [it]. They took it. Unfortunately, it sold few copies.” There are also publisher types, like Berggren the Swede, who “had been made for women,” married three times, and who sweeps on and off stage in two pages:
With Karen, Berggren did not feel young again but something better. Sex was more than a pleasure, at this age he felt joined to the myths. He had accidentally seen, a few years earlier, a wonderful thing, his mother dressing — his back was to him, she was seventy-two at the time, her buttocks were smooth and perfect, her waist firm. It was in his genes, then, he could perhaps go on and on, but one day he saw something else, perfectly innocent, Karen and a girlfriend she had known since school lying on the grass in their skimpy bathing suits tanning themselves, face down, side by side, talking to one another and occasionally the leg of one of them kicked idly up into the sun that was soothing their bare backs….He did not try to imagine what they were talking about, it was only their idle happiness in doing it while his own habits were less joyful and animated…On that day and other days he accepted the reality of what happened with women he loved, wives, principally, which was one of the things that led, despite his position and intelligence and the high regard in which he was held, to his suicide at the age of fifty-three, in the year that he and Karen parted.
And so in All That Is, there is a compelling and beautiful dance between the foregrounding and backgrounding of characters, lives, narratives. Whereas in the conventional novel, one would neaten up the relative positionings, guide the reader toward narrative priorities, in All That Is Salter reminds us that the “things” of his epigraph are deliberately unspecified; which is notable for a writer known for precision. What happens and what is remembered are distinct narrative lines; the overlap is frequent, yes, but unpredictable; where, how, and why they diverge is deeply interesting. Bowman’s story is told chronologically, and yet each chapter reads like a Rorschach that won’t hold still: here is what happened, here is what is — what will be — remembered. Which of it matters? Yes. Exactly.
But there is a clear throughline for Bowman’s journey, which is a journey from female to female, in search of the ideal in both sex and love. Bowman is a late-bloomer in both these areas, and he comes to them naïve, hopeful: he wants to believe in their purity, their absolute meaning, and is incredulous when he discovers otherwise: “It was not possible that she did not feel as he did,” he thinks, after the first time Vivian expresses disinterest in sex. And yet his faith revives, time and again — he aspires to the pure and the virginal with each encounter — even as it evolves out of innocence into something darker. With Enid, a married Englishwoman, “He felt like a god; they were only beginning,” and
He saw himself now to be another kind of man, the kind he had hoped, fully a man, used to the wonder. Enid smoked cigarettes, she did it only now and again, and breathed out the rich fragrance slowly. The light in the Ritz made her beautiful. The sounds of her high heels. There is no other, there will never be another.
Similarly, his affair with Christine — who later betrays him brutally — is
a brilliant dream…With Christine it would be unimaginably rich, living in the sunlight, on the water, on terraces hidden by vines, in the bare rooms of hotels…He wanted the Greek words for morning, night, thank you, love. He wanted some dirty Greek words so he could whisper them.
In a recent review of All That Is, John Freeman wrote that the book is “riddled with the sentiments about women of a past time,” and that “In bed, Bowman is always in charge.” I find this sort of reaction to Salter — indictments of his supposed social regressiveness — endlessly interesting, because it causes me to interrogate my alternate reaction. Freeman’s observations, strictly speaking, are not inaccurate: but there is the shadow of mistrust in his reading — of Salter the author, for failing to shake an antiquated worldview, which is something I too have certainly felt reading other white male authors. But with All That Is, I found that my own implicit trust in Salter’s vision of both eroticism and romanticism — which has been there since I first read Sport several years ago — began to make sense.
Bowman, an only child raised by his mother, comes to both sex and romance relatively late, and with a singular, strong influence on his budding manhood, which is the war and the qualities of courage and honor he internalized. Like all of Salter’s protagonists, Bowman is both flawed and fundamentally honorable — solitary, resistant to corruption, quietly ambitious, and deeply convinced that the erotic and the Platonic are one in the same; that The act of love is the most serious act of all. There is something distinct about a man discovering his dignity, his pride and valor, prior to his first sexual experience. Freeman compares Bowman to Don Draper, and I too have made similar comparisons between Salter’s world and Matthew Weiner’s. But Don’s psychology as a womanizer is portrayed (in the current season, in fact) as a prurient neurosis, traced back to his having been raised in a brothel by a stepmother who despised him. I once asked Salter about Mad Men, and he hadn’t at the time ever seen the show. And in a previous email, he’d written, “I admire the cardinal virtues, prudence, fortitude, justice, and mercy,” in relation to a question I asked about the relationship between an artist and his work. Admiring and enacting are different things, of course; both Salter and Bowman I believe recognize this. (As for Don Draper, I’m not so sure.)
What goes wrong for Bowman is that he loses the tether to his original influences: the war is long over, his mother has passed, and his friend Eddins, whose interspersed chapters portray the ideal (loving, passionate) mateship that Bowman seeks, has lost that ideal to a tragic accident. Bowman then begins to confound sexual prowess with actual prowess. If All That Is is Bowman’s late-blooming coming-of-age story, then this phase, his late 40s, is his adolescent stage, unseemly and shameless. He commits an ugly act of vengeance, sexual in nature, following Christine’s betrayal, and while the novel does not exactly “punish” him for it, he goes forth into later manhood shaken, self-conscious, and, in the last pages, humbled with gratitude:
He wanted nothing more. Her presence was miraculous…He was unsure of himself and of her. He was too old to marry. He didn’t want some late, sentimental compromise. He had known too much for that. He’d been married once, wholeheartedly, and been mistaken…
By novel’s end, he — Salter, Bowman — has not lost his faith in the seriousness of love, nor the glory of the erotic; but he no longer approaches them with such notions as “attainment,” “possession,” or “supremacy.”
While much has been said about Salter’s sentences — their elegant concision, “expensive” diction, the deftness of surprising pivots, syntax that is both fragmented and polished — Salter himself reportedly wrote to a friend that, with All That Is, he wanted to “get past the great writer-of-sentences thing,” and presumably the “writers’ writer” thing. Has he done it? The book party was held at the home of Salter’s friends Yves-André Istel and Kathleen Begala, at a tony address on Central Park West, notably similar to the location of Phillip Bowman’s first encounter with the narrow gates of social-class access (which are slammed in his face in that scene). A venerable authoress in attendance swooned — over both the novel and the man — when I asked what she thought. When Salter followed Stein’s remarks with a few of his own, he spoke of all the attention the book has been getting and said that it felt like, for once in his literary life, he’d been ushered to the “front of the line.” Later, when I asked him how everything is going, he said, “It’s been big. A lot of stuff. Interviews and coverage. It’s enough to make you envious and me tired.” At 87, Jim Salter did not look tired, but rather energized and elegant, ready as ever to change a tire, then maybe enjoy an excellent martini. “I’ve read the book and will be writing about it,” I said, at that moment not quite sure what I would be writing. He looked up from signing a book none too concerned, an eager fan at his other side. “That would be wonderful,” he replied.