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All You Have Is What You Remember: The Millions Interviews James Salter

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In January 2010, I wrote a piece here about sex writing – specifically, sex writing by the “representative” males of two distinct literary generations. Katie Roiphe, in a New York Times Book Review essay, had asserted that today’s young literary men have lost their belief in the power of sexuality to ignite, and to immortalize. Her observations resonated with me, and I argued in response that we should look not to Roth/Bellow/Mailer/Updike (Roiphe’s touchstones) for this lost potency, but rather to James Salter.

Of Roiphe’s Great Male Narcissists (the GMNs, as David Foster Wallace coined them), only Philip Roth is still alive, the kid among them, now 79. Jim Salter, on the other hand, turned 87 this year; and what a year (or two) it’s been: in late 2010, Salter received PEN USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In the spring of 2011, he was presented (by Robert Redford) with the Paris Review’s Hadada Award about which Salter said in his acceptance speech, “This is my Stockholm.” A month later, James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime – a documentary focusing both on that most well-known of his novels, as well as his lifelong love affair with France – premiered in New York City. Last summer, Salter was announced the winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story – an honor he shares with Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, Mavis Gallant, Eudora Welty… and, well, just about every modern master of the form you can think of. Last but not least, Salter was the recipient of the 2012 PEN/Malamud Award, in recognition, again (and again, in good company), of high excellence in the art of the short story.

For many years, Jim Salter has been deemed a writers’ writer – a dubious branding – but now, finally, it seems he is receiving his due respect in the broader literary community (Stockholm notwithstanding). And all this while continuing to maintain a busy speaking/travel schedule, as well as write critical essays for the New York Review of Books, an introductory essay to Jacques Bonnet’s Phantoms on the Bookshelves, and (drum-roll) the final draft of All That Is, his sixth novel, due out from Knopf in April 2013.

When Open Road Media contacted me about conducting a Q&A with Salter – on the occasion of the release of A Sport and Pastime and Solo Faces (Salter’s fifth novel, about a talented, disillusioned rock climber) in e-book format this past June – I did not hesitate to say yes. They wrote: “Our focus is on the lasting resonance of his writing.” I’d been corresponding now and again with Salter (I interviewed and wrote a profile of him in 2011, published in Tin House, and also spoke about his work in the Sport documentary), and all this talk of “lasting resonance” made me think back to that first email I received from him, shortly after my 2010 essay was posted:
Thanks very much for your essay, which I just read, a bit late – apparently we’re deeper in the woods here than I thought. I was also interested in the responses [comments], especially the references to other books. I agree with the comment about Hemingway always writing about sex, or something to that effect, meaning it was a subtext. He wrote a startlingly sensual English, very male and very sensual, alive to the senses, and sex, as we like to call it, is sensationally alive, both in the flesh and/or in the mind. I don’t like Hemingway, in part because he looms and also I don’t like the man. He’s a type you run into.

Women have more or less tipped the cart over — you probably don’t realize that because you’re, I assume, just a kid — and some confusion is the result. I don’t mean that it shouldn’t have been tipped, there is no should or shouldn’t. I always liked Robert Phelps’s citation — he must have been quoting someone — first the flesh, then the spirit.

Again, with thanks. JS
Two-and-a-half years ago, being new to the literary community (my first novel was published in March of that year), an email from the likes of James Salter came as a shock. Was it really from him? I read it over a few times, and clearly it was – the impeccable manners, the gorgeous compression of idea and sentiment, the wry humor. I responded immediately, awkwardly, and a kind of unlikely correspondence began — between me, “just a kid,” and JS.

Only now has it occurred to me to wonder what made him write that first email; or, rather — with simple good manners as the obvious explanation — what that essay might have meant to him at that particular time. That a young writer (and female — many of Salter’s acolytes, I’ve noticed, are male), engaged in online literary conversation, had elevated him to an eminent place in the canon – above the writers who’d out-famed him, strictly speaking – must have spoken directly to his ambitions. Were there others like me — young women and men, and generations after that — who would continue to read, and write about, his work? he may have wondered.

The mounting evidence of the last two years would suggest a resounding yes.

Without further ado, following is a brief account, on the occasion of celebrating his work’s “lasting resonance,” of what James Salter thinks these days about literary ambition, the relationship between life and art, heroes, and contemporary literature.

The Millions: In your 1993 Paris Review interview with Edward Hirsch, you said that if you could choose, you would want to be remembered for A Sport and a Pastime (1967) and Light Years (1975). Open Road Media is releasing Sport and Solo Faces (1979) in e-book format, so that your work “can be introduced to new generations of readers and digital audiences.” How did they decide on those two titles, and how do you feel about the selections?

James Salter: Open Road wanted to publish A Sport and a Pastime together with Light Years in a series called or regarded as modern classics, but Light Years wasn’t available — Vintage was already publishing Light Years as an e-book — and was replaced by Solo Faces.

TM: I know Solo Faces began as a screenplay – do you have a different sort of feeling for it as a result?

JS: The novel, I think, overcame its humble beginnings and there are things in it that could not have been expressed in the dialogue and action of a script.

TM: I was struck by this description of mountain climbing in Solo Faces:
That you come to these places and say to yourself, I can’t do this, I know I can’t do this, I’m certain I can’t do it, but I have to do it, I know I have to. You would give anything to be somewhere besides there, but there’s no use thinking about it. You have to go on. In the end it uplifts you somehow.
Some might describe writing a novel in this way. Do you find writing very difficult? (If climbing isn’t the right metaphor for the difficulty, is there another one you’d employ?)

JS: There’s wide agreement that writing is difficult even for very good writers. Sometimes it’s more difficult, sometimes less. In climbing the difficulty defines the achievement. In writing it doesn’t have anything to do with it.

TM: Both your stories and novels have been critically acclaimed. Other than the obvious — pace of work, for instance — are there differences in the way you approach novel-writing versus story-writing? Do you feel more at home or confident in one form or the other?

JS: A story is an engagement although it can be protracted. A novel is a campaign. It’s easier to begin a story. I find it easier. There’s also the consideration of what is it that you’re writing? What length and depth does it deserve? It’s also harder to write a story because there’s no room for anything that doesn’t belong in it. In a novel there’s room for anything.

TM: Recently, on the New Yorker fiction podcast, you paid homage to your friend, the late Reynolds Price, thus: “He wrote numerous books, more than 20, and yet one single story in the New Yorker, and that fact appealed to me somehow.” This struck me, because I’ve been thinking lately about common, current notions of “literary success,” and how myopic and limiting those notions can be. You yourself have also had just one story published in the New Yorker. Am I projecting, or were you thinking the same thing about narrow measures of success?

JS: It wasn’t meant to reflect myself. Anyway, what is literary success in the New Yorker? Three stories, five stories, five in one year? The answer is probably whatever number gets you known as a writer published in the New Yorker. That’s a big step up, but it’s probably not going to support you.

TM: How have your own ambitions as a writer evolved over the last 50-some years from the time you first started writing seriously?

JS: They haven’t evolved. Even at the beginning my ambition was to write something that people would go on reading.

TM: Both Vernon Rand, from Solo Faces, and Viri, from Light Years, explicitly engage with/meditate on the nature of fame, as do characters in your story collection Dusk. How important are these things – notoriety, recognition – in relation to true greatness, excellence, or heroism? Do you have any feeling for how or whether they “should” be? I am thinking of Viri’s idea, which he retracts: “Greatness, like virtue, need not be spoken about in order to exist.”

JS: I think he was right to retract it. Virtue can exist without being known about but greatness can’t. If [Walter] Bonatti had climbed the southwest pillar of the Dru alone and for the first time, as he famously did, and no one ever knew, that act would lose its significance.

TM: Speaking of virtue… in speaking of other writers – both peers and forebears – you seem interested in and concerned with both the quality of the work, and the character of the man. For example you’ve spoken highly and/or affectionately of Irwin Shaw, Robert Phelps, Ford Madox Ford, and Isaac Babel – along with Reynolds Price – among others, and you’ve also mentioned that you find Hemingway’s personal character distasteful. Does your estimation of a man, or woman, affect the way you view/experience the literary work?

JS: There are a lot of writers that you read without knowing anything about them. When afterwards you do know something, it doesn’t really change things that much. It’s nice to think that you’d like the writer if you liked the book, which is why you want to learn about or meet certain writers.

TM: More generally speaking, do you think there is some undeniable relation between a writer’s life and his art?

JS: Life = art.

TM: Can you say more what you mean? Is that formula an ideal, or a reality?

JS: Everything you know, nobody else knows, and everything you imagine or see belongs to you alone. What you write comes out of that, both in the trivial and deepest sense.

TM: What did you mean when you said (in Open Road’s biographical video), “I admire myself more on the page than in life”?

JS: That’s only saying I like what I’ve written more than what I am.

TM: In the Paris Review interview, you said: “I believe there’s a right way to live and to die. The people who can do that are interesting to me. I haven’t dismissed heroes or heroism.” Have you known/encountered many true heroes in your lifetime?

JS: You mean known personally – perhaps two.

TM: Who are they and/or what defines them as heroic to your mind?

JS: I’m talking about life and death, not just courageous struggle – Royal Robbins and James Kasler – a legendary big-wall climber, and a famed combat pilot.

TM: Are your characters generally more courageous and heroic than the real people you know/have known in life? (I’m thinking of Vernon Rand, who seems to strive for a kind of purity of soul, and maybe a little bit of Philip Dean in Sport and Chappellet from Downhill Racer; but really, nearly all your characters strive for the pure, the heroic in some way.)

JS: Yes, a little purer, I would say. But not Chappellet, who’s only ego-driven, or Dean, who’s just a figment.

TM: Is fiction-writing a way for you to reach for those heroic characters, to somehow insist on their existence?

JS: A certain kind of fatalistic figure, doomed to fail, interests me. Especially doomed to fail because of ideals or admirable flaws.

TM: Does this imply that your vision of life is somewhat tragic, i.e., idealism often dooms one to failure?

JS: I’m really referring to a ruinous sense of obligation or honor.

TM: You often employ an omniscient narrator that also has a tone of omnipotence — a voice that declares Truths. It’s a particular narrative tone, which I noticed especially when re-reading Solo Faces —
There is something greater than the life of the cities, greater than money and possessions; there is a manhood that can never be taken away.

A human face is always changing but there is a moment when it seems perfect, complete. It has earned its appearance. It is unalterable.
Did you ever hesitate to use this sort of narrative voice, or did it always come naturally to you?

JS: Seems natural.

TM: How and when did you begin to recognize what kind of writer you are/aren’t?

JS: Books were what made me want to be a writer, certain wonderful books, wonderful then, anyway. I did what everyone does, I kept trying. Gradually it began to become a little clearer. I wanted to write books of a certain kind, books that weren’t cheap. There is a lot of failure involved.

TM: Do you mean discarded drafts (failure in your own estimation)? Rejected manuscripts (failure as judged by publishers)?

JS: Failure in various ways, failure to get started, failure to go on, failure when you realize what you’ve written is no good, failure to come to that realization. All that is part of it.

TM: Did you imitate other writers before finding your own distinct relationship to language and character?

JS: I didn’t really imitate anyone at the beginning, but I didn’t have much of an idea who I was, and I didn’t know how to write, how to begin and end, what to leave out. I didn’t know any writers or readers, for that matter — a good reader or two is invaluable.

TM: When did you start having readers? Have they been the same person/people for many years?

JS: Robert Phelps was the first person whose opinion mattered to me. That was in the 1970s. Then Bill Benton and a neighbor named Peggy Clifford who is a journalist. Benton is a poet and novelist. At present, none of these, only my wife [the writer Kay Salter].

TM: You said once of Nabokov, “Of course, here’s a poet. You say to yourself, Vladimir, let’s be honest. You are a poet, and you’re just writing a lot of prose.” Your own prose is often lyrical, as inventive and surprising as poetry — could the same be said of you?

JS: That was a sophomoric thing to say.

TM: In the years since A Sport and a Pastime was published, in 1967, you seem to have taken more time (8-9 years) to finish and publish a book. Did something slow or quiet down in your process, or was it more to do with circumstances?

JS: I’ve wasted some time. Some of it was with [writing] movies.

TM: The epigraph to Light Years is a quote from Renoir: “The only things that are important in life are the things you remember.” And you recently said, “You realize that everything is a dream; only those things that have been written down have any possibility of being real. That’s all that exists in the end: what’s been written down.” Does this mean that, for you, the things that you remember are more in the realm of art than in the realm of life?

JS: All you have in life is what you remember. It’s the one filament connecting you to the void. It doesn’t necessarily become art.

TM: It’s been 15 years since the publication of your memoir, Burning the Days — what might be the remembered bits, the memoir fragments, from this most recent time period?

JS: The death of various people, the world without them.

TM: Do you think you have another memoir – a book or long essay – in you?

JS: One memoir is more than enough. I might write an essay.

TM: Back to Open Road’s digital releases: is there anything – good, bad, neither – that you see or notice about the way today’s readers engage with literature, especially given how much of literature is delivered digitally?

JS: I don’t think all of this is clear yet.

TM: Do you read e-books or other literary material on a computer or e-reading device?

JS: I read on the computer occasionally. I don’t have a Kindle or ipad.

TM: What, if anything, do you feel hopeful or excited about in contemporary literature?

JS: The energy in it. The virtuosity and daring.

TM: What do you feel troubled by?

JS: The threat of great crowds.

TM: Given your history in the movie business, and your once-strong sense that movies “are unquestionably the enemy of writing, and this is something that is unresolvable” — what has it been like for you to be the subject of multimedia projects – a feature-length film, videos, etc?

JS: I am retracting all bitter statements about film.

TM: What can you tell us about your new novel?

JS: All That Is, Knopf, pub. April 2, 2013. An intimate story about a life in New York publishing.

TM: Ten years or so in the making?

JS: About ten.

The Great Gatsby Revisited

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I admire people who reread books over and over again.   Some writers I know reread certain books annually; it works something like a “checkup,” a scheduled nourishing of that ineffable, particularized magic that is creative inspiration.  In his “Year in Reading” post, David Shields wrote that he rereads certain books “seemingly monthly.”  I recall from somewhere that Mary Gordon reads/rereads Proust every morning, like a devotional. For me, the habit of rereading has been mostly elusive (so-many-books-so-little-time, blah blah blah); with the exception of books and stories that I use for teaching.

The necessity of rereading is in fact one of my personal favorite things about teaching. This summer I’ve reread a number of books that will be appearing on my fall syllabus; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of them.

(A confession: there is a little bit of “acting as if” in teaching. For some time I’ve been preaching “close reading” and “reading with a pencil” and “read at least twice” to students.   I’ve started off semesters with Francine Prose’s “Close Reading” chapter from Reading Like a Writer.  And it’s not that I haven’t truly ascribed to these mantras or practiced them, but with Gatsby I’ve turned a corner;  there’s knowing something, and then there’s knowing something. It’s like I’m a born-again rereader, experiencing anew how a first read can be as different from a second read or a third read as reading two completely different works.  And yes: with great literature, the experience is deeper and richer with each successive reading.

Of course, the works stays the same; it’s we who change.)

What could I possibly say about The Great Gatsby that has not already been said by Fitzgerald acolytes and Gatsby-ologists through the ages?  I read it once in high school, and then again in college.  This third read marks the first time I’ve read it since I’ve been writing my own fiction in earnest.  I suppose what struck me most is how The Great Gatsby as a “literary treasure,” as something we refer to as a classic, is so much less than what the novel actually is – which is something both gorgeously and impeccably wrought.

A Shortlist of What Surprised Me Upon My Third Reading of The Great Gatsby

1. The Great Gatsby is not a story about the elite Northeast.  Well, it is to some degree.  But really, it’s a story about everything and everyone else.  “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all,” muses the narrator Nick Carraway at the end.
Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, we were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old – even then it had always for me a quality of distortion… I see it as a night scene by El Greco.
In other words, The Great Gatsby might indeed be peopled by the outlandishly wealthy, by mansion-dwelling, tennis-playing, alcoholic yacht-owners; and yet it’s not ultimately a story about them, it is in fact a story about us. (And it’s sobering to recognize how in the past I have sometimes read as if half-asleep: my first Gatsby read was two years into high school, an elite New England prep school where I’d landed as a semi-conscious 13 year-old, an “unadaptable” outsider in every way, from suburban Maryland.  Not “the West,” but bored and sprawling indeed.  None of this resonated at the time.)

2. Sentences, sentences, sentences.  We hear much about Fitzgerald ushering in “The Jazz Age,” and about the misfortunes of his personal life.  But what about his luminous sentences?  Writers know that an admirable career goal is to write a handful of truly beautiful sentences in one’s lifetime.  Hunter S. Thompson was dead-on in making a writing exercise of retyping the entirety of Gatsby.   My pencil moved almost as furiously as my eyes while I read:
Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.

Two o’clock and the whole corner of the peninsula was blazing with light, which fell unreal on the shrubbery and made thin elongating glints upon the roadside wires.

He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.

All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home through the rain from New York.  It was the hour of a profound human change.

No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.

She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented “place” that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village – appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short-cut from nothing to nothing.

But there was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age.
Describing why a sentence is beautiful is a little like trying to describe what chocolate tastes like.  For me, Fitzgerald’s sentences are somehow both profoundly weighted and soaring, confident in their matter-of-factness and indulgent in their romanticism.  How?  How?

3. Daisy’s voice and “the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.” Do you remember these descriptions? (Perhaps your stellar high school English teacher made a point of highlighting these image-motifs for your consideration.)  Daisy’s voice is her most distinguishing feature in every scene in which she appears, and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg is the faded image on the billboard that looms over George Wilson’s garage.  Both haunt me, they vibrate in my mind and ear well after reading; I hear Daisy and see those gigantic eyes much more vividly than I recall Gatsby himself.   With these iterative descriptions, Fitzgerald impresses upon us the complex quality of Gatsby’s allure/repulsion to Daisy…
It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again […] there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour […]

“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked.  “It’s full of –“ I hesitated.

“Her voice is full of money,” he [Gatsby] said suddenly.
…and disturbs the reader with a sense of formless moral scrutiny, particularly as the story builds toward crisis:
The eyes of Doctor T.H Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high.  They look out of no face, but, instead from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose.  Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away […]

Over the ashheaps the giant eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg kept their vigil, but I perceived, after a moment, that the other eyes [Myrtle Wilson’s] were regarding us with peculiar intensity from less than twenty feet away.
4.  The novel is recognizable in form and craft, and yet still singularly affecting. Gatsby is both skillfully, and conventionally, plotted.  The yellow car/mistaken identify device, upon which the story’s climax and resolution hinge, feels almost Hitchcockian in its nod to the murder-mystery mixup.  Who’s driving which car and why convincingly fuels (literally) Gatsby’s inevitable demise, Tom and Daisy’s flight, and Nick’s final revulsion towards the excesses of Eastern privilege. Fitzgerald also makes deft use of setting descriptions to evoke complex emotions, imminent conflict, and juxtapositions throughout; and his physical descriptions of characters are concrete and evocative, frequently making excellent use of similes and metaphors.  In other words, it’s no wonder the book is on class reading lists; it conforms to/exemplifies so many of our writing-craft tricks of the trade.

At the same time, Fitzgerald’s social intelligence, flawlessly on display in Gatsby, is unmatched.  Maybe because social class is both much more fluid today, and more effaced, Fitzgerald’s needle-threading of the superfine points of class difference, always with the exact right detail, struck me this time around:
I couldn’t have talked to [Jordan] across a tea-table that day if I never talked to her again in this world.
In Gatsby, Fitzgerald also gets the essential doubleness of human nature so terribly, perfectly right.   Every character is pulled in (at least) two directions; love and hate, admiration and disdain, are of a piece in almost every relationship.  And the reader ultimately feels an unresolved, and yet somehow perfectly coherent dividedness about each character.

5. Redford was a terrible casting choice for Gatsby in the 1974 film version. Redford is good at iron-clad, outwardly confident sons-of-bitches whose insecurities manifest in nastiness.   David Chappellet in Downhill Racer, Hubbell Gardner in The Way We Were, Denys in Out of Africa, John Gage in Indecent Proposal.  But Gatsby is an uncertain shell of a character, as porous as he is determined:
…he stretched out his arm toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling […]

An hour later the front door opened nervously, and Gatsby, in a white flannel suit, silver shirt, and gold-colored tie, hurried in.  He was pale, and there were dark signs of sleeplessness beneath his eyes.
In a current-day production, I’d think more along the lines of the nervous energy of, say, Matt Damon; or perhaps this was the role that, tragically, we never got to see Heath Ledger play.
Books we deem “classics” can get crusty in our collective minds.  We box them in, we confuse our direct experience of the book with someone else’s (a reviewer’s, a casting director’s, a teacher’s), we remember them as “this” or “that,” when in fact they are all of it and more.  Pull one off your shelf if you can spare the reading time; you’ll be amazed.

Surprise Me!