Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, August 10, 2013

James Salter, _All That Is_

IT MUST HAVE been decades ago that I first heard or read about how great a writer James Salter is--long enough ago, at any rate, that it became downright embarrassing that I had not gotten around to reading him. Well, he has a new novel out this year, so the time has come.

And a great writer he is.

I often tell my students that that they cannot expect to get much done with adjectives--but then look what Salter can get done with them:

In the morning there was England, green and unknown beneath broken clouds. [...] They turned onto a wide avenue, The Mall, with the dense green of a park alongside and black iron fence peeling past. At its end, far off, was a great pale arch.

Each adjective--green, unknown, broken, wide, dense, black, iron, great, pale--feels indispensable. But besides conjuring a visual backdrop, Salter seems to have folded in the perspective of someone new to the place.  And then we have the musical effects, "peeling past," park/far/arch.

Not only is there the cool grace of the prose, but Salter also begins, develops, and ends his scenes with the unfussy aplomb of a master. I was struck by this, which opens the chapter after a chapter in which the protagonist, Philip Bowman, buys a house:

The year he had the house, the spring of that year and the summer were the happiest time of his life although some of the earlier times he had forgotten.

Roth is the master of the little proleptic bombshell, the quick allusion to a catastrophe ahead in the next turn of the narrative, but I don't know if even Roth could better "the year he had the house" as a signal that circumstances are about to sucker-punch our protagonist.

Just as cool, just as apparently effortless, are Salter's shifts from one character's perspective to another's, sometimes in the same scene, sometimes devastatingly, as in the chapter "Forgiveness."

Finally, there is a feeling of lightly carried wisdom, the the novelist has seen a lot, done a lot, thought a lot--even with the greatest contemporary novelists, I rarely feel this. Shirley Hazzard is the other living novelist who gives me that feeling, perhaps the only other one. Salter contemplates his characters with that same unruffled equanimity, that same stoic acceptance that yes, like it or not, this is what people do.

The novel follows Bowman from his service in the Navy, in the Pacific, during World War II, to about the time he turns sixty.  After the war, he becomes a book editor at a small but prestigious publisher, but we learn much less about his career than we do about his relationships with women--Vivian, whom he marries but soon divorces, the Englishwoman Enid, Christine, who winds up getting the house he bought, Anet, who is Christine's daughter--revenge? probably--and finally Ann, who works at the same publishing house. Philip and Ann are contemplating a trip to Venice when the book ends--Bowman reminds me not at all of Gustav von Aschenbach, but I did get a feeling this would be his last trip.

There is something "goodbye to all that" in All That Is. In 1944, when Bowman begins his adult life, men are securely in charge of the world, martial valor is the unmistakable sign of manhood, and the novel is the pre-eminent cultural form. By the time the novel ends, though, Bowman has noticed that "the power of the novel in the nation's culture had weakened" and that women like Susan Sontag our now calling the tune, with such pronouncements as "film is the supreme art of the century," that military service has become something only boys who cannot afford college undertake...in short, all has changed.

In this respect--an unlikely comparison, I admit--All That Is puts me in mind of Abdelrahman Munif's Cities of Salt (a great book, if you have not read it), the most powerful illustration I have yet read of the truth that historical change is mainly imperceptible while it is occurring, yet tectonically profound over a lifetime.

While it is true that the novel is not the cultural cynosure it was at the end of World War II, I have to say that the scenes of All That Is that are set in the 50s and 60s make Mad Men look silly and shallow. There are still a few things at which the novel is hard to surpass, given the right novelist, and evoking the texture of the daily life of an antecedent era may be one of them.

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