Years ago, a friend and I used to joke about founding a new writing movement—we’d call it the Sensualist School. Our work would be devoted to the sensual experience and the ways in which close attention to the physical world might save our subjects from all variety of sorrow and disaster. It would be a response to what we saw as a glut of ironic, glib and self-referential writers who seemed happily disconnected from bodily experience, guided by the notion that thought, not feeling, was the way into art and the way into living.
James Salter might have been our patron saint. By the time I discovered him, he had lived the way I wanted to live myself. Which is to say variously and with courage. He had been a fighter pilot and flew more than a hundred missions to Korea. And then, after 12 years in the Air Force and the publication of his first novel, he resigned and with that became a writer. He wrote with style and in spite of fear, and as I first began to write seriously, he was, as he remains, a hero to me. It was his novel A Sport and a Pastime that did it first, but I have learned from everything he’s written—novels and essays and short stories. Salter is a writer for whom engagement with the physical world provides relief from life’s inherent sadness, disappointment and terror. Sex and food, sunlight and sea are all powerful contrasts to isolation, loneliness and the rapid passage of time, which is nearly audible in his fiction. No matter the horrors his characters endure—the sudden or gradual losses, the betrayals, the violence—there are always moments of ecstatic physical engagement, when time and memory seem to vanish, when there is nothing but the immediate and sacred present. As Salter wrote to me, “These natural things don’t ever bring sadness. There may be some melancholy in rain. Snow can make you pensive. A big storm is one of the most thrilling things in life. Sex brings sadness, afterwards, a kind of desolation, but where is the remedy for sex? If I make any argument, which is anyhow only implicit, it is: Try to be a man.”
In James Salter I discovered not only an exquisite writer but a manner of living. I found solace in the same way I imagined his characters found solace: Pay close enough attention to silver light on the ocean, to making love, to food, and all the rest is worth the trouble. In fact, these things are all we have. These things, and perhaps writing itself, which should be the most sophisticated, most refined form of paying close attention. In his essay “Some for Glory, Some for Praise,” Salter writes, “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.” He uses the same lines for the epigraph to his new novel, All That Is (Knopf), the story of Philip Bowman, who as a young man returns from World War II to begin a career as a book editor in New York. It’s a masterpiece, and in it, over and over, he demonstrates the revelatory power of the physical experience, a counterpoint to pain. In one of the novel’s finest scenes, Bowman is having dinner with a woman at a seaside restaurant. On a whim he decides they should go for a swim together. The waves are too big, the night too dark, but they go anyway. They might have drowned, but they don’t, and afterward they return home “shaken but exultant.” Which, it seems to me, is how we should all like to feel at the end of a life. Near the conclusion of the novel, when Bowman is older, he swims alone. “Though he was tiring,” Salter writes, “he felt he could not swim enough, stay long enough, in this ocean, on this day.”
If we have lived with the grace and passion of James Salter, we are left looking out at the world—standing at a window, the way Bowman does, filled with “deep nostalgia,” watching the snow fall over a place we love. And here, looking back on a life nearly ended, we maintain the intense desire to continue living, to stay longer, to keep swimming, and if we are fortunate, we are shaken and we are exultant, and we have what is recorded in novels, in short stories, in essays. For otherwise, everything will have been a dream.
James Salter Reading List
A Sport and a Pastime (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): A love affair between a young French woman and a Yale dropout, narrated by a man who weaves observation and imaginings into a novel so sensual and vivid that it feels like a drug.
Light Years (Vintage): Yes, it’s another novel about an American marriage, but as Richard Ford points out in the introduction, “Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.”
Burning the Days (Vintage): Salter’s memoir is both a view into an extraordinary, novelistic existence and a kind of gloss to the rhythms of his fiction and the way that he brings people to life on the page.
Life is Meals (Knopf): Structured like a diary—one entry a day—the book is a history of James Salter and his wife Kay’s life in food: guest-list advice, poetic notes on eating and recipes (try Salter’s blini) from dinner parties that have inspired art.