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Book review: James Salter's powerful and passionate writing

James Salter's new novel, which is notably freer and looser in plot structure than his previous work, focuses on a New York book editor's relationships with women over four decades.

The American writer and ex-fighter pilot James Salter at his home Bridgehampton, New York. Ed Betz / AP Photo
The American writer and ex-fighter pilot James Salter at his home Bridgehampton, New York. Ed Betz / AP Photo

All That Is
James Salter
Knopf

James Salter is the least known of the great American novelists of the last 50 years. Now 87, he has published novels and short story collections that have elicited intense admiration from critics and fellow novelists for the remarkable beauty of their language and the near-tragic power of their themes.

In his 20s, Salter was a fighter pilot in the Korean War and this experience has surely influenced his passionate, sensuous descriptions of the natural world and his characters' attempts to find meaning in their lives.

In Salter's short story My Lord, You, the narrator reflects on "how near men could be to disaster no matter how secure they seemed". This is an abiding subject in his work, even if it is not usually stated so explicitly. He is a great admirer of Ernest Hemingway, whose fiction is full of men of swaggering insecurity who are close to disaster but whose language, unlike Salter's, is both blunt and haltingly oblique.

Salter, who has written some of the most beautiful sentences in English-language fiction, is surely aware of the link between the daring ambition of his language and the possibility of its ending in lush, overstated failure. It is as if he never wishes his writing to be secure: if failure is always so near, then why not attempt to write prose of exploratory beauty rather than of safe declarative neatness?

At one point in Salter's new novel, Philip Bowman, a New York book editor, visits London in the course of his work. Like many a literary-minded American before him, he sees most clearly not the city itself but his own responses to it: "He felt in possession of the city, not the Victorian city with its dark wood interiors and milky marble halls, the tall red buses that lurched by, endless windows and doors, but another city, visible yet unimagined."

Bowman, like Salter's earlier protagonists, is keen to assert his independence and difference from the world, but he is not wholly taken up with his own personal mythology: the city he sees is still "visible". This marks a notable departure from Salter's earlier novels. In those works, the protagonists are driven by the extreme personal circumstances of their professions and temperaments. Bowman is less ambitious and self-centred, and more receptive, generous and reflective than these characters. Salter's language in this novel is also less ambitious and reaching than in previous works. It is unusually digressive and resistant to intensive metaphorical boldness; it is often quizzical rather than questing.

The plot structure of All That Is is also notably freer and looser than his previous novels. The narrative concentrates on Bowman's relationships with women over the course of four decades, but drifts boldly into set pieces of descriptions of Bowman's colleagues, friends and family. There is a kind of generous desultoriness to this method of narration that only rarely leaves the reader feeling frustrated by the lack of narrative dynamism. Some of Salter's admirers may be disappointed by the relatively spare nature of the prose in this novel, though this has been a growing characteristic in his work, notably in his later short stories. Nevertheless, Salter's descriptions of aerial warfare in his early novel The Hunters are felt strongly in the magnificent opening pages of All That Is, where Bowman's experiences as a naval officer in the Pacific during the Second World War culminate in an extraordinarily vivid description of a Japanese naval disaster, where "some of the crew that had not been pulled down by the suction were still swimming. They were black with oil and choking in the waves. A few were singing songs."

This wartime theme makes one think again of Hemingway, to whom Salter has recently declared his debt in an essay for The New York Review of Books. But in spite of their shared themes of war and masculinity, there is little that is similar between Salter's and Hemingway's use of language. Flaubert is, to my mind, a more significant influence. At one moment in Salter's novel Light Years, a character remarks that "the best education comes from knowing only one book." This is almost certainly an allusion to Flaubert, who wrote in a letter that it was better to read one book thoroughly than to read many fleetingly. Like Flaubert, Salter is a writer whose sentences seem isolated from each other in their searching beauty. The commanding repetitions and studied evasions of Hemingway's language are most effective when they take place over the course of a paragraph or page. There are few luminous Hemingway sentences; there are many memorable Hemingway paragraphs. Salter's sentences by contrast are remarkably self-contained; their delights are immediately felt, as when Bowman looks out over a New Jersey landscape from a train window: "He had a deep memory of these meadows, they seemed a part of his blood like the lone grey silhouette of the Empire State Building on the horizon, floating as in a dream. He knew the route, beginning with the desolate rivers and inlets dark with the years. Like some ancient industrial skeleton, the Pulaski Skyway rose in the distance and looped across the waters … Endless quiet streets of houses, asylums, schools, all of an emptiness, it seemed, intermixed with bland suburban happiness and wholesome names, Maplewood, Brick Church."

Nevertheless, these moments are less frequent in this novel than in his greatest work, Light Years, where the contrast between his reaching, rich, guileful language and the characters' movements towards disaster and sadness is most keenly sensed. This disjunction is felt less intensely in All That Is also because, as I have suggested, Bowman is a less extreme figure than Salter's earlier heroes. Many of those characters are possessed by obsessive personal ambitions whose objects and aims seem less important than the feeling for ambition itself. In The Hunters, the fighter pilot Cleve Connell is consumed by his desire to make his first kill; in Light Years, Viri Berland takes little pleasure in his outwardly happy family life because he is preoccupied by his unfulfilled ambition to become a famous architect. One might trace this theme back to Salter's own regret that he did not take part in the great achievements of the Nasa space programme of the 1960s (the astronauts of that time were former fighter pilots). One of the most striking moments in his extraordinarily candid and artfully structured memoir Burning the Days comes in a description of the bitterness he feels as he watches television footage of the first American walking in space. This seems to me a central scene in Salter's work, in which the arbitrariness and absurdity of ambition make its subject lose his sense of reality.

One of the achievements of All That Is is its wholly convincing depiction of Bowman's gradual perception and acceptance of the satisfaction that can be gained from seeing life as it is rather than as it might be. Although Bowman is the least ambitious of Salter's protagonists, he is initially a romantic who defines his life through his unrealistic pursuit of love: "He loved her for not only what she was but what she might be, the idea that she might be otherwise did not occur to him or did not matter. Why would it occur? When you love you see a future according to your dreams."

By the end of the novel, these illusions are lost; yet what is notable is Salter's ability to convey Bowman's final contentedness in language of quiet exuberance. Here, it is the difference from Flaubert rather than the similarities that strikes the reader. At the conclusion of Flaubert's novel Sentimental Education, Frederic Moreau recognises that his youthful romanticism and illusions have gone; Flaubert recounts the disillusionment with bleak, precise flatness.

The final pages of All That Is by contrast are exhilarating: in wonderful unfolding sentences, Bowman's happiness leads him to accept the past without at the same time causing him to cease speculating about the future. In Burning the Days, Salter acknowledged the destructive impulses behind much writing: "To write of someone thoroughly is to destroy them, use them up." This is true of the representation of many of Salter's and Flaubert's characters, but not of the depiction of Bowman. It is surely more difficult to write dramatically about alert contentedness than about suffering, but Salter manages it towards the end of the novel. It is for this achievement, too, that All That Is should be seen as a successful departure from Salter's previous work.

Matthew Peters is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.