Monday, June 22, 2015

James Salter, RIP

James Salter, novelist, is dead at ninety. The BBC report, which Reid sent, said that he "never converted critical acclaim into commercial success."

Really? He was a "writer's writer",  and a maker of perfect sentences and some small perfect books, as well as a big one-- in that sense, and because of the slightly icy perfection of his best work, he was never going to be a pop success-- but maybe he never wanted to be. Having your last big novel published by Knopf and selling respectably is hardly  a case of failure.

Nor should my phrase about small perfect books be construed as anything precious. He was also compared to Hemingway and that would be right if it were the correct concept of Hemingway-- the artist who on some level wanted to paint like Matisse. The "Beeb" said that he "became known for exploring masculine themes like conflict - provoking comparisons to Ernest Hemingway." But though both believed in precision in art, courage, and "grace under pressure",  Hemingway did not become a career Air Force officer, which Salter did, showing a serious commitment to something in addition to writing.

Salter also wrote the first-- some would say only-- great climbing novel,  Solo Faces, making him a cult figure to male climbers of our generation. The rest of his works other than Solo Faces and The Hunters were about men and women and eros and marriage, and he might have written on these themes, at least narrowly, better than any other male of his generation, the generation that thought there actually was a Great American Novel. None of the obvious contenders ever move me much.

He was also something of a self- creation, though he was open about it. Born Salzmann (not sure of the spelling) he made a conscious decision to change his name before he went into the service. He never apologized but never changed his name back, either.

He will be remembered for his earlier work: Solo Faces, A Sport and a Pastime, and Light Years (the one with the perfect sentences and an almost Japanese sense of sweet melancholy), and for his last,  All That Is (now THAT is an ambitious title!), which is probably the best novel about the post WWII New York writing and publishing world-- not a small thing in those years. But all of his writing is worth reading...

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