The American writer James Salter, who died at the weekend aged 90, visited Britain in 2007 to celebrate the publication of his collection of stories “Last Night” and the reissue of his novels “The Hunters” and “Light Years”. I introduced and interviewed him at two events, and in those public conversations he came across as shrewd, ironic, sharp-witted. (In a New York Times review, Anatole Broyard ridiculed the names Salter gave characters in “Light Years”. Salter wrote back: “Come on. Anatole?”) Sometimes the wit was edged with disappointment—a sense, perhaps, that his reputation hadn’t burgeoned and travelled like those of some of his contemporaries. But when recalling encounters with great novelists of the past, he warmed and brightened. He relished the story of Nabokov arriving at a party at Cornell. “Did you come in your troika?” the host asked. “No,” Nabokov replied. “In my Buicka.” As so often in his books, Salter slid into memory as if returning to his native element.
He was born in 1925, grew up in New York, graduated from West Point in 1945 and served as a pilot in the United States Air Force for 12 years. In “Burning the Days” (1997), his extraordinary book of recollections, he takes us from West Point to flying school in Arkansas, sleeve “wind-maddened” as he held his arm out in the slipstream on his first solo flight. He remembers postings in Manila and the “vast, mild nights” of Honolulu, pineapple juice gushing from the lobby fountain at the Royal Hawaiian. We follow him to airfields across Germany, France and north Africa, and finally, part of a fighter squadron, to Korea in 1952, where Salter flew more than a hundred combat missions, engaging Soviet MIGs over the Yalu River, the planes like ships or fish in an ocean of air.
He writes of loops and rolls; shutting the engine off at altitude to practise air starts; shadowing another F-86 in a dive from 30,000 feet, airspeed on the red line; of flying “on the mach” (on the brink of the speed of sound) and the glory attached to being an Ace, the title awarded to any pilot who’d shot down five enemy planes. The list of fellow pilots killed or missing grows: Woods, Schrader, Macdonald, Dabney, Jim Smart—the streamers curling from his wingtips as he went into the sea. The danger is unmistakable; so is the exhilaration. “The sky is the godlike place,” Salter writes in his first novel, “The Hunters”, a note of awe to which he would return in “Burning the Days”: “From the deeps of the sky we look down as if upon our flocks.”
Salter wrote “The Hunters” while stationed in Korea. When the book was published in 1957 he resigned from the air force in order to write. “There was still part of me that existed when I was a schoolboy and had never really died,” he said. “It was in me like a pathogen—the idea of being a writer and from the great heap of days making something lasting.”
“The Arm of Flesh”, drawn, like “The Hunters”, from his experiences in the air force, appeared in 1961. But it was Salter’s third novel, “A Sport and a Pastime”, published in 1967, that minted his reputation. The narrator, an American photographer, borrows a house near Dijon. A younger man, Philip Dean, comes to stay with him and begins an affair with a local girl, Anne-Marie. The narrator describes their encounters with dreamlike intensity and detail. We eavesdrop on intimacies to which the narrator had no access: we’re not sure if these are his own experiences, or his fantasies, or if he’s dissolved into a third-person narrator who knows everything. In “Burning the Days”, Salter says that his ambition was to write something “licentious yet pure, an immaculate book filled with images of an unchaste world more desirable than our own.”
In “Light Years”, published in 1975, Salter introduced a married couple, Viri and Nedra, living with their two daughters in the Hudson Valley. Viri is an architect, Nedra a witty and beautiful almost-artist; their gilded days are sprinkled with the names of painters, ballets, authors and wines—Meursault, Moët, Margaux, Dole. “It was like a garment, this life. Its beauty was outside, its warmth within.” But time, unforgivingly, moves on. The idyll shows faultlines: infidelity, disease, age, loss, divorce. The two daughters, Franca and Danny, themselves enter the sexual fray, embark on careers and marriages. So in “Light Years” you feel a tension between the radiance of these moments—a breakfast of chocolate and oranges, sunlit Manet picnics on beaches and lawns, “the endless hours of consort” between man and wife—and their inevitable rush into the past. “Where does it go,” Nedra wonders, “where has it gone?”
Salter was already past 80 when “Last Night” appeared, each of its ten stories a burnished essay on qualities of air and light, the spell and complexity of sexual attraction, and above all what Salter called “the myriad past”. Was it greedy to want more? After one of our public conversations, I asked him casually if he was working on anything. Yes, he said, there was something. What did writers publish in their 80s? A slender, valedictory memoir, perhaps; a novella like William Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow” if we were lucky. But that “something” turned out to be “All That Is”, a 300-page novel published in 2013, when Salter was 87. The book was greeted as cause for celebration, and it won Salter not just prizes but thousands of new readers. For long-term admirers, this account of 40 years in the life of an editor named Philip Bowman—from battle in the Pacific at the end of the second world war (enemy fire at Tarawa as “dense as bees”) to New York and London publishing houses through the second half of the 20th century—was a rich, unexpected gift. Here it was again: the sensuous glide, the luminous past, the ardours and aftermaths of erotic love—“the furnace into which everything is dropped”.
To sound like no one else is among a true writer’s primary tasks, and Salter’s style, his voice, is entirely his own. He loved the cadences and sensations of language. He understood the “electric potential” in words; he recognised that “too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy.” Reading Salter it’s as if, like the narrator of “A Sport and a Pastime”, you’re eavesdropping on the conduct of a love affair—an affair between the writer and his language, or between the language and the world it describes. You read these books not just with your eyes but with your ears, and sometimes through the pores in your skin. He made something lasting from the great heap of days.