James Salter’s style: a neglected master of the American novel

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James Salter’s style: a neglected master of the American novel

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James Salter was frequently praised for his elegant style.  Michael Dirda said “he can break your heart with a sentence.”  Richard Ford spoke for many admirers when he proclaimed, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.  Sentence for sentence Salter is the master.”  He achieves his intriguing effects by distilling and refining two different styles: the lush romanticism of Scott Fitzgerald and the stoic realism of Ernest Hemingway.

Fitzgerald described the sophisticated but destructive social life of the upper class on the French Riviera and Long Island, where “people played polo and were rich together.”  But they also “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.”  In a terse, precise, austere prose, Hemingway portrayed the violent initiations and ordeals of big-game hunting, bullfighting and war.  Salter had so thoroughly absorbed their work that his echoes came spontaneously and naturally.  He imaginatively transformed the essence of two great American novelists into his own pure, exquisite, lyrical-masculine style.

Like Ford Madox Ford, Salter was “mad about writing”.  The French naturalist George Buffon had observed, “Style is the man himself.” Salter emphatically agreed: “Style is the entire writer.”  He also admired the lucid prose of A. J. Liebling, and described his own style as well as Liebling’s in his introduction to the 1986 reprint of Between Meals: “It was a very idiosyncratic style, one of precision, ease and richness of detail. . . . It stimulates the senses, assists in clarity of view, and provides a feeling of approval towards life.”

Salter’s innovative style is succinct and compressed, elliptical and elusive, with short sentences and fragmentary phrases, sudden switches in point of view, subtle glides between the past and present.  His letters can be witty about building a cabin: “[My daughter] is helping me in a sort of sunbathing way”; offer a disconcerting simile about a woman who lacks savoir faire: “[She has] a beautiful ass, but it’s like a beautiful car the owner doesn’t know how to drive”; be aphoristic about Robert Redford: “Like all great rulers, he sleeps badly”; and evoke watery moods: “That hour when, by the sea, the sun seems to burn without heat, the wind rises, and the noise too.”  Salter has been called “a writer’s writer,” but not a popular one.  He dismissed this double-edged compliment and told an interviewer: “I’ve complained about that enough and let it go.  But it implies writing too good for your own good.”

Salter remarked, “I want to learn new words: that is one of the most thrilling things on earth.”  For him, as for the Roman poet Plautus, nomen est numen: the name defines the essential spirit of what it signifies.  Some vowel-filled names cast spells for him: Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish runner (and name of Salter’s dog); Jean Genet, the French writer; Lamont Pry, the American artist; Adrian Arcaud, a small-time fascist; Zane Amell, an Air Force pilot who drank ten martinis in ten minutes.  The unusual names of Salter’s first three children have strange associations.  His oldest daughter, Allan Conrad, recalled Air Force friends; his second daughter, Nina Tobe, echoed Toby Jug and Tobe Harper, a horror-film director; his third daughter, Claude Cray, suggests crayfish and the Kray twins, notorious British gangsters.  He even liked the two middle “u’s” in the French town of Autun (but not, presumably, the same placement of vowels in Duluth).

Salter was also influenced by Lawrence Durrell, who set his characters in Egypt and gave them exotic names: Nessim, an Arabic flower; Justine from De Sade; Balthazar and Mountolive from the Bible.  Salter recalled in 1995, “it’s been a long time since The Alexandria Quartet [1957-60].  I remember being knocked out by it, its sophistication, the intensity of that physical world and not only physical, the feeling of a knowledge of living.”  Salter also indulged in rather obscure and pretentious story and chapter titles: “My Lord You” from an old Chinese poem in Last Night (2005); “Pronaos,” the vestibule in a classical temple, and “Ukiyo,” the floating world of Japanese art, in his autobiography Burning the Days (1997).  Edgar Allan Poe—the only other major writer who went to West Point (though he was expelled)—declared in his story “Ligeia”: “There is no exquisite beauty . . . without some strangeness in the proportion.”  Salter, who loved strangeness, agreed: “There is no real beauty without some slight imperfection.”



Salter and his style-master Fitzgerald had some personal traits in common.  They were commissioned at the end of the First, and the Second, World Wars, but were not sent overseas in time to see action in Europe.  Salter lived modestly but, like Fitzgerald, had a weakness for the wealth and luxury he’d tasted while working in Hollywood, and was pleased to associate with rich people.  The Malibu beach house of Robert Redford, who’d starred in the film version of Fitzgerald’s novel, was (Salter said) “redolent of ’20s life with Gatsby.”  Fitzgerald portrayed glamour and romance, beautiful girls, dreams squandered and doomed lovers.  Salter wrote to me on April 24, 2007, “I used to be drawn to failures, romantic figures.”

Scott Fitzgerald (Shutterstock)

Henry James’ story “The Middle Years” (1893) first expressed one of Fitzgerald’s crucial ideas: “A second chance—that’s the delusion.  There never was to be but one.”  Thinking of his alcoholic failures at the end of his career, Fitzgerald declared in The Crack-Up: “There were no second acts in American lives.”  But Salter, a great performer, opposed this idea.  He had a second act after his plane crash in Massachusetts and a third act in Hollywood.

Salter read Fitzgerald’s stories and novels early on, The Crack-Up when it appeared posthumously in 1945, and was inspired by Fitzgerald’s magical glorification of New York.  In The Great Gatsby (1925) Nick Carraway, driving from Long Island into Manhattan, has great expectations: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”  Salter began his prose poem Still Such (1992) with visual images: “Down Fifth Avenue with the tail-lights, dark, the wet streets gleaming. . . . Dawn near, the whole city for your happiness.”  In his last novel All That Is (2013), New York, wealthy and shining, promises beauty and sex: “the brilliant theater of the great store windows, mansions of plenty, the prosperous-looking people. . . . The city was brilliant and vast.  The shops were lit along the avenues as they passed.  In the room he took her in his arms.  He whispered to her and kissed her.”

In a joyous and colourful, bitter and tearful passage in The Crack-Up, Fitzgerald wrote: “I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.”  In his story “Bangkok,” Salter expresses a similar exaltation—before the inevitably shattered illusions: “That morning on Hudson Street, sitting there in the sunlight, feet up, fulfilled and knowing it, talking, in love with one another—I knew I had everything life would ever offer.”  In a travel essay in There & Then (2005), Paris has the same seductive thrills.  As in Gatsby, the car is a vehicle for sex as both automobile and bountiful girls have their “top down”: “driving through the streets with six girls and the top down, a couple of them sitting on it, or beside us, a couple on our laps.”

The last page of Gatsby describes the fading light and flowing water around Long Island, where Salter lived for the last thirty-five years of his life:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound.  And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.

The first, striking paragraph of Light Years (1975) describes the scene in the same lyrical prose, and with the poetic alliteration of water, wind, wide, wheel; broken, brackish, blue, beneath, blurring, birds; disappear, dash and dream.  On the Hudson River, site of West Point and the villages where Salter lived for decades before moving to Long Island, the wind and birds replace Fitzgerald’s ferry and moon, the season is late autumn, and both writers evoke a vivid memory of the past:

The water lies broken, cracked from the wind.  This great estuary is wide, endless.  The river is brackish, blue with the cold.  It passes beneath us blurring.  The sea birds hang above it, they wheel, disappear.  We dash the wide river, a dream of the past.

Salter also absorbed Fitzgerald’s social themes, his nostalgia and lyrical regret.

There was always the threat of boredom, of disenchantment.  In Gatsby, the heroine who has everything, including two men in love with her, asks: “ ‘What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon?’ cried Daisy, ‘and the day after that, and the next thirty years?’ ”  In A Sport and a Pastime (1967), Phillip Dean, on the beach in Brittany, fears endless ennui: “Years of marriage.  After breakfast it is quite a long time until lunch, and after lunch, the whole afternoon.”

While still a teenaged cadet at West Point, Salter was attracted to Fitzgerald and published in the college magazine (October 1944) a story that evoked the title of Fitzgerald’s novel: “Empty is the Night.”  Salter recreated Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the enchanting but tragic marriage of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night (1934), in the elegant but doomed marriage of Viri and Nedra Berland in Light Years.



Hemingway glorified Paris in the same way that Fitzgerald glorified New York, and both taught him how to live as well as how to write.  Salter’s infatuation with Paris began as early as 1939, when he was fourteen and saw the World’s Fair in New York: “Everything French was very stylish, very glamorous.  That was the Paris of that time.  Also, Hemingway.  But it wasn’t about his books.  It was about stories about him.  The Sun Also Rises.  I wanted to go there.  I wanted to live that kind of life.”  In his letters and travel essays Salter often expresses his longing for Hemingway’s Paris, his recherche du temps perdu: “How I would have liked to have lived in France in the 20s and 30s.  That was my true period and place.”  Alcoholic pleasures inevitably recalled his hero: “icy gin in the late afternoon is as beautiful to me as Hemingway’s days in Paris.”

Ernest Hemingway (Shutterstock)

Referring to the café and restaurant, enclosed by lilacs and with a “Hemingway Bar,” and to the title of one of Hemingway’s best stories, he wrote in There & Then: “There is a Paris of Hemingway, its resonance still strong, the light at the Closerie des Lilas, rooms at the American Hospital dedicated to women named Macomber.”  Salter was stationed in Chaumont, in Lorraine, when recalled to active duty in 1961; and lived with his family in Grasse, in Provence, in from 1967 to 1969.  His infatuation with France and Frenchness was more a nostalgic evocation of Hemingway’s idealisation of Paris in the 1920s than his own encounter with the unromantic modern city.

When explaining how Hemingway described sex, Salter used the Master’s repetition and alliteration to define what he himself aimed for in A Sport and a Pastime: “Hemingway wrote a startlingly sensual English, very male and very sensual, alive to the senses, and sex, sensationally alive, both in the flesh and/or in the mind.”  In the Washington Post (June 1, 1986) he praised the style, speech and vivid descriptions of Hemingway’s posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden, which had been patched together by an editor: “What is marvellous about the book is the dialogue and pace—the hard, oblique, unreal lines that Hemingway’s people often speak. . . . What he does offer and abundantly is an almost physical excitement and pleasure.  His lines, unspoiled by ornament, are beautiful to see and hear, and the Europe and Africa that he discovered and brought to us are still remarkably fresh.  Europe in particular remains his Europe, the Paris and Spain, the towers of northern Italy, the rivers, forests, waiters and hotels.”  Hemingway clearly inspired Salter, who said, “there are very few people who make you feel like writing and make you envy the writer as much as he does.”

In his late novel Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), Hemingway described the Italian author and warrior Gabriele D’Annunzio—the subject of Salter’s essay in Don’t Save Anything (2017)—as “writer, poet, national hero . . . macabre egotist, aviator, commander, or rider, in the first of the fast torpedo attack boats . . . the great, lovely writer of Notturno whom we respect, and jerk.”  In a letter to me of September 11, 2011, Salter acknowledged his envy, and described Hemingway with the same mixture of negative and mostly positive qualities: “I had an aversion to Hemingway, probably some writer’s envy and life envy, but I don’t like big, bigger than life, dominating, hunter-fisher, greatly talented, full of themselves, charming, hugely admired men.”

Salter’s review of Paul Hendrickson’s derivative, repetitive and mediocre Hemingway’s Boat (NYRB, October 13, 2011) was over-generous: “It is a book written with the virtuosity of a novelist, hagiographic in the right way, sympathetic, assiduous and imaginative.”  Despite Salter’s lifelong absorption in Hemingway, he repeated many errors from Hendrickson’s book.  Hemingway had been to five (not three) wars.  He hunted in East (not West) Africa.  His style was not influenced—as the old chestnut has it—by Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, but by Leo Tolstoy, Rudyard Kipling, T. E. Lawrence and Stephen Crane.  Salter says “none of his novels is set” in America, though To Have and Have Not is set in the Florida Keys.  He calls the inferior novella, The Old Man and the Sea, one of his most “enduring works”.

But Salter does pay tribute to Hemingway’s style: “He pared things down.  He left out all that could be readily understood or taken for granted and the rest he delivered with savage exactness.”  Salter’s description of Hemingway’s deep-sea fishing recalls his own experience as a wartime fighter pilot when he struck down enemy planes and heard their screaming engines crash.  The battles were “long, were savage, almost prehistoric, with the heart-stopping thrill of the strike and the line screaming from the big reel.”  He calls Hemingway’s suicide “not a failure of courage but a last display of it”.  Later on, Salter condemned Papa Hemingway, by the loathsome parasite A. E. Hotchner, as “the most odious, self-serving book ever”.

Salter wrote an incisive essay on the Russian Isaac Babel, one of his favourite writers.  In his Paris Review interview (Summer 1993), he said: “Babel has the three essentials of greatness: style, structure and authority.  There are other writers who have that—Hemingway, in fact, had those three things.”  Babel and Hemingway both had an obsessive concern with compression and explosion, ferocious control and eagerness to twist language in order to gain nervous immediacy.  Their tales of cruelty are defined by concision, intensity, violence and resolution.  Both writers note the weather and describe the natural landscape–the rivers and the stars.  They employ effective repetition; emphasise lingering pain, gratuitous cruelty and morbid details; adopt an ironic viewpoint, stoical attitude and poetic rhythm; and exalt personal courage.  Salter quotes Babel’s famous remark, “No steel could pierce the human heart as deeply as a period in exactly the right place,” to emphasise the importance of the perfectly placed and punctuated sentence.

Hemingway and Salter had similar descriptions of the seasons, snow and skiing.  The inscription on the statue of Hemingway next to his house in Ketchum, Idaho, alludes to the hunting season: “Most of all he loved the fall.”  In a letter Salter wrote, “I love the fall.  It’s the time of year I have well-being, hope.”  When living in Paris in the 1920s, Hemingway often spent the winters in Alpine ski resorts.  In “Christmas at the Top of the World,” a dispatch for the Toronto Star (December 22, 1923), he portrayed the excitement of high-altitude skiing in Switzerland: “At the top we could look out over the whole world, white, glistening in the powder snow, and ranges of mountains stretching off in every direction.”  (This sentence foreshadows his superb description of the snow-covered mountain in Tanganyika: “As wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro.”)  “Then in one long, dropping, swooping, heart-plucking rush, we were off.  A seven-mile run down and no sensation in the world that can compare with it.”

Salter has a similar passage about the winter landscape in All That Is: “It had snowed before Christmas but then turned cold.  The sky was pale.  The country lay silent, the fields dusted white with the hard furrows showing where they had been plowed.  All was still.  The foxes were in their dens, the deer bedded down.”  Salter’s exact description suggests maximum meaning.  Christmas was cold, pale, white, still, and silent as the snow absorbed the sound.  The foxes and deer were hidden and safe until the next hunting season.

Salter’s best screenplay, Downhill Racer (1969), dramatised skiing.  The critic John Simon, who went to Horace Mann prep school with Salter, said the skiers in his novel Solo Faces (1979) “spoke in a kind of Hemingway of the slopes.”  In a striking passage in “The Skiing Life,” Salter wrote, “a train went past us in the dusk with lighted windows, the swift, slender cars.  In town the streets were snow covered and there were barns mixed in with the houses and hotels.”  The dusk contrasts with the light in the windows, the narrow railroad cars thin out as they speed by and the mountain towns have been transformed into ski resorts.

In another  essay, “Classic Tyrol,” Salter pays vivid tribute to the Master who inspired him: “Very few writers can appeal to the senses so, and of course Hemingway is one of them.  It was he who introduced me, I think, to the idea of long, secluded winters and the mountain villages in which, during the 1920s, he spent them. . . . [He would] go to a place where the rain would become snow, coming down through the pines and creaking beneath their feet as they walked home at night in the cold. . . . He worked on The Sun Also Rises in Schruns [Austria].  He made me like skiing although I never dreamed I would ski.”  Salter spent his winters skiing, like Hemingway, after he bought a house in the Rocky Mountain town of Aspen, Colorado, in 1969.

Hemingway’s powerful stylistic and thematic influence shows up in specific scenes.  The Sun Also Rises ends with poignant irony as the alcoholic, promiscuous Brett Ashley alludes to the war that has destroyed her lovers, and the stoical Jake Barnes says it’s foolish to think they could have been happy: “ ‘Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, ‘we could have had such a damned good time.’ ”  “Yes.  Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  In the last line of All That Is, the hero Philip Bowman suggests, more positively, an out-of-season trip to Venice: “Yes.  Let’s go in November.  We’ll have a great time.”  In Light Years, when Viri Berland says, “greatness, like virtue, need not be spoken about in order to exist,” his friend Reinhart replies, like Jake, “It would be nice to believe.”

In Death in the Afternoon (1932), Hemingway explained how an author can be more effective by leaving out details: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader . . . will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.  The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”  Salter specifically refers to Hemingway’s theory in his story “Cinema” when the tip of the iceberg represents the fear beneath it: “Only occasionally, like the head of an iceberg ominously rising from nowhere and then dropping from sight, did the terror come into view.”

Interchapter XIV in In Our Time (1924) describes the bullfighter’s fade-out perception of his own impending death: “Maera felt everything getting larger and larger and then smaller and smaller. . . . Then he was dead.”  In “Cinema” again, the ecstatic author, his talent finally recognised, fades into sleep and out of the story: “he lay there becoming small, smaller, vanishing.”  Salter recreates the death of the matador in the lost consciousness of sleep.

The unhappy wife in Hemingway’s “Cat in the Rain” childishly repeats “I want” six times when demanding trivial possessions and an impossible change of seasons: “And I want to eat at a table with my own silver and I want candles.  And I want it to be spring and I want to brush my hair out in front of a mirror and I want a kitty and I want some new clothes.”  In Light Years, the arty Nedra Berland also insists and repeats: “I want to go to Europe.  I want to go on a tour.  I want to see Wren’s cathedrals, the great buildings, the squares.  I want to see France.”

In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” set in Spain, the young man tries to persuade his girlfriend to have an abortion, never mentioned but made clear in the context.  Alienated from her, he’s too literal-minded to understand her fears or share her imaginative world view:

The girl was looking off at the line of hills.  They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

“They look like white elephants,” she said.

“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.

“No, you wouldn’t have.”

Salter uses the same laconic dialogue in “Comet” when Philip points out the rare comet and Adele cannot see it:

–The comet, he said. . . .

–I don’t see any comet, she said.

–You don’t?

–Where is it?

–It’s right up there, he gestured,

and reveals the emotional and perceptive distance between them.

Hemingway’s novels made an equally strong impact on Salter.  The first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms (1929) vividly evokes the Italian setting: “In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.”  Salter’s description of Yosemite also includes the flowing river, translucent water and clear pebbles: “In the late afternoon the trees seemed rich and green, the Merced River clear enough to see every pebble in its bed.”

In Robert Jordan’s sexual encounter with Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), Hemingway employs bold repetition and compound present participles to convey the movement and feelings of the lovers: “closely holding, closely held, lonely, hollow-making with contours, happy-making, young and loving . . . with a hollowing, chest-aching, tight-held loneliness.”  Salter also uses kinetic present participles in All That Is to describe Bowman having sex with a German woman: “This time he went in easily.  The morning with its stillness.  He stayed unmoving, waiting, imagining unhurriedly everything that was to follow.  He was making it known to her.”

Salter’s short-lived play Death Star (only two performances in 1970), like Hemingway’s  Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), “dealt with the dying days of a great military commander, a repentant one.”  Hemingway wrote that his hero Richard Cantwell “only loved people, he thought, who had fought and been mutilated.”  Salter similarly said, “I want to write about people who cannot modify themselves to reality” and have been hurt.

Like Cantwell with the young Renata in Across the River, Bowman spends a lot of time instructing his women.  He gives his girl a tutorial in Hemingway’s “The Killers,” which inspired decades of gangster movies and, imitating the style of the story, locates it in New Jersey:

It’s in the evening.  Nobody’s in the place, there are no customers, it’s empty, and two men in tight black overcoats come in and sit down at the counter.  They look at the menu and order, and one of them says to the counterman, This is some town, what’s the name of this place?  And the counterman, who’s frightened of course, says, Summit.  It’s right there in the story, Summit, and when the food comes they eat with their gloves on.  They’re there to kill a Swede, they tell the counterman.  They know the Swede always comes there.  He’s an ex-fighter named Ole Andreson who doubled-crossed the mob somehow.  One of them takes a sawed-off shotgun from beneath his coat and goes into the kitchen to hide and wait.

Andreson, who’s failed to throw a fight for the gamblers, passively awaits his execution.

Bowman then continues his enthusiastic lecture: “It’s marvellous.  Fabulously written.  If you never read another word of his, you’d know right away what a great writer he is. . . . I’d like to meet Hemingway.  Go down to Cuba and meet him.”  Later on, Bowman corrects himself: “It was not even the diner that Hemingway wrote about, he now knew.  That was another place called Summit, near Chicago.”

Salter had Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and their great themes of loss in love and war, in his literary bloodstream.  His magical absorption and stylistic variations of these authors both stimulated and nourished his style.  As T. S. Eliot observed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” we “often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of [an author’s] work may be those in which his ancestors assert their immortality most vigorously.”

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has published biographies of Fitzgerald and Hemingway.  He is now writing a literary study of his friend James Salter.


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