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Monday, February 28, 2011

James Salter




I've been a fan of the writer James Salter (see also here) since discovering his masterpiece A Sport and a Pastime. Salter evokes Americans in France as no one since Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. The title comes from the Koran: Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime ... :-)

I can't think of higher praise than to say I've read every bit of Salter's work I could get my hands on.

Today I came across this excellent interview he did with the Paris Review. See also this appearance on Charlie Rose, in which he reads movingly from his memoir Burning the Days.

INTERVIEWER

When A Sport and a Pastime came out you were hailed as “celebrating the rites of erotic innovation” and yet also criticized for portraying such “vigorous ‘love’ scenes.” What did you think of all that?

SALTER

The eroticism is the heart and substance of the book. That seems obvious. I meant it to be, to use a word of Lorca’s, “lubricious” but pure, to describe things that were unspeakable in one sense, but at the same time, irresistible. Having traveled, I also was aware that voyages are, in a large sense, a search for, a journey toward love. A voyage without that is rather sterile. Perhaps this is a masculine view, but I think not entirely. The idea is of a life that combines sex and architecture—I suppose that’s what the book is, but that doesn’t explain it. It’s more or less a guide to what life might be, an ideal.

INTERVIEWER

People seem to have different opinions of what the book is about.

SALTER

I listen occasionally to people explaining the book to me. Every few years there’s an inquiry from a producer who would like to make a movie of it. I’ve turned the offers down because it seems to me ridiculous to try and film it. To my mind the book is obvious. I don’t see the ambiguity, but there again, you don’t know precisely what you are writing. Besides, how can you explain your own work? It’s vanity. To me it seems you can understand the book, if there’s been any doubt, by reading the final paragraph:

As for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes now, or did. She is married. I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.

That paragraph, the final sentence, is written in irony, but perhaps not read that way. If you don’t see the irony, then the book is naturally going to have a different meaning for you.

INTERVIEWER

It has been said that Dean’s desire for Anne-Marie is also a desire for the “real” France. It’s a linked passion.

SALTER

France is beautiful, but his desire is definitely for the girl herself. Of course she is an embodiment. Even when you recognize what she is, she evokes things. But she would be desirable to him even if she didn’t.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a postmodern side to the book. The narrator indicates that he’s inventing Dean and Anne-Marie out of his own inadequacies.

SALTER

That’s just camouflage.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean?

SALTER

This book would have been difficult to write in the first person—that is to say if it were Dean’s voice. It would be quite interesting written from Anne-Marie’s voice, but I wouldn’t know how to attempt that. On the other hand, if it were in the third person, the historic third, so to speak, it would be a little disturbing because of the explicitness, the sexual descriptions. The question was how to paint this, more or less. I don’t recall how it came to me, but the idea of having a third person describe it, somebody who is really not an important part of the book but merely serving as an intermediary between the book and the reader, was perhaps the thing that was going to make it possible; and consequently, I did that. I don’t know who this narrator is. You could say it’s me; well, possibly. But truly, there is no such person. He’s a device. He’s like the figure in black that moves the furniture in a play, so to speak, essential, but not part of the action.

...


INTERVIEWER

What do you think Light Years is truly about?

SALTER

The book is the worn stones of conjugal life. All that is beautiful, all that is plain, everything that nourishes or causes to wither. It goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things glimpsed from the train—a meadow here, a stand of trees, houses with lit windows in the dusk, darkened towns, stations flashing by—everything that is not written down disappears except for certain imperishable moments, people and scenes. The animals die, the house is sold, the children are grown, even the couple itself has vanished, and yet there is this poem. It was criticized as elitist, but I’m not sure this is so. The two of them are really rather unexceptional. She was beautiful, but that passed; he was devoted, but not strong enough really to hold onto life. The title was originally “Nedra and Viri”—in my books, the woman is always the stronger. If you can believe this book, and it is true, there is a dense world built on matrimony, a life enclosed, as it says, in ancient walls. It is about the sweetness of those unending days.


...


INTERVIEWER

I’ve read that the notion behind Light Years came from a remark by Jean Renoir.

SALTER

“The only things that are important in life are the things you remember.” Yes, I like that idea. I came across it after I was working on the book. But no matter, it authenticated something I felt. I wanted to compose a book of those things that one remembers in life. That was the notion. I suppose that the plot of the book is the passage of time and what it does to people and things. Perfectly obvious again, but combining those two ideas gave me the feeling of what the book should be. That still doesn’t displease. I find it satisfying.


...


INTERVIEWER

At one point Viri says, “There are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you’re living and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, that other we long to see.”

SALTER

Isn’t this like that very small book that Poe said could never be written, “My Heart Laid Bare.” There is a socially acceptable, let us say, conventional life that we live and discuss and pretty much adhere to, and there is the other life, which is the life of thought, fantasy, and desire that is not openly discussed. I’m sure, the times being what they are, there are people who do talk about it and probably on television, but in general, in most lives, these two things are completely distinct. I am conscious of them and attempted to write a little about it.


...


INTERVIEWER

You’ve written that after you returned to domestic life you eventually stopped talking about your war days, but now you’re writing about them.

SALTER

There was no point in talking about war days. Who was there to talk to about them? Someone at a party telling you about being over Ploesti or what he did in Vietnam usually trivializes it. You have to have the right audience. Also, when you write about it you have the opportunity to arrange it exactly the way you would like, and one presumes that the reader is going to be enthralled.

INTERVIEWER

But why a memoir?

SALTER

To restore those years when one says, All this is mine—these cities, women, houses, days.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think is the ultimate impulse to write?

SALTER

To write? Because all this is going to vanish. The only thing left will be the prose and poems, the books, what is written down. Man was very fortunate to have invented the book. Without it the past would completely vanish, and we would be left with nothing, we would be naked on earth.

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