Tuesday, 23 June 2015


My obituary of James Salter is up at the Guardian's web-site (you can link to it here); it should be in the paper paper Tuesday. The published version was edited somewhat for space, and some of what was lost I thought was important, so you can read my original copy below. What I thought was most telling was the last quote, from Light Years, discussing Viri's view of fame and greatness. It seemed so apt, if not prescient, even written 25 years before Salter would achieve a modicum of fame it laid out a bit of his writer's fate.

I also thought it important to define 'frotteur'; its sexual connotations give Salter's description of himself writing a certain piquancy. The French influence was strong in his work, and life; he had an important affair in France and told a story about seeing the woman again, 40 years later, at a party celebrating his success. And I wished I had room for the story about Anatole Broyard giving Light Years a bad review in the New York Times, complaining about the 'exoticism' of the characters' names. Salter wrote him a letter, saying, 'Come on. Anatole?'

You will also note I didn't write that Salter found Hemingway's 'womanising' character distasteful. In fact I didn't say 'womanising' and Salter didn't enumerate what parts of Hemingway's character he was talking about. I would assume it was the machismo and perhaps the guilt that required Hem to marry each woman he cheated with that Salter might have resented. That form of womanising, perhaps, but it is certainly not how I interpreted it. Salter was a womanizer too, after all, one who appeared to understand women, which is one of the keys to his writing. As Salter said in another interview, 'the major axis of life is a sexual one; the music changes but the dance is always the same.'

One thing I found fascinating was how many influences Salter would acknowledge, handfuls of them, all different, in separate interviews. I don't doubt this was sincere. I would have particularly liked to have mentioned Henry Miller, with whom he bears a lot of similarities despite the seeming differences in style and tone. I found an interesting comparison with John Singer Sargent: 'direct observation and an economical use of paint', which may have been as good an influence as any. Most importantly, Salter said he considered himself 'completely American...but I admire European ways.' That resonated with me.

It would have been nice to go into more depth about with his film career, or repeat his reaction to Charlotte Rampling, chewing gum and smelling awful, on the set of Three (with a young Sam Waterston) And the way Jack Shoemaker and North Point Press came to re-establish Salter's work was wonderful; that esteemed publishing house deserved its own obit when it folded. You'll also note the unnecessary difficulty the paper has with the Military Academy at West Point, as well as its weird policy of capitalization (or not) of words.

There have been few novels about the Korean War; The Hunters followed James Michener's The Bridges At Toko-Ri, and preceded MASH and may well be the best of the bunch. It might have been nice too to detail the dawn of jet fighter combat, the F-86 Sabre jets against the Soviet-made MiGs; there was a new kind of glamour to jet fighter pilots. I would have liked to have noted his envy when some of his former colleagues in MiG Alley wound up walking on the moon, or his joy when he was offered the chance to fly an F-16 many years later. That quote about pilots being royalty was heartfelt.

Finally, Salter's charm was legendary; I know women on whom it was not lost even when he was in his late 80s. He was almost the epitome of the cultured New York WASP establishment, like his friends George Plimpton or Peter Mathiessen, despite his Jewish roots. Apparently he kept careful track of their summer touch football games out in Long Island, the statistician inside him. There's a whole deep story in that change of identity from Horowitz to Salter to which I wish I could have done more justice. His is the writing of a gentleman, which brings us back to Hemingway and grace under pressure, to being able to stand apart from the chaos, the desire, and the sadness behind our fleeting pleasures, and write so meaningfully about them. RIP...


For six decades, in which he published only five novels and a collection of stories, James Salter, who has died aged 90, was a cult writer, whose cult was headed by his fellow writers. 'James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today,' said novelist Richard Ford, but Salter's work generated mixed reviews and small sales. Only in the new century, following his memoir Burning The Days (1997) and his second collection of stories, Last Night (2005), did the mainstream catch up. When his sixth novel, All That Is, appeared in 2013, Salter quipped, at an Oxford Street bookshop, that he'd signed more copies of All That Is than he'd sold of all his previous books.

Salter wrote painstakingly, once calling himself a 'frotteur', French for someone who draws pleasure from rubbing; he liked to 'rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that's really the best word possible.'

His precise prose saw him compared to Hemingway, whose writing he admired, but whose character he 'found distasteful'. Courage, Hemingway's 'grace under pressure', is tested in his work, first by war and later by the conflict between the comfort of relationships and thrill of erotic adventure. Salter said 'you can live both. Can you live them simultaneously? That's difficult'. He once wrote that 'man's dream and ambition is to have women, as a cat's is to catch birds, but this something that must be restrained.' In that restraint lies a very French sense of sadness, intensified by Salter's skill with his female characters, whom he saw as those who face 'the harder task'.

Salter was already in his thirties when his first novel, The Hunters (1956) was published. A war story based on his experience of more than 100 sorties as a jet fighter pilot in the Korean War, it's focussed on the conflict between a squadron leader in search of his first kill and his reckless wingman, who wants to become an ace. Salter did shoot down one Korean jet, but that kill was registered under his real name.

James Arnold Horowitz was born 10 June 1925 in Passaic, New Jersey, but grew up in Manhattan, where his father was successful in real estate. At the elite Horace Mann school he edited the literary magazine, whose contributors included a post-graduate football star named Jack Kerouac. His father had graduated first in his class from the United States Military Academy, at West Point, New York; James allowed himself to be persuaded to follow in his footsteps in 1942. He qualified for an accelerated flight programme, but a month before graduation, on VE day, in May 1945, he got lost on a training flight and crashed into a house in Massachusetts. The war ended before he saw combat, but after completing a graduate degree at Georgetown he was assigned to the tactical air command in Virginia, which he left to volunteer for Korea.

He was a major, stationed in Germany in charge of an aerial demonstration team, when The Hunters appeared, credited to 'James Salter', a pen-name he'd chosen both to hide his identity from his comrades and to avoid being type-cast as 'another Jewish writer from New York'. His close contemporaries Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal made their names with first novels set during World War II; Salter's remains the best of the few novels set in Korea. With a $60,000 payment for the movie rights (the 1958 film starred Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner) he found himself able to pursue his dream of writing, but the choice was difficult. 'As a writer you aren't anybody until you become somebody. As a pilot you're nobility from the very beginning. It was worse than divorce, emotionally.'

He had married Ann Altemus in 1951 and begun a family. Living up the Hudson River from New York, Salter sold swimming pools while working on his second novel, The Arm Of The Flesh (1961) based on his experiences in Germany. He rewrote it completely and retitled it Cassada when it was reissued forty years later. With a neighbour he began making documentary films; Team Team Team, the story of the Army cadets gridiron team preparing to play against the Naval Academy, won a prize at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. He wrote film scripts while finishing his best-known novel, A Sport And A Pastime (1967). The story of an affair between a Yale drop-out and a girl he meets in France, its frank sexual content saw it turned down by his publisher. Eventually, George Plimpton got Doubleday to publish it under his Paris Review imprint, in a small edition which failed to sell. It was perhaps too salacious for the high-minded, too subtly crafted for the prurient.

He then turned to screenwriting, and saw three films released in 1969. An early screenplay eventually became The Appointment, a disappointment. More successful was the documentary-style skiing film, Downhill Racer, starring Robert Redford. And with help from his friend, the novelist Irwin Shaw, he wrote and directed Three, which fused elements of A Sport And A Pastime with Jules et Jim, and starred Charlotte Rampling and Sam Waterston.

His 1975 novel Light Years, arguably his best, chronicled the coming apart of a loving marriage, the sadness of unfilled expectations, which both reflected his own and anticipated that of his closest friends, on whom he modeled his characters. In their case it became a self-fulfilling prophecy based on his observation of things they has not seen in themselves. He and Ann divorced in 1975; by now he was living between Brideghampton, Long Island, and Aspen, Colorado, where he met Kay Eldredge who became his second wife. He wrote travel articles (collected in Then And There, 2005) and interviews for People Magazine of writers like Vladimir Nabokov. A mountain climbing film script turned down by Redford became his fifth novel, Solo Faces (1979).

His short stories appeared in Esquire, the Paris Review, and Grand Street, and in 1978 a new small press in San Francisco, North Point, offered to publish a collection, and brought some of his fiction back into print. Salter took ten years to write the two stories he wanted to fill out the collection, Dusk and Other Stories, which won the Pen/Faulkner award in 1988. He'd been struck by tragedy when, in 1980, his eldest daughter, Allan died in an electrical accident the day she moved into an outbuilding at Salter's Aspen house. It was one part of his life he could not write about, saying in his memoir, 'the death of kings can be recited, but not of one's child.'

In Light Years the husband, Viri, reflects on whether fame equates with greatness. 'He was sensitive to lives that had, beneath their surface, like a huge rock or shadow, a glory that would be discovered, and one day rise into the light'. It wasn't until his ninth decade that James Salter rose into the light, and finally achieved both.

His rediscovery following his memoir saw him publish six books in his last decade, and finally have a story accepted by The New Yorker. All That Is led to his receiving one of the first Windham-Campbell awards from Yale in 2013; the $150,000 prize gave him a measure of financial security. He died in Sag Harbor, New York 19 June 2015, while doing physical therapy. He is survived by Kay, two daughters and a son by his first marriage, and a son by his second

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