James Salter speaking at Tulane University, New Orleans, 2010
From London Review of Books:
It isn’t Salter’s language alone that numbers him among the masters, but it is what strikes you first. From Light Years of 1975: ‘On the stands in nearby orchards were hard, yellow apples filled with powerful juice. They exploded against the teeth, they spat white flecks like arguments.’ From the story ‘Am Strande von Tanger’, on the death of a bird: ‘A heart no bigger than an orange seed has ceased to beat.’ From his first novel, The Hunters of 1957, a description of fuel tanks jettisoned by fighters, falling from high altitude over Korea: ‘There were a dozen or more, going down like thin cries fading in silence.’
There is the imagery of human actions and mannerisms. From ‘Comet’, a short story, the characterisation of desire: ‘He could have licked her palms like a calf does salt.’ From the same story: ‘He was mannerly and elegant, his head held back a bit as he talked, as though you were a menu.’ From Light Years, a young girl smitten by love: ‘She could not eat, like a dog that has been sold.’ And there is another kind, the imagery of states of being. In The Hunters, he writes of disappointment: ‘There had been many ambitions … They were scattered behind him like the ashes of old campfires.’ In Light Years, Nedra describes her marriage: ‘I love the familiarity of it … It’s like a tattoo. You wanted it at the time, you have it, it’s implanted in your skin, you can’t get rid of it. You’re hardly even aware of it any more.’ From All That Is, Salter’s new novel, an image for the urgency and sacrifice of love: ‘Love, the furnace into which everything is dropped.’
Besides their precision each image is distinguished by dynamism, by an organic nature. Apples explode and spit, a heart is a seed; the human life is the dog’s life, the life of the skin. Salter’s images are not static points observed by a character or narrator but conduits through which narrative flows. They are an aspect of the virtuosity that makes him singular, his mastery of time, the raw material of narrative fiction. There is a Salterian unit of time that partakes of a moment (when you live it, intensely), a season (it is that time of year), and eternity (there have been such seasons, and always will be). The particular instant of time emerges from the general mood of the season, its light and temperature and smells and colours. Others do this but few achieve it so smoothly, in such a way as to create, in the reader, the duality that is the trick of our consciousness of the actual passage of time, where a specific event, and the mood of the era in which it occurred, are two linked but distinct memories. The moments we remember are embedded in states it seems we have always known.
Salter was still working out this technique in The Hunters, set among American air-force pilots dogfighting Communist MiGs in the skies over Korea. ‘In June came ponderous heat and mornings like eggshells, pale and smooth,’ one chapter begins; the paragraph continues in the same mode. But the next paragraph starts with the conventional ‘It was on such a morning that’. Ten years later, the opening paragraph of A Sport and a Pastime shows how he has moved on:
September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, from trips on roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps. I make my way among them. It’s like being in a tunnel. Finally I emerge onto the brilliance of the quai, beneath a roof of glass panels which seems to magnify the light.
In a short space the time-focus tightens from season to the days of the Parisian rentrée, to a moment in the life of the narrator. The sentence ‘The station is very crowded’ acts as a hinge, referring back to the generality of the beginning of the paragraph and forward to the specificity of the end.
The Salter of Light Years is even bolder.