Lives that seem perfect but aren’t: An appreciation of James Salter

Twenty years ago Kirsty Gunn was promoting a book about a perfect family who seemed to have everything, but whose lives were slowly falling apart. An audience member suggested she read James Salter's "Light Years". It was the beginning of a life-long love

I first came to read James Salter 20 years ago, when I was in the US on a book tour. I was promoting a novel I’d written about a family who, from the outside, seem to have everything – beauty, leisure, endless summers and a house by a lake – but whose lives are freighted by a sadness that eventually pulls them down.

After one of my readings, in Stanford, a young man came up to me and told me that I must read Light Years by Salter. “He’s interested in those things you’re interested in,” he said. “Lives that seem perfect but aren’t. He sees the cracks and broken pieces that were there all along.”

It’s true, I am interested in writing about people who seem to be living one way but are all in pieces, their situations and circumstances crazed by the cracks of something that happened to them that at first can be hard to see. It’s this idea of fragmentation, not only as a subject but as a modus operandi, that makes me love Salter’s work. He’s interested not in the sweep of a big narrative, its willed arc, moral shape – all that – but in the separate, glittering bits of his characters’ lives. He makes his stories out of the moments that glint and shine and seem so very lovely while the light is upon them. But their edges are sharp and they cut deep.

Since that day in California, I’ve read, I think, everything Salter has written: books such as The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime, the two collections of short stories, Solo Faces and The Arm of Flesh. All these beautifully put-together fictions of lives and loves that are filled with the world’s pleasures meticulously detailed: fine clothing and restaurants, good wine and conversation, parties, society, amusements of all degenerate and gorgeous kinds, sex . . . Many books written nowadays may be full of similar treasure but it’s there as stuff, as an accessory to the character, as an example of a milieu or a social type.

This worldly material is Salter’s subject. It elevates his characters and also brings them down. I know of no other writer in English since Fitzgerald who is quite as much in love with the glitter that is gold, its transformative power; who is so entranced by the sheen that money and leisure can lend to a life but who is quite aware of the damage that can be inflicted when one is so attracted to the world’s ravishments that there is no protection from them.

All That Is, Salter’s latest novel, may be his last (he is 87), though he’s not saying that. “You have the brains,” he once remarked, “but it’s energy and desire that make you write a novel.” Still, there is about All That Is the sense that the author is telling us once and for all what he is about. Philip Bowman, his hero, is more clearly drawn – as the selfmade man who has fashioned himself from the lessons life has taught him and the instruction of others who have lived on the scale to which he aspires – than any of Salter’s other protagonists. There’s also the sound here of elegy, a grand farewell:

He had been weeding in the garden that afternoon and looked down to see, beneath his tennis shorts, a pair of legs that seemed to belong to an older man. He mustn’t . . . be going around the house in shorts like this . . . He had to be careful about such things.

For a long time, I had to buy my Salter books when I was in New York. They were hard to come by in the UK. I tried to turn people on to him here: my agent, my publisher, friends . . . But the work seemed – what? Too American? Apart from the usual procession of Roths and Updikes and despite our introduction to “dirty realism” – writers few in this country had heard of before, such as Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips and Tobias Wolff – English readers were still very much settled on this side of the Atlantic.

Or were the stories just too glamorous? Too fancy? Too sexy? Too chic? After all, British fiction still felt mired, back then, in the late 1990s, in a kind of extended postwar gloom – stiff with privation and lack. Or if not, it was in thrall to the Amis school of what I might call hyper-novels – with out of control subject matter rendered in a style that satirised and turned to junk everything it touched. Here, by contrast, was a writer who didn’t have an ironic sentence in him, no subtext, no side. Every paragraph on every page was put there to delight and devastate.

Even readers who’d loved writers such as Cheever and Yates didn’t know what to do with this other kind of book that inhabited the same part of the eastern seaboard, maybe, with the same kinds of families mixing highballs on the flat, blue lawns in front of their white houses at sundown. Salter is not using those places as a jumping-off point for some other moral tale. Those houses, those lawns, are enough to tell the entire story.

If that makes his themes sound shallow, we should ask ourselves what it is we need in our fiction to consider it great and grave and consequential. A lesson learned? Facts given, yielded? Research shown in this subject or that? A sense provided of intellectual, spiritual, emotional enlightenment? Salter is not interested in any of this. His writing is about the “moment of being” celebrated by modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, the power of the moment rendered in words. He opens All That Is with this note: “There comes a time when you realise that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”

Salter’s first novel was The Hunters, published in 1956. A thinly veiled fictional account of his time serving in the air force, it accounted for (as did the memoirs that followed, Burning the Days and Gods of Tin) the feeling of being in a cockpit, looking out a small windshield on the world below.         

All the work, fiction and non-fiction, spins out from that first airborne novel: taking off, ascending, turning, returning to the same landing spot, this sweet earth, its necessary and lovely attractions. So we dip, we dive, we land. We meet pretty girls, have sex, fall in and out of a kind of love. There are parties, we get married, we have affairs, we get divorced. We drink whisky last thing at night, by lamplight, alone. This is what Salter has written over the years, over and over and over again. There’s nothing shallow about this world, he says. This world is all we have.

Kirsty Gunn’s most recent novel is “The Big Music” (Faber & Faber, £20)

Beauty, leisure, endless summers and a house by a lake - Salter's characters appear to be living perfect lives, but are really in pieces. Photograph: Lana Rys.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster