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

THE PIERRE AND MARIA-GAETANA MATISSE COLLECTION, 2002/© 2017 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK
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How Leonora Carrington fled privilege and the Nazis to live the surrealist dream

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington is at last receiving the attention she deserves.

“When France sneezes,” the 19th-century Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metter­nich once said, “Europe catches cold.” France was no less contagious in the first decades of the 20th century, when Paris became the cultural capital of the Western world. Cubism, fauvism, Dada and surrealism were incubated in its galleries and cafés, where artists of various nationalities dreamed up new ways to blast away the past, among them Gertrude Stein, Marie Laurencin, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. But when the Nazis arrived, the City of Light went dark, and expats in Paris – as well as those such as the German surrealist Max Ernst, holed up in the French countryside and branded “degenerate” in his homeland – needed to escape, and fast. This was a European war, many decided, and salvation lay in the United States.

Portugal, facing the Atlantic and officially neutral in the conflict, offered the surest way to the Americas. And so Lisbon became “the great embarkation point”, as the film Casablanca described it in 1942. The British journalist Hugh Muir observed that the churn of diplomats, spies and refugees passing through left the local population “much as they were”; they inhabited not the Portuguese capital but a Lisbon of their own making that happened to share its geography.
Those with the means filled the best hotels. Those without scraped by in boarding houses, doing what they could to survive.

The hitherto sleepy seaport was transformed. By October 1941, the Irish Times was declaring Lisbon “the hub of the Western universe”. On the city’s news-stands, vendors sold the British Daily Mail alongside the New York Times, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and the Falangist Arriba, free from censorship and without segregation on the shelves by language. The newspapers were a welcome distraction for their readers, who had plenty of time to read. It could take months for the necessary travel documents to come through, and most people seeking safe passage to the US had little choice but to wait, and wait, and wait.

One of those waiting was a Mexican called Renato Leduc, who as a teenager had fought for Pancho Villa’s forces in his country’s calamitous civil war. Since then, Leduc had studied law and become a poet, before drifting into a job at the Mexican embassy in Paris, where he struck up friendships with the surrealists André Breton and Paul ­Éluard. At a dinner party in the spring of 1938, he met – and was charmed by – a young Englishwoman called Leonora Carrington, then Max Ernst’s lover. Three years had passed since that fleeting encounter in France and now Leduc was living with Carrington in the Alfama district of Lisbon, pressing administrators to confirm the date when they could be married at the British embassy.

Yet it wasn’t love that bound Carrington to Leduc. Born into new money on 6 April 1917, Carrington spent her childhood at Crookhey Hall, a mansion in Lancashire standing in 17 acres of gardens and woodland. Her father, Harold, was an ambitious textile manufacturer who, to the young Leonora, resembled “a mafioso” in his disciplinarian manner. When her mother, Maurie, gave her a copy of Herbert Read’s book Surrealism, published to coincide with the movement’s landmark London exhibition in summer 1936, Carrington was intrigued and visited the show. There she was exhilarated by the work of one artist in particular – Max Ernst – and, through connections at the art school where she was studying, she arranged an ­introduction to him at the Highgate home of the architect Ernö Goldfinger.

Carrington, an instinctive rebel who had been forced by her parents to “come out” as a debutante at Buckingham Palace not long before, instantly fell for the German artist, despite their age gap of 26 years. “From the second they set eyes on one another,” writes Carrington’s cousin Joanna Moorhead in her new biography, “the electricity is palpable between the beautiful, sparky young woman with her dark eyes, crimson lips and cascade of raven curls, and the white-haired, slim, middle-aged man with his lined forehead and kind-looking eyes.” That almost obscenely cliché-ridden description seems to have strayed on to the pages from a bad romance novel, but what is love but a big cliché we can believe in, and can’t help but do so?

Perhaps “cliché” isn’t quite the right word for anything to do with Carrington, however, because her life was an extended refutation of convention. The love between her and Ernst was more correctly of a mythic order, or, at least, it is presented as such in Moorhead’s account (“Max Ernst has met his bride of the wind, and Leonora Carrington has met her saviour . . .”). And mythic is the register that she explored as a painter and writer, first among the surrealists in France and then as one of a small group of like-minded artists in Mexico, where she moved towards the end of the Second World War. In striking works such as The Giantess (c.1947), with its towering woman tenderly guarding a small egg, she invented a kind of symbolic code that channelled the occult and the Renaissance masters to suggest a subliminal life larger than what tasteful language could reasonably convey.

Despite their obvious attraction, Ernst and Carrington seemed mismatched to her father. Ernst was twice married, German and, worse, an artist – one who delighted in flouting the social hierarchies that Harold had so studiously climbed. So, like the “old gentleman” in Carrington’s short story “The Oval Lady” who burns his daughter’s favourite wooden horse (“What I’m going to do is purely for your own good,” he says), Harold attempted to have Ernst deported to Hitler’s Germany on bogus pornography charges, hoping to end the relationship.

What followed was a family bust-up that left Carrington an exile for the rest of her life. The couple fled to Cornwall and then Paris to live among the surrealists, ignoring Harold’s warnings that they would “die without money”. He would stop her allowance, he said, but she didn’t care. She was leaving home – not just for Ernst, not just for the thrills and wonders of a new artistic milieu, but for “a whole new beginning” (another of Moorhead’s romance novel phrases but, again, perfectly true).

The Paris interlude was a blessed one. The couple took up residence in Saint Germain a few metres down the road from Picasso; he would drop by to dine and dance in their kitchen, a bottle of wine in his hand. Dalí was another friend, as were Man Ray, Elsa Schiaparelli and Marcel Duchamp. While in the city, the surrealists held an exhibition at the Galerie Beaux Arts featuring mannequins in a darkened room that visitors had to navigate using torches – one of the earliest examples of installation art.

Throughout this time, Carrington was developing her own work. She painted, she drew and she wrote, publishing a beguiling story called “The House of Fear” in 1938 in a limited edition with illustrations by Ernst – her first published writing and also, as Moorhead writes, “a kind of public acknowledgement of her relationship with Max”. His estranged second wife, Marie-Berthe, was understandably mortified by their romance;
to escape her scorn (and also that of the surrealists’ leader Breton, who had fallen out with Ernst over his friend Paul Éluard’s rejection of ­Trotskyism), the lovers moved south to the remote Ardèche region.

Their farmhouse was inhospitable and lacking in comfort, so they worked on the building, installing a terrace – but they also made an artwork of the building, adorning its surfaces with images of unicorns, winged creatures, lovers and horses. It was an idyllic and productive retreat but it came to an abrupt end. In 1939, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien after France declared war on Germany. He was sent to an internment camp and released three months later; but in May 1940, after the Germans crossed the Maginot Line, he was arrested again. Unable to secure his freedom, Carrington fell into a deep depression and, by the time she was persuaded by friends to depart for Lisbon to escape the Nazis, she was beginning to lose all sense of reality.

Carrington later documented the decline of her mental health in Down Below, an extraordinary account of her life in a sanatorium in Madrid, to which she was committed after suffering paranoid delusions on her way to Portugal. Insanity, for her, took the form of a powerful “identification with the external world”, which somehow involved the hypnotic control of Europe by a Dutchman called Van Ghent (who was also “my father, my enemy, and the enemy of mankind”). In her introduction, Marina Warner notes that Carrington “had realised one of the most desirable ambitions of surrealism, the voyage down into madness”; yet, stripped of the playful intellectualism of the art movement, the “absolute disorientation” that Breton idealised is difficult to experience as a reader with much pleasure.

Carrington regained her freedom after reacquainting herself with Renato Leduc, who offered to marry her to facilitate her escape to New York: travel was easy for him because he was an embassy employee. In Lisbon, her mind slowly recovered and she prepared for a new life in the US. But, in that hub of the Western universe, it was hard to leave the past behind. One day, she glanced across a market and saw Max Ernst, who had been released by the French at last.

Carrington once said that she had only joined the surrealist group because she was in love with Ernst. However, being with him was never the sum total of her life. They travelled to New York together, but when Leduc returned to Mexico, she went with him, cutting ties with Ernst. Then she found a new love, a Hungarian expat called Csizi (“Chiki”) Weisz; they had two children (for whom she wrote stories, soon to be published by New York Review Books as The Milk of Dreams); she painted; she made new friends, most notably the Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo. She lived, and on her own terms.

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington, who died in 2011, is at last receiving the attention she deserves. Her shorter fiction, compiled in The Debutante and Other Stories, reveals an imagination that could transfigure horror into enchantment, and the human into the bestial. Yet her most significant achievement is her paintings. In Self-Portrait (1937-38), a wild-haired Carrington sits on a chair in front of a rocking horse, communing with a hyena. We see in the window behind her a real white horse, running free; our eyes are drawn to it by the room’s outlines. Surrealism prided itself in defying logic, but there is a logic here – one of emotional sense, if not literal meaning. Her life was made of multiple escapes. With that galloping horse, how vividly she evokes a longing for freedom. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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