Fame is the spur

Burning the Days

James Salter <em>Harvill Press, 384pp, £7.99</em>

The Hunters

James Salte

Is James Salter America's most important living writer? The question might sound absurd yet no less than Richard Ford and Susan Sontag think his work superior to that of the Nobel prize-winners Toni Morrison and Saul Bellow. Given that Salter has published only five novels and a prize-winning short story collection in 40 years of near-invisibility, it might be fairer to echo the New Yorker critic James Wolcott and call him America's most underrated underrated writer.

Salter's long-overdue autobiography, Burning the Days, a stylish and moving account of his various incarnations as a fighter pilot, rock climber, screenwriter and novelist, may help bring him the wider acclaim his fiction deserves. The book arrests your attention from its disarming opening: "The true chronicler of my life, a tall, soft-looking man with watery eyes, came up to me at the gathering and said, as if he had been waiting a long time to tell me, that he knew everything. I had never seen him before."

Salter's chronicler turns out to be a post office worker, the portentously titled Historian, who recites intimate details of the author's life, some of which are artfully culled from the local papers. Salter's chief concern is with the reality of fiction, with the way our lives can be shaped and even destroyed by a fidelity to certain literary ideals and conceits. In the memoir, the Historian is eventually led away by his wife, baffled by his inability to fill the gaps and omissions in his own narrative.

Burning the Days is written in the heroic language of an American memoir (one thinks of Nabokov's Speak Memory) yet takes its place in a recognisably national tradition. The blur of snow and trains forming the backdrop to Salter's early life recalls Nick's journeys home in The Great Gatsby, or George Willard's departure from Winesburg, Ohio, in Sherwood Anderson's novel of the same name. Salter's experiences are essentially archetypal - a "flaring of America" to use his phrase - his prose spare and imagistic. His descriptive writing is careful, too careful, as when he describes a "defiladed road"; but his metaphors are daring.

Salter's carefulness is probably a product of his days as a cadet at West Point, a place where "the terrible ring of metal hitting the floor - a breast-plate that had slipped from someone's hand - was a sound like the dropping of an heirloom". He graduated too late to fight in the second world war, his ship sailing for the South Pacific under a banner strung from the Golden Gate Bridge that read "Welcome Home Heroes". But Salter was to fight in the Korean war, something he evokes with breathtaking precision. Burning the Days falters once Salter resigns his commission to become a writer, descending into a kind of Fitzgerald-like pastiche; but there are some lovely anecdotes as compensation.

Literature, Kenneth Burke wrote, is "equipment for living". Salter's career appears grounded in a desire to fulfil that grand proclamation. "My ideal is a book that is perfect on every page," he told an interviewer, "that gives you tremendous aesthetic joy on every page." Yet we live in an era when such ambition is distrusted and novels are praised for being merely readable. The sports page is readable (I would choose it over almost anything else at breakfast); Nick Hornby is readable. But they are not equipment for living.

Salter's novels are available in their entirety to a British audience through the foresight of the Harvill Press, including his newly re-issued debut, The Hunters (1956). The author disowned the work some years ago, but he was wrong to do so: it is a gripping and lucid account of how war can generate "a furnace of the individual".

His major theme is the longing for fame, a desire that runs through all his work. "He wanted one thing, the possibility of one thing: to be famous. He wanted to be central to the human family, what else is there to long for, to hope?" The words are spoken by the hero of Light Years (1975), and can be read as a painfully ironic judgement on Salter's baffling neglect by the literary world. Both this and his other major work, A Sport and a Pastime (1967), sold poorly, the result perhaps of some devastating reviews, despite being hailed as the work of genius by a small minority.

Light Years is an impressive, if slightly overwritten, study of the failing marriage of two middle-class New Yorkers.The couple live "a Russian life, a rich life, interwoven, in which the misfortune of one, a failure, an illness, would stagger them all". As a work of ambition it aspires towards the luminous quality of Woolf's To the Lighthouse - Viri is "a man lying fully clothed in the stream of days". But the prose is, if anything, too precise, too ornate. Salter often writes in a kind of eternal present - "the sea is quiet and white . . . The beach is deserted . . . the sand is warm" - which gives his work a mythic quality not entirely reconcilable with human passion and pathos.

Salter's desire to encompass reality is one shared by the unnamed narrator of A Sport and a Pastime, who describes his story as "notes to photographs of Autun", the French town and setting for this disturbing erotic work. The narrator's project is a tribute to the photographer Atget, who took innumerable photographs of Paris in the early part of the century, slowly stealing the city from its inhabitants. The German critic Walter Benjamin described Atget's pictures of deserted streets as "crime scenes", and Salter's novel unhinges our notions of guilt and innocence in its urgent description of the love between a teenage French girl and a Yale drop-out.

Salter's prose is not without fault: his striving after a kind of stuffed perfection leads him into a rarefied realm, where the air is too thin to breathe and ideas are not always thought through. His work lacks humour, too. But this can hardly justify his strange neglect. In A Sport and a Pastime the narrator describes his story as "a fiction for which a place already existed in his heart". Reading James Salter is just such an experience.

Stuart Burrows is a British critic based at Princeton University

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide