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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
In The Light: Where Art and Longing Meet
Few recent publications have excited us more than James Salter’s All That Is. We all love the man, his sentences, the way he orders Cognac while petting a his pet Corgi who always travels with him to the bar (this might be a slight projection of unknown facts). The point is we have had Salter on the brain, especially after reading Nick Paumgarten’s recent profile of him in The New Yorker.
With this in mind, we roll out Sonya Chung’s essay about her correspondence with the author, which originally ran in our Beauty Issue.
I disembark the train at Bridgehampton on the coldest morning yet this winter. As I make my way down the platform, tote bags full of his books, I spot him, standing at the top of the stairs, hands in pockets, shoulders squared, wearing dark sunglasses. I wave a hand but he remains still. Embarrassed, I fix my eyes on the concrete, hurrying toward him. When I come within a few feet, I see that he’s relaxed his posture, and we each reach out a gloved hand. “Well,” he says, doing a kind of mock grouchy-old-man, “it must be you.”
A year after my first correspondence with James Salter, we are finally meeting. Later that night, when I return to New York City for a faculty holiday party, my colleagues and I will laugh as a few share crushing stories of encounters with elder writers whom they’d admired: venerable poet X grumble-coughing at one young poet after he’d expressed affection for a particular poem; novelist Y drunkenly scolding a (now Pulitzer Prize–winning) essayist for interrupting his intermission at the ballet.
But James Salter is nothing but polite, if a bit subdued, as he drives me the quarter mile from the station to his Hamptons home. Behind the wheel of an old compact Benz that seems as fitting to his person as his wool pants and navy blue parka, he asks me about the train ride and comments on the weather. It occurs to me only later, on the dark ride back to the city, that he may have been as nervous as I was.
The house is a simple, light-drenched cottage that he and his wife, Kay, built in 1985, after renting a few different houses in the area. (These were the early years of his second life, with a second wife twenty-some years his junior.) It is a house in which I feel immediately comfortable—spacious but thoughtfully proportioned, tidy but not immaculate. The walls are lined with bookshelves, but not all of them, and not in the imperious way I’ve seen in other writers’ homes, as if the books preside over the people.
Kay Salter appears, fresh and brisk, and welcomes me with a smile and handshake. She is a warm host, taking my coat, offering tea, asking me about my novel and my teaching. A journalist and playwright, Kay tells me that she is working on her first novel and that she commutes to the city often, as she will this morning, making use of a pied-à-terre as a writing office. “So he can have the solitude here,” she says, and I remember something from an interview about his preferring a completely empty house.
Thanks very much for your essay, which I just read, a bit late—apparently we’re deeper in the woods here than I thought . . .
I agree with the comments about Hemingway always writing about sex, or something to that effect, meaning it was a subtext. He wrote a startlingly sensual English, very male and very sensual, alive to the senses, and sex, as we like to call it, is sensationally alive, both in the flesh and/or in the mind. I don’t like Hemingway, in part because he looms and also I don’t like the man. He’s a type you run into.
Women have more or less tipped the cart over—you probably don’t realize that because you’re, I assume, just a kid—and some confusion is the result. I don’t mean that it shouldn’t have been tipped, there is no should or shouldn’t. I always liked Robert Phelps’s citation—he must have been quoting someone—first the flesh, then the spirit.
Again, with thanks. JS
We sit down to tea and talk for a while without pencil or paper, the digital recorder I’ve borrowed switched to the off position and nestled in a fold of the tablecloth between us. “Oh let’s not start that,” he’d said, “we’re just getting warmed up, we’re going to talk about you for a bit.” He asks about my book, how is it going with sales and so forth. I demur, not wanting to bore him with debut-novelist drama, though he nods gravely, knowing better than I the frustrations of literary publishing—having bounced from publisher to publisher over the years and bearing the “writers’ writer” label that must over time start to feel like a branding of one’s hide. The subject moves to teaching, which he did in spurts in the eighties at Iowa, Williams, and Alabama. “It can be enjoyable, but it was a lot of work; you earn your money. I don’t want to discourage you, I mean, it was glorious—the students were interesting, I met many writers, [Frank] Conroy brought everyone [to Iowa]. But your own writing? There was precious little writing going on. And that, in the end, is what you’re graded on.”
I notice a few books stacked at the end of the table and ask how he decides what to read these days. “These days? Well, let’s see . . . these days.” He says this in a way that makes clear his age—eighty-five years, with attendant fatigue—is central to “these days.” We talk briefly about Ivana Lowell’s memoir (“This is a good book”); essays by M. F. K. Fischer (“Not as good as I remember them”); and a library copy of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I ask him what he thinks of Diaz’s novel, and he says, “We were at the Institute Alliance Française for a panel on Jean Genet, and across the street there was a line all the way around the block. We asked the people—mostly young people—what they were waiting for, and they said Junot Diaz was speaking. That was impressive.”
It’s awfully kind of you to write. I am thirty-seven years old, so am not sure if that qualifies as a kid these days. I teach a fiction workshop . . . and I notice that a certain phobia of physical-sensual writing has crept in for literary women—a bubble-wrapping of their intellectually perceptive, emotionally remote female protagonists from sex, really anything sensual; as if the full-force entry of women into intellectual life has come at the expense of bodies. I like Tan Dun’s words: “If you are too sophisticated, you lose courage.”
Re: Hemingway, and in general, I am interested in how or whether you think the quality of the man and the quality of the work are related. And what “very male” means in writing, or “very female” for that matter. I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
The essay was called “Sex, Seriously: James Salter Trumps the Great Male Novelists.” Published in the online magazine The Millions, it was, ostensibly, my response to a New York Times Sunday Book Review essay by Katie Roiphe, “The Naked and the Conflicted,” in which she asserts that our twenty-first-century young literary men have lost their sense of sexual potency; that is, their belief in the power of sexuality to ignite, and to immortalize. “[I]nnocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex,” Roiphe wrote. “Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation, there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing.” Her observations resonated, and I argued in my response that we should look not to Roth/Bellow/Mailer/Updike (Roiphe’s touchstones) for this lost potency, but rather to Salter.
The book—A Sport and a Pastime—appeared in our apartment about five years ago. My partner, J., reported that a friend of his, a frustrated corporate writer, had given him two of Salter’s books (the other was Light Years), saying, This is the kind of writer I want to be and endowing them with a kind of tragic longing. J. seemed to avoid the books as if they were contagious; I decided I had to read them.
It’s been said of John Cheever that, as a teacher, he had one of two words for you when he read your work: Yes or No. With Sport, for me, there wasn’t much else to say but Yes. Even more striking was the sense while I read that I should be repulsed, that it was a book I should find objectionable. As a woman. This is pornographic. This is misogynistic. But I did not. Oh, no. Not at all.
One legacy of the novel may be that it features, as Chris Offutt wrote in a 2004 interview with Salter in these pages, “the greatest anal sex scene in literature.” I prefer a different assessment, from the 1967 New York Times review: “Arching gracefully, like a glorious 4th of July rocket, [Sport] illuminates the dark sky of sex. It’s a tour de force in erotic realism . . . a continuous journey of the soul via the flesh . . . This is a direct novel, not a grimy one. Salter celebrates the rites of erotic innovation and understands their literary uses. He creates a small, flaming world of sensualism . . . We enter it. We feel it. It has the force of a hundred repressed fantasies. And it carries purpose: Salter details lust in search of its passage into love.”
But really I prefer, simply, Yes.
Salter’s short stories are perhaps his most masterful work. In Dusk and Other Stories the prose is superfine, more demanding; Europeanist, in both subject matter and sensibility. The stories in Dusk (written between 1967 and 1987) are populated by peripheral artists, or otherwise not-quites, compelled to wander Europe, longing for greatness and purity, the romantic and the brutal. (“Europe gave me my manhood or at least the image of it,” Salter once wrote.) Many of the stories were written while Salter lived in Aspen, in the midst of a divorce and building a new life, his own wandering days behind him; yet there is a rawness in the stories, the same sensual force of Sport. The protagonists of Dusk may be lost and longing, but the pulse of desire throbs—inexorably, consolingly.
A second collection, Last Night, was published in 2005. In these chilling stories, the lush eros of Sport and Dusk and of his 1975 novel, Light Years, is displaced by the starker truths of life lived. Whatever had compelled the sexes to erotic celebration and tenderness, quests for greatness and purity, is now submerged; foregrounded is the tragedy of isolation, male from female, self from self. What persists is the compulsion of desire—desire as all we have and all we are. The prose leans toward severe, and yet every word seems to burn and glow, an argument for beauty as bare essence. As a rendering of post-romantic adulthood, Last Night is a lamentation. There is brutality in these stories, both quiet and feral, but we feel it ultimately as loss—for all of us, male and female, anyone who has known or longed for sensual abandon, anyone who has loved to love.
As to the quality of the man and the quality of the work, there must be a connection, though perhaps not of the obvious kind. Men with what might be thought of as faults or vices can be wonderful writers. Alcoholics aplenty, thieves, murderers, slave owners are among them. Philanderers too numerous to count. So it is not the virtue of Sunday school or even the Ten Commandments, although I myself admire the cardinal virtues—prudence, fortitude, justice, and mercy.
As to “very male,” I think male characteristics are too well known to discuss. I was looking for a wonderful sentence from Isak Dinesen that succinctly describes it, as I recall, but couldn’t find it. [He later e-mailed it to me: “The love of woman and womanliness is a masculine characteristic, and the love of man and manliness a feminine characteristic.”]
Are there great women writers? Are they different than men? Oh, yes.
“Well, then,” he says. “I suppose we should get to it. What do you have on your agenda?”
Despite the eight typed pages of questions, follow-up questions, and page references with which I’ve armed myself—and despite the hospitable kindness of my hosts thus far—I grow nervous and begin to wish Kay (who’s now en route to the city) were still in the house. I’d watched recent interviews in which Salter seemed irritated by his interviewers’ lines of questioning, and, with the recorder now on, I watch him lean back in his chair, and I perceive a kind of armor flip into place like a welder’s mask. Acutely aware of my inexperience as an interviewer (Remember, it’s an interview, not a conversation, a journalist friend warned; Just think of it as a conversation, advised another), I proceed cautiously—perhaps too cautiously.
Half an hour in, I feel him begin to stonewall. Precision is all for James Salter, and if the semantics are mushy, if the question fails to get at something true, it is simply not to be answered. This morning he is prone to silent staring—a look somewhere between doubt and weariness—rubbing his hands over his face, cutting himself off in midsentence with “Let’s just leave it at that,” and responding curtly to my questions with “That depends” or “Possibly.”
By noon, I’m not sure what we’ve covered, if anything. There is too much to read and not enough time, on this we agree. He has been working on a new novel for almost ten years; he struggles with energy and productivity. He invokes Roth’s hyperproductive daily regimen, the one Roth (eight years Salter’s junior) himself has described. “Can this be so?” Salter asks, shaking his head. “I don’t know.” The tone of the conversation slips intermittently into futility; the specters of resignation and mortality hover. I’ve asked him about the “manhood” he found in Europe (“Ah, but I’m a romantic writer, remember—I don’t really know what that means”); about this word pure, which infuses all of his work (he laughs off the question, referencing Chekhov’s protestation that asking What is life? is like asking What is a carrot?). I’ve come here to talk about these things—about romanticism, about manhood (and womanhood), about purity—but how? How to talk about them?
Oh God, I think. I am Richard Yates’s Frank Wheeler, talking talking talking the hell out of that which is better left unspoken, better lived and experienced than discussed.
I take a breath. The jig may be up. Really, I am no interviewer. Okay, well: what, then, is something true?
The truth . . . is that I have been watching an awful lot of Mad Men and this notion that we—the Gen X literary set—watch it to celebrate how far we’ve come, how progressive our gender identities, is, I feel, hogwash. Salter is an octogenarian white male, a former fighter pilot who flew in Korea; who wrote an erotic tale, a hundred repressed fantasies, of rich boy and poor girl; whose descriptions of women almost invariably offer legs, breasts, hair, shoulders, skin to evoke character essence. There is nothing “right” about my looking to him (or to Don Draper, for that matter, who would be just Salter’s age if he were both real and alive today) for insights into sexual essence. At the same time his stories and novels move me—as a woman—in ways I have struggled to understand.
He is also—I remind myself now—a man who has deeply, expressively loved another man and shared that love, in the form of their unedited letters, with the world.
Dear J Salter:
I received Memorable Days, which I’ve finished and have been rereading in sections over the past weeks. Thank you for sending it. I read it hungrily, and with envy . . . the notion of a “pure voice” in one’s life moved me . . . It’s a rare and beautiful thing. Thank you for sharing it with us.
His correspondence with the writer and critic Robert Phelps began in 1969. “These are love letters,” writes Michael Dirda in the foreword to Memorable Days (2010), a collection of some two hundred letters over twenty years; and indeed they are. Phelps dwelt in literature, and in the wonder and heartbreak of a writer’s life. “I saw in him the angelic and also something, call it dedication, for which I yearned,” Salter wrote in his memoir, Burning the Days (1998). “I longed to know him . . . I have never passed [the Chelsea Hotel] without remembering [our first meeting] in the manner of a love affair.” Upon Phelps’s death in 1989, Salter wrote to his widow, Rosemarie Beck, “I loved Robert. I love him still and always. He was an anchor to seaward for me and one of the few pure voices of my life.” To Phelps himself he wrote: “You are my beacon, my idea of life,” and “Yours is the correct life.”
The bulk of the letters is literary talk—books, plays, screenplays, stories, films, travel plans (and fantasies), personalities, and gossip; to read them is to take a whirlwind tour through a pantheon of the great uncanonized—Colette, Glenway Wescott, Cyril Connolly, Marcel Jouhandeau, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Brigid Brophy, Violette Leduc, Cesare Pavese, Paul Léautaud. Phelps introduces to Salter, the late-blooming autodidact, “some of the marvels of my life,” and Salter is for Phelps (a literary Europhile) the American romantic he’s been missing. “The most romantic writer we have,” Phelps wrote. “You restore a sacredness to profaned aspects and relations . . . you are tender, and unperverse.” A free-flowing passion infuses these exchanges, an amorous purity, to use Salter’s word. I miss you. I am lonely. I love you. The light is where you are, Robert. “From the first moment, I recognized him for what he was,” Salter wrote in Burning the Days, which was to say, bisexual, and living a painful double life. (While Phelps never detailed these struggles explicitly, according to Salter, they were “not difficult to perceive.”) But the love between the two men in these letters is not in the sexual realm; it is somewhere else—somewhere in the light where art and longing meet.
I begin again. “When we first corresponded . . .”
I remind him of the Roiphe essay. Yes, yes, he remembers. What, I ask, does he truly perceive in all this evolution of the sexes?
He takes a moment, genuinely ponderous, to consider, then speaks slowly, deliberatively. “It’s very hard to look at culture qualitatively—this is better, this is not better. The culture is what exists. You say take it or leave it. This is it. The same thing applies to these questions about masculine, feminine. Sex. Homosexuality. I mean all of this has evolved. Is it good? I don’t think the question fits the situation.”
“Okay, forget good or bad,” I say. I think now about what brought me here—lamentation, the compulsion of desire, lust in search of its passage into love. “What about . . . real? What about . . . loss?” I swallow a ridiculous lump in my throat. Is my voice shaking? What is it in his work that does this to me, and why is it so difficult to speak of?
“I think your young men have made a real attempt to accommodate themselves to . . . women’s freshened ideas of themselves. Is this a permanent situation? I don’t know.”
I don’t either. “Is anything a permanent situation?”
“Well. That’s a good question. Is anything permanent.” But he says it like a statement, followed by a thick pause. Then a burst of energy, somehow fierce and reluctant at once. “Yes, yes, sure. I believe . . . the sexes are permanent.
“Now, you’re going to say, Oh for Christ’s sake, this guy is stuck with archaic ideas. But I believe . . . maleness and femaleness are qualities, there is something unadulteratable . . . there is something that cannot be . . . something immutable at the center of them.
“And I think this is so obvious.
“But, I understand this attitude isn’t acceptable, and I don’t express it. Is it in things I write? Well, I suppose so, inevitably, since it’s what I feel. You can’t write . . . you can’t be false to your own feelings. Are these ideas crude and . . . no. No, I believe . . .”
He detours now into praise of a female writer—Nora Ephron—whose pluck and wit he finds appealing (“She has unclouded vision”), particularly regarding the sexes. This lightens the mood, but not much.
How strange, I think, how remarkable: the difficulties, all the shadows, in affirming an unqualified heterosexuality.
“You know, I think I’ve already belabored this. I don’t think it merits that much.” Let’s be careful now, he seems to be saying. Let’s be truthful. Okay, I think; let’s. It merits something. We both believe it does.
If it is possible to be exhausted and energized at once—well, of course it is—here is where we’ve arrived. It’s after 1:00 PM. The orange recorder light blinks.
“Well, then,” he says. “Shall we go have some lunch?”
The day has brightened and warmed. Before lunch, we’ll tour the Hamptons in the Benz. “Since you’ve hardly been here,” he says. “I’ll show you around a little.”
Driving through a tony section of East Hampton, our next subject seems inevitable. “I want to ask you about something you might find . . . disagreeable,” I say.
He nods, pulls down the sun visor.
“I want to ask you about money.”
“Ah, but why are you considering this disagreeable?”
Something opens up now, a looser, easier feeling. Maybe it’s the sun, the feeling of motion and speed. I’d hesitated to ask, but on some level I sensed we have in common this relationship to privilege—close up but never fully inside.
As we drive, he speaks at length, goes into a kind of storytelling mode:
“Money. Well. At the military academy, the big figures were not the ones who had money. There was no money; it’s like the priesthood. Those were formative years for me. The heroes at West Point were the athletes. That was influential, unquestionably, to me, because I wasn’t a football player, or a boxing champion, and I wanted that feeling of manhood. That was why I became a fighter pilot, you know.
“And in the air force there was also no money. So that lasted a long time in my life. I was thirty-two when I left the military. Now, when I got out, this was a different world. Suddenly money was important. It’s the trump card in a lot of ways. But I never quite accommodated myself to that, I suppose. Because all of that time, the twig was bent a different way.
“Now, intellectually, I understand all this, but I still have trouble with it. So I’ve never been tremendously comfortable with rich people. Why is that? I don’t know. Some of my good friends have been rich, but that aspect of it is difficult for me. It represents a certain kind of achievement and position that is inaccessible to me. And whatever achievement I have is invisible to them.”
“And yet you’ve managed to live a very rich life,” I say. “You have three homes [in Aspen, Bridgehampton, and Manhattan]. You’ve traveled the world; you’ve lived in Europe. You’ve enjoyed fine things. Somehow you’ve disentangled ‘riches’ from ‘wealth’ in your life.”
He laughs. “Well, wouldn’t it be nice if you could do that.” I sense that he enjoys my comment, even as he begs off. “I wasted a lot of time, making money.” He is referring to the fifteen years he spent writing screenplays (including the acclaimed Downhill Racer, with Robert Redford), the majority of which were never produced. “And I mean, we don’t drink great wines; we don’t travel first class. I remember Joan Didion said in an interview, ‘I would love to go off and go to the Bristol Hotel.’ Well, see, that’s another life.”
We drive down a wide street lined with English-style hedges and, behind these, mansions, one after the other. “They call this Gin Lane; you can imagine why. The parties.”
“And you are invited to these parties?”
“Oh, no. I must be giving you a wrong impression. This isn’t our world at all.”
It’s an odd statement, given that he’s just pointed out the former homes of John Irving (a friend) and George Plimpton (who first published Sport), along with the house of Jean Kennedy Smith’s (also a friend). “You said you considered Robert Phelps’s life to be glamorous . . .”
“Well, I was intrigued by how well he was connected to a lot of things that seemed galaxies away from me—Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times. That was rather glamorous, I thought; and doubly glamorous because he was threadbare, he was simple, himself. He had certain elegant tastes—he had velvet trousers, he liked Tanqueray, he knew something about the forks on the table; but as he admitted readily, he came from, wherever it was, a small town in Ohio.”
“But didn’t you ever consider your own life glamorous? You were also having dinner with Saul Bellow, and Edna O’Brien. Susan Sontag was an admirer. You were hanging around with Robert Redford.”
We come to a stop at an intersection, and he turns to me, looks down over the rims of his sunglasses. “Ah yes, but I knew those people, you see.”
Lunch at 75 Main in Southampton. We talk of food, travel in France, holiday plans. I muse inwardly at the fact that he has ordered a burger and fries, and I am picking at an elaborate salad. He returns to the subject of what he is reading, specifically the memoir by Ivana Lowell, the adopted daughter of Robert Lowell and biological daughter of Guinness heiress Lady Caroline Blackwood. Lowell, he tells me, described being sexually abused by her nanny’s husband when she was six years old, not primarily as trauma, but rather as an episode of empowerment over an adult male. “I found that very interesting,” he says.
We revert to talk about teaching, his concern about the quality of what young writers are required to read, and about other writers of “my generation.” He asks about the Brooklyn literati, and I tell him that I am not much a part of that—that, like him, I am a literary late bloomer, and essentially an autodidact.
“Autodidacts, in my experience, tend to be unreliable,” he says. He looks away, tracing back some line of memory. He tells me that he never shows his drafts to anyone. “Too embarrassing.”
We pass on dessert but linger over coffee, and suddenly it’s two and a half hours later and near time for my return train. He pays the check, ushers me to the car, stepping aside to open doors, and we rush off. Back at the house, it becomes clear I won’t make the train, so we plan for the next bus, which leaves in twenty-five minutes.
“How are we doing then?” He gestures to my pile of questions, tea-stained pages scattered on one side of the table.
We sit again, still wearing our coats, and I flip through the pages. I realize we haven’t focused as much on Memorable Days as we’d planned when we initially arranged the interview, and I want to hear more about this love, this passion, between him and Robert Phelps.
“There is a lack of an appropriate word in English. The word love may be too suggestive of something I don’t think we’re referring to here. There is no component of sexual attraction in what I am expressing. Robert Phelps I can’t speak for, though I can say that I never felt I was desired. At the time I didn’t reflect about it. The letters are extemporaneous. It seems to me evident in the letters themselves that they have no self-consciousness. It’s what’s great when you first fall in love—you’re not thinking about it.
“His importance to me was his feeling about what writing meant, and what certain writers and books meant. There was no one like him in my life. I was by myself, in a figurative sense, and it was important to me to write to him. You write your best letters to people you feel will understand them. Just as in talk. He understood every word, and more.”
He has described Phelps as an angel, and as a saint. Perhaps James Salter himself is no saint in life—I suppose I know too much of his personal history to go in for that—but on the page, on Salter’s page, the mark of the autodidact seems to me that of a kind of chasteness. A solitary boy (only child), man (fifteen fish-out-of-water years in the military), and artist (“I was by myself; there was no one like him in my life”) cultivates a priestly reverence for words as both truth and consolation; he understands his vocation as beholding, apprehending, rendering—the holiness of a pure soul, the ecstasy of the flesh, and the desolation of estrangement from these.
A final question.
“Now, you’re going to say none of this is conscious, you can’t make any claims,” I say, sparring gloves up a little, mimicking his previous anticipation of my counterresponses. My question comes out long and winding; he is patient and even helps me along. We both toss out and trip over words like evolved, sensitive, advanced. The essence of my question is Where does it come from? —this finely tuned knowledge of the way in which the sexes are, must be, cannot be, so deeply desire to be. His higher-profile peers— Mailer, Roth, Updike, Bellow—have a way of notoriously alienating the female reader, sexually and psychically, with male protagonists of the piteous, wretched variety. Salter, not so. How? Why?
“Well, that covers a lot of ground, many years.
“As a boy, you are superior to and afraid of girls at the same time. Then, I suppose, you continue that way for quite a while. Then there comes a point in life when the superiority fades. Because you see and understand more. I think there’s always a little bit of fear. I mean you are simply not of the same stuff. You are a man. And she is a woman. Yes, a great deal is the same. But you can’t be made the same. There are fundamental, unalterable things that stand between you; I don’t mean things to be overcome, but that were placed there to make your . . . your absolute adoration of each other greater than anything . . . it just doesn’t go in a straight line. I mean, you’re afraid. Here, again, the word is not quite adequate—but you feel a trembling, and it’s not mere passion that makes you tremble.
“In the writing, it comes down to Will it be embodied somehow in what you’re writing? All writing is, in a sense, an approximation—that’s why I sometimes go to other books, Gogol, or Dostoevsky—you say to yourself, Ah, of course, it’s so simple. Just tell . . . the . . . truth. Can you do that? Try.
“But I don’t think I know more than anybody knows, really. In fact, there’s only a certain amount you can know, and I don’t know any more. If I did, it would be truly remarkable. I can’t believe that I know something that other people don’t know.”
I beg to differ, but not out loud. I think through my bookshelves: Rilke. Sherwood Anderson. Jack Gilbert. Cavafy. The romantic writers are fading into the past. And echt romantic—tremblingly sensual, direct, not grimy—truly rare.
The bus leaves in nine minutes and counting. As we gather papers and bags and keys, I ask—because I just have to ask—how it was meeting Matthew Weiner (the creator of Mad Men), who introduced Salter for the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award he received just a few weeks before.
“Well, he was as nice as could be. Open, intelligent.”
“I’m sure he’s read your books.”
“Well, no, he hadn’t. Or, he said his father had A Sport and a Pastime on a shelf where the children couldn’t reach it.”
Later, I watch a video clip of the introduction, which Salter himself didn’t see or hear, as he was backstage. Weiner confesses that, in preparation for the awards, he “placed [him]self in a Salter immersion program.” “The one thing that I’ve learned about James Salter over the last few weeks is that he is interested in the truth,” Weiner says. “His investigation of the desire or the ambition to be better, to be honest, to find love, to kill one’s enemies, to not be alone, is unflinching and brave.”
“Have you seen his show?” I ask. Salter lowers his chin, shakes his head gravely. I tell him that he might be hard pressed to find a literary writer under the age of forty who doesn’t watch it.
His eyes open wide in mock, and to some degree genuine, fascination. “Please, more.” In the car, we decide together that the appeal may be nostalgia for an apparent (glamorized) simplicity—each sex tightly and explicitly packaged. “Of course that had its own problems, you understand. It wasn’t Arcadia. And neither is this now. It’s just a different part of the thing. It may have an appeal because it looks simpler, because it’s past.”
In the dark, in the cold, on the shoulder of the Montauk Highway, we shake hands —“Well, the day went quickly,” he says, “It was a pleasure”—and I hurry onto the bus seconds before it pulls away. I scribble notes all the way back—notes of a most memorable day. The three hours flash by like no time at all.
The next morning, I receive an e-mail:
Dear Sonya, It was a long day for you. I hope the trip back was okay. Perhaps I was too dismissive of the idea that I know more than others about women, men, and their deep feelings regarding each other. It’s the “knowing” I have trouble with. I’ve jotted down a lot on the subject. I think I understand a lot of it. And, of course, I’m always drawn to it. I know I have a man’s point of view, but not exclusively. À bientôt. —Jim
Sonya Chung is the author of the novel Long for This World. Her stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in the publications Threepenny Review, Crab Orchard Review, Sonora Review, FiveChapters, Asian American Literary Review, and BOMB Magazine, among others. You can learn more at www.sonyachung.com.