Magazine article The Spectator

The Art of Survival

Magazine article The Spectator

The Art of Survival

Article excerpt

All That Is by James Salter Picador, £18.99, pp. 304, ISBN 9781447238249 Collected Stories by James Salter Picador, £18.99, pp. 320, ISBN 9781447239383 Some authors' lives are a great deal more interesting than others - James Salter's, for one. Born in 1925 and educated at West Point, a fighter pilot in Korea and afterwards in Cold War Europe, the chiselled flyboy soon jettisoned this for writing and became a cosmopolitan and a worldly adventurer. He made a film in the Alps with Robert Redford, and climbed at Chamonix to produce what was meant to be another film but became the novel Solo Faces. He had homes in Aspen and the Hamptons, frequented the parlours of Paris and Rome but was always, always, too reticent, and, by his code, too honourbound to divulge all he had seen. Privacy - his own and others' - was all.

Now, aged 87, he has written All That Is, his first novel since Solo Faces came out 34 years ago. One shouldn't draw too much attention to that second number - 13 years ago he published Cassada, fully revised from a repudiated 1961 novel about fighter pilots.

And not long before that, one of the great literary memoirs, Burning the Days, which he called a 'recollection', but which reads like a novel. There is nothing better in English about what it is like to fly - including combat flying.

There have also been two volumes of short stories, and accompanying the publication of this latest novel is the Collected Stories, introduced by John Banville. And some lighter fare: a book on meals written with his wife, and a collection of travel writing. All of Salter can be read in three days with no interruptions. No one should want to break the spell.

The new work presents the narrative sweep of a man's life that might appear close to the author's. Philip Bowman, also born in 1925, serves in a war (but in the navy, and it's the second world war), having been brought up in an indeterminate area spilling out from Manhattan to parts of New Jersey, the Hudson River valley and those Hamptons of Long Island.

Bowman is an editor at a prestigious publishing house - Salter has praised, and demonstrates here, the attractiveness of this particular kind of literary life. He marries once, briefly, young, and is childless.

(though neither fact is true of Salter). All That Is presents a reckoning of Bowman's postwar decades: a life neither heroic nor classically honourable, nor even always interesting. These are all aspects that Salter - who has mentioned a fondness for 'men who have known the best and worst, whose life has been anything but a smooth trip' - is known to prize in his fiction. Here the author has made other choices. Often, the book steps aside to study closely an acquaintance, a lover, even a stranger, as Bowman himself disappears: the view he can't have had, the facts he would not have known.

When it's back to Bowman, the years move on; the acquaintances and lovers have generally moved on, too, with the publishing career and associated European travel remaining the true constants of his life - never without reflection, though, on that lover, house, trip, or someone close who has died.

Except that it is never that humdrum.

Bowman gains self-knowledge, and soon discovers his 'ability to turn people against him'. …

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