“Must fame be a part of greatness?” That question is posed by Nedra Berland, one of the characters in James Salter’s 1975 novel Light Years. If the answer is yes – and there is much evidence to suggest Salter himself believed this to be the case – then greatness eluded the American writer, who died on Friday in Sag Harbor, New York, at the age of ninety. To the small coterie of devotees who devoured Salter’s limited, but pristine output, however, his greatness was a given, regardless of how many copies of his books he sold.
Nedra’s question is quoted by Nick Paumgarten in a long profile of Salter that appeared in The New Yorker in April 2013, on the occasion of the publication of All That Is, the author’s first novel in thirty-four years. It would be his last.
Salter did not publish prodigiously, taking his time to hone his works to diamond-like precision. Paumgarten quotes the author Richard Ford as saying, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.” That devotion to his craft resulted in a small output of books that rank among the finest in postwar American literature.
Salter’s two most famous works are Light Years and his 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime. In his introduction to the FSG Classics edition of that novel, Reynolds Price writes, “[T]he book I find between the covers of A Sport and a Pastime is as nearly perfect a narrative as I’ve encountered in English-language letters, a more brilliant and heartbreaking portrayal of young sexual intoxication than I’ve found elsewhere, and an unbroken exercise of prose that leaves me proud of my native language and of a fearless man who labored to lay it out with such useful opulence.”
The word “fearless” is not idly chosen: The New York Times states that Salter’s original publisher, Harper, shied away from the book, saying it contained “more than the normal amount of sex.” George Plimpton, the editor of The Paris Review, liked the manuscript, however, and interceded to have it placed with Doubleday. The resulting publication paved the way for writers like Philip Roth and John Updike, who felt freer to engage in more explicit examinations of sexual relationships and situations in their fiction.
Salter was like Roth in another way: he plumbed his personal life and experiences for material to use in his fiction. Paumgarten tells of Salter leaving his publisher’s office having just picked up a copy of Light Years, a novel about infidelity and the dissolution of a marriage, and running into a longtime friend, to whom he gave the book. Upon reading it, the friend realized that the couple in the book were modelled on her and her husband. A Sport and a Pastime finds its genesis in notebooks Salter kept while travelling in France. Says Paumgarten, “The novel is an Alhambra of narcissism and self-erasure.”
Though he may not have achieved the kind of renown he desired in his life, his few novels and collections of stories are likely to live on, thanks to a small but dedicated group of readers for whom he marked a pinnacle of style and technique in twentieth century American letters.
In life you need friends and a good place to live. He had friends, both in and out of publishing. He knew people and was known by them. Malcolm Pearson, his former roommate, came to the city with his wife, Anthea, and often their daughter to go to the museums or visit a gallery whose owner he knew. Malcolm had become older. He disapproved of things, he walked with a cane. Am I becoming old, Bowman wondered? It was something he rarely thought about. He had never been particularly young, or to put it another way, he had been young for a long time and now was at his true age, old enough for civilized comforts and not too old for the primal ones. – All That Is
The more clearly one sees this world, the more one is obliged to pretend it does not exist. – A Sport and a Pastime