James Salter, author of A Sport and a Pastime, dies at age 90

June 20, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A-Sport-and-a-Pastime-James-Salter“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

Paul Bacon, legendary book cover designer, dies at 91

June 11, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Catch_22_Paul_BaconYou may not be immediately familiar with the name Paul Bacon, but you will be immediately familiar with his work. The New York born graphic designer was responsible for some of the most iconic book covers of the twentieth century, including covers for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five, Peter Benchley’s Jaws, James Clavell’s Shogun, and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.

Bacon died of a stroke on Monday in New York. He was ninety-one.

Before coming to books, Bacon had already made a name for himself designing sleeves for jazz albums, a musical genre he was much enamoured with. He designed covers for the Blue Note and Riverside labels, according to The New York Times, which also claims he played “in a New Orleans-style jazz band called Stanley’s Washboard Kings, which for many years had a regular gig at the Cajun, a restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.”

Compulsion_Paul_BaconWhen he turned his attention to books, he became known for what has commonly been called the “Big Book Look”: a generally minimalist cover design featuring mostly typography along with what Print Magazine’s Steven Heller calls “a small conceptual image.” His first big hit was his design for Meyer Levin’s novel Compulsion, a fictionalized account of the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder case.

Heller writes:

Bacon estimates he designed about 6,500 jackets from the late 1940s through the early 2000s for all the major houses – but most consistently for Simon & Schuster for over 40 years. The Bacon-esque approach became pervasive throughout the trade book world, yet his signature style was not always instantly recognizable because Bacon characteristically subordinateJaws_Paul_Bacond ego to function. He explains, “I’d always tell myself, ‘You’re not the star of the show. The author took three-and-a-half years to write the goddamn thing, and the publisher is spending a fortune on it, so just back off.’” Robert Gottlieb, an editor at Simon & Schuster during the 1950s, and later editorial director at Knopf for 21 years, notes, “He has a bestseller look but he came up with other looks as well, some of which helped books become bestsellers.”

The NYT quotes noted designer Chip Kidd as saying that Bacon was a key influence because he demonstrated “just how much you can entice the reader on the content by using minimal form.” The same article quotes Peter Mendulsund, author of What We See When We Read, who has recently designed reprints of novels by Kafka an Calvino that, looked at slant, can be seen as having a Baconesque influence: “He directs your eye and shows you where to look. He shows you what’s important.”

Remembering Mavis Gallant

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Mavis_GallantMavis Gallant taught me to be suspicious of adverbs. This was almost two decades ago at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. Gallant was being interviewed by her longtime friend Mordecai Richler, and it seems to me the two must have had some kind of falling out just before walking on stage, because Gallant appeared brusque during the interview and Richler, as I recall, seemed uncharacteristically flustered. I don’t remember many details of the onstage discussion, but I do remember her counselling against the overuse of adverbs in writing. At the time, I was in my twenties, unpublished, and hopelessly naive.

Approaching Gallant in the signing line after the interview, I was terrified: if this woman could intimidate Mordecai Richler, imagine what she could do to the likes of me. Still, I screwed my courage to the sticking post, as the Bard says, and introduced myself. For want of anything more profound, I asked the famous New Yorker story writer why she thought adverbs should be avoided. “They weaken prose,” was her reply. She didn’t elaborate; she didn’t have to. Close to twenty years later, I still consider this among the most practical advice ever given me as a writer. Also among the most generous.

The inscription in my copy of the New Canadian Library edition of The Moselm Wife and Other Stories includes the date and place of this exchange: “Toronto, 27 October 96.” Although Gallant left Canada for Europe in 1950, and spent most of her adult life in Paris, a significant proportion of her fiction is set in her native country. A central cleavage in her writing is that between Europe and North America; if Munro is our Chekhov, Gallant has a strong claim to being our Henry James.

This is also apparent in the psychological acuity of her writing: Gallant pierces to the very centre of her characters with a precision that is almost eerie, and often unsettling. Gallant has been accused of being a cold writer, but I don’t think this is the case. She was, without question, ironic, and almost aggressively unsentimental, but her stories display great understanding of, and empathy for, the human condition.

Nor are they devoid of humour, as many careless readers have charged. Gallant’s wit was dry, and could be cutting, but it was always present. The author is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “I can’t imagine writing anything that doesn’t have humour. Look at the fits of laughter that you get at a funeral, at a wake. It’s emotion, and in a way it’s relief that you’re alive.”

Gallant died yesterday in Paris, at the age of 91. (Richler was fond of quoting an exchange between Gallant and an interviewer who inquired as to why the Canadian-born writer chose to live in Paris. “Have you ever been to Paris?” was Gallant’s caustic response.) Ellen Seligman, publisher of McClelland & Stewart, referred to Gallant as “a writer of great courage and accomplishment.” Alice Munro cited her as “a constant influence.” Margaret Atwood said she was “funny, quirky, and prickly if you crossed her, but kind underneath it, especially to underdogs.” Michael Ondaatje, who edited a collection of Gallant’s Paris stories, called her simply, “my hero.”

Addressing Gallant’s work in the literary journal Brick, author Russell Banks takes umbrage with those who would categorize her as a “writer’s writer”: “For what is a writer’s writer, anyhow? Merely one who honours in every sentence she writes the deepest, most time-honoured principles of composition: honesty, clarity, and concision. So, yes, in that sense she is a writer’s writer. But only in that sense.”

In the afterword to The Moslem Wife and Other Stories, Richler calls Gallant “a first-rate storyteller” who “never ran with the CanLit hounds.” Perhaps her self-imposed exile (a word Gallant herself hated) accounts for why she was not immediately accepted in her country of birth; even today, despite winning a Governor General’s Literary Award for Home Truths (1981), she is not as widely read as she should be. When Lisa Moore defended Gallant’s collection From the Fifteenth District on the CBC’s Canada Reads in 2008, her fellow panellists complained that they were unable to connect with the book, apparently assuming this to be the fault of the writing and not a limitation on the part of the reader.

I side with Moore and Banks and Atwood and Munro and Ondaatje in thinking that Gallant was not just one of the best short-story writers of her time, but one of the best writers, full stop. She was a consummate artist who remained true to herself and her vision, in the process helping to define an entire literary genre for future generations. And she taught me to be wary of adverbs, advice I still try mightily to heed. Sometimes I fail, but I trust that, wherever she is now, Gallant will find it in her heart to forgive me.

***

The conviction that she was married against her will never leaves her. If she had been born royal it could not have been worse. She has led the life of a crown princess, sapped by boredom and pregnancies. She told each of her five daughters as they grew up that they were conceived in horror; that she could have left them in their hospital cots and not looked back, so sickened was she by their limp spines and the autumn smell of their hair, by their froglike movements and their animal wails. She liked them when they could reason, and talk, and answer back – when they became what she calls “people.”

She makes the girls laugh. She is French-Canadian, whether she likes it or not. They see at the heart of her a sacrificial mother, her education has removed her in degree only from the ignorant, tiresome, moralizing mother, given to mysterious female surgery, subjugated by miracles, a source of infinite love. They have heard her saying, “Why did I get married? Why did I have all these large dull children?” They have heard, “If any of my children had been brilliant or unusual, it would have justified my decision. Yes, they might have been narrow and warped in French, but oh how commonplace they became in English!” “We are considered traitors and renegades,” she says. “And I can’t point to even one of my children and say, ‘yes, but it was worth it – look at Pauline – or Lucia – or Gérard.'” The girls ought to be wounded at this, but in fact they are impermeable. They laugh and call it “Mother putting on an act.” Her passionate ambition for them is her own affair. They have chosen exactly the life she tried to renounce for them; they married young, they are frequently pregnant, and sometimes bored.

– “Saturday” by Mavis Gallant

A member of humankind’s eternal audience: Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

April 5, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

Roger_EbertRoger Ebert’s essential optimism was in evidence as recently as last Tuesday, two days before he succumbed to cancer at the age of seventy.

In a blog post on his website, Ebert announced that health problems necessitated slowing down the pace of his output, which had reached an astounding 306 movie reviews in the previous year, to say nothing of his regular blog posts, occasional writing, and entries to The New Yorker‘s weekly cartoon caption contest. But the film critic had recently discovered that what he termed a “painful fracture” was in fact cancer. Earlier surgery for thyroid cancer had cost Ebert most of his lower jaw, plus the ability to talk, eat, and drink. The recurrence of the disease, Ebert wrote, was forcing him to take a “leave of presence”:

What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.

Less than forty-eight hours after publishing those words, America’s best-known film critic was dead.

And yet, even at the moment of his death, Ebert by all accounts retained a positive outlook. A note from his widow, Chaz Ebert, describes the critic’s family preparing to take him home from the hospital: “We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition.”

That quiet dignity characterized Ebert during the very public course of his illness. Following the surgery to remove part of his jaw, Ebert refused to hide his disfigurement: in 2010 a lengthy profile ran in Esquire magazine, along with pictures of Ebert’s radically altered facial structure. In a 2011 essay for Salon, Ebert wrote that he did not fear death because, although he was raised Roman Catholic, he did not believe in an afterlife:

What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.

In the same essay, Ebert quotes Whitman: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.”

The Whitman quote is significant, because it attests to Ebert’s love of the written word; his movie reviews are peppered with references to novelists, poets, essayists, and philosophers. Perhaps this is the source of his highly literate take on the art of motion pictures and their narratives. It is most probably also the source of his wit, which was plentiful and, it must be admitted, could be cutting. When Vincent Gallo referred to Ebert as a “fat pig” after the latter said that Gallo’s film The Brown Bunny was “the worst movie in the history of the Cannes Film Festival,” Ebert responded by writing, “It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of The Brown Bunny.”

When Ebert hated a film, he could be absolutely savage, but his savagery was cut with an abiding intelligence and a sharp sense of humour. His review of the 2001 Jason Biggs/Jack Black comedy Saving Silverman, for instance, refers to another, more favourable online review:

Consider my friend James Berardinelli, the best of the Web-based critics. No doubt 10 days of oxygen deprivation at the Sundance Film Festival helped inspire his three-star review, in which he reports optimistically, “Saving Silverman has its share of pratfalls and slapstick moments, but there’s almost no flatulence.” Here’s a critical rule of thumb: You know you’re in trouble when you’re reduced to praising a movie for its absence of fart jokes, and have to add “almost.”

And yet he was equally passionate about films he loved, of which there were many. Goodfellas, Fitzcarraldo, Princess Mononoke, Ran, Monsieur Hire, E.T., Medium Cool, Halloween, Tootsie: all received four-star reviews and testify to Ebert’s wide-ranging tastes and enthusiasms.

In retrospect, one of Ebert’s most melancholic recent four-star reviews was for Michael Haneke’s Academy Award–winning Amour, about a husband struggling to care for his wife during her protracted death. For what the review demonstrates about Ebert’s stoicism, his emotional fortitude, and his absolute faith in the transcendent power of cinema, it is worth quoting at length:

Old age isn’t for sissies, and neither is this film. [Jean-Louis] Trintignant and [Emmanuelle] Riva courageously take on these roles, which strip aside all the glamor of their long careers (he starred in A Man and a Woman, she most famously in Hiroshima, Mon Amour). Their beauty has faded, but it glows from within. It accepts unflinchingly the realities of age, failure, and the disintegration of the ego.

Yes, and to watch Amour invites us — another audience — to accept them, too. When I saw Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), I was young and eager and excited to be attending one of the first French art films I’d ever seen. It helped teach me what it was, and who I was. Now I see that the film, its actors, and its meaning have all been carried on, and that the firemen are going to come looking for all of us one of these days, sooner or later.

This is now. We are filled with optimism and expectation. Why would we want to see such a film, however brilliantly it has been made? I think it’s because a film like Amour has a lesson for us that only the cinema can teach: the cinema, with its heedless ability to leap across time and transcend lives and dramatize what it means to be a member of humankind’s eternal audience.

Writing on Ebert’s website, Jim Emerson refers to Ebert’s last review, which Emerson received on March 16, marked “FOR USE as needed.” It is a review of the latest Terence Malick movie. The title of that film, which Emerson says Ebert “liked quite a lot,” is To the Wonder. 

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala dead at eighty-five; Iain Banks suffering terminal cancer

April 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Ruth_Prawer_JhabvalaSad news comes in threes, or so we are told. Yesterday, Canadian poet, travel writer, and editor Kildare Dobbs succumbed to kidney failure and congestive heart failure. Today, the Guardian reports that novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is dead at age eighty-five. Jhabvala is best known for her screen adaptations of novels by E.M. Forster and Henry James, written for producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory.

Although she won two Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay – for her adaptations of Forster’s novels A Room with a View and Howard’s End – the Guardian obituary claims that she considered her film work a “hobby”:

Her own fiction was what mattered to her, whether or not it did to anyone else. This was how it had been since she began writing novels in India in the 1950s, feeling: “I was at the bottom of a deep abyss. No one read them. But I enjoyed it.” The films were fun, but: “I live so much more in and for the books,” she wrote to a friend.

She was a brilliant storyteller. Her work darkened towards the end of her life: she wrote of deception and self-deception and of time’s revenges, the twists and turns of an implacable fate that her worst charlatans could manipulate to their advantage. Her vision was bleak; her tone austere. But her supply of complex characters and subtle, vivid scenes was inexhaustible and she caught the ambiguities of human behaviour and the pleasures of the senses in precise, perfect words.

Although Jhabvala had struggled with ill health for some time, she continued to produce fiction, with a new short story, “The Judge’s Will,” appearing in The New Yorker as recently as March 25. That story, about a judge in India who suffers a second heart attack and must confess to his wife that he has had a mistress for twenty-five years who is cared for in his will, engages themes of illness and death: Binny, the judge’s long-suffering wife, thinks “that all of the family diseases – both physical and mental – were bred in the very roots of the house,” and considers the appearance of the mistress “as if she were already a widow.”

Iain_BanksMeanwhile, fans of the Scottish novelist Iain Banks were shocked to find out that the fifty-nine-year-old author is suffering from late-stage gall-bladder cancer and does not expect to live more than a few months. In an open letter posted online, the author of The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road says that he is “officially Very Poorly.” The location of the tumours make them inoperable “either in the short or the long term.”

“The bottom line,” Banks writes, ” … is that as a late stage gall bladder cancer patient, I’m expected to live for ‘several months’ and it’s extremely unlikely I’ll live beyond a year. So it looks like my latest novel, The Quarry, will be my last.”

Banks says that having received the diagnosis, he asked his partner, Adele, if she would do him the honour of becoming his widow: “we find ghoulish humour helps.”

Writing in the Guardian, author and friend Val McDermid pays a poignant tribute to Banks and his work:

When The Wasp Factory was published in 1984, the critics didn’t know what to make of it. They tried to recoil in horror from the grotesquerie of its imagination and the grand guignol of its execution (and executions) but the quality of the writing and the power of its narrative drive grabbed them by the throat and made them read on.

I bought the paperback when it came out in 1985 and can still remember the excitement. I’d never read anything like it and my head swarmed with possibilities. I’d grown up with the Scottish sense of humour, so I had no trouble with the notion that something so dark, so disturbing and so bleak could also be laugh-out-loud funny. I’d just never seen it written down before.

That brio, that joie de vivre, has characterised all his work. Even in the darkest corners, there is always a shred of optimism, a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. He’s a storyteller whose faith in humans can embrace the worst of what we are capable of and still refuse to lie down and die.

Nothing contrived, nothing evaded: Kildare Dobbs, 1923-2013

April 2, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

kildare_dobbs_et_al“I do not invite misery by thinking about the end at the beginning, and complaining because the end is always lamentably the same. … A saying of Jesus, preserved in the Muslim tradition and written over the great gate of the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri, strikes me with the force of a revelation, ‘Life is a bridge; build no houses but pass over.'” So wrote Kildare Dobbs, the respected Canadian poet, memoirist, travel writer, and editor, in his 2005 book Running the Rapids: A Writer’s Life. For Dobbs, the end he refused to complain about occurred on Monday, at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Dobbs succumbed to kidney failure and congestive heart failure at the age of eighty-nine.

Born in Meerut, India, and educated in Ireland and England, Dobbs came to Canada as a schoolteacher in 1952. By 1953, he had been hired as an editor at the Macmillan Company of Canada, under legendary publisher John Gray. While at Macmillan, Dobbs worked with such canonical writers as Sinclair Ross, Morley Callaghan, and James Reaney.

In 1955, Dobbs championed a young writer named Adele Wiseman, whose first novel, The Sacrifice, would go on to win a Governor General’s Literary Award and become a Canadian classic. In her book, The Literary Legacy of the Macmillan Company of Canada: Making Books and Mapping Culture, Ryerson University English professor Ruth Panofsky writes that “Dobbs was among Wiseman’s finest readers.” Panofsky quotes the reader’s report Dobbs wrote about The Sacrifice for Macmillan: “Its richness and complexity defy reduction to a mere summary of outstanding events. If it is slow in starting it is all firmly realised and the characterization is flawless. Nothing is contrived, nothing evaded, but its seriousness doesn’t at all preclude humour and (in a good deal of it) there is a masterly restrained irony.”

In The Perilous Trade: Book Publishing in Canada 1946–2006, Roy MacSkimming points out that Dobbs also went to bat for Sheila Watson, although her novel, The Double Hook, was deemed too strange for Macmillan; it ended up at McClelland & Stewart where it remains in print to this day.

Calling Dobbs “one of the more renowned editors to serve Macmillan throughout its history,” Panofsky goes on to write, “The literary works discovered and advanced by Dobbs became inextricably linked with Macmillan’s house identity, and his regard for excellence reinforced, in no small measure, Macmillan’s profile as one of Canada’s premier literary publishers.”

After leaving Macmillan, Dobbs went on to co-found, with Robert Weaver, the Tamarack Review, and served as managing editor at Saturday Night and books editor at the Toronto Star. An obituary that appears in the latter paper quotes Dobbs’ former colleague George Fetherling as saying, “He had a cosmopolitanism that wasn’t too common in those days.”

An accomplished writer and poet himself, Dobbs won a Governor General’s Literary Award for his 1962 memoir, Running to Paradise, and was invested into the Order of Canada as recently as this past January. (Because Dobbs was too ill to travel to Ottawa, Governor General David Johnston went to Dobbs’s Toronto residence to present him with the medal – a clear indication not only of Dobbs’s importance, but of the esteem in which he was held.)

As a poet and editor, Dobbs had a keen ear and a sensitivity for technique. In the preface to his 2010 collection, Casanova in Venice, Dobbs writes: “Contemporary poetry, especially in North America, tends to be in free verse. That is, it takes a form in which the words are arranged on the page to look like metrical verse. This makes it more difficult to succeed at, except for the rare poets with well-tuned ears. Unluckily, free verse is also vulnerable to fraud.”

Dobbs’s couplets at the close of Casanova in Venice could serve as a fitting summation of his literary approach: “Listen to what the Muses sing, / nothing is lost – or everything! / Our words, for better or for worse, / resound throughout the universe.”