Review: Adam Rivetton James Salter

Small breaths: All That Is & Collected Stories by James Salter

James Salter recently appeared on the Guardian’s short story podcast, reading Lydia Davis’ ‘Break It Down’. The story is an erotic taxonomy of loss from what seems like, but is never clearly announced to be, the perspective of an older man. It has a kind of accountant’s swoon to it. On the page, perhaps, the recounting of expenditure might seem callous, cynical. But in Salter’s soft, fragile, broken voice, the words were deeply humane. As the early paragraphs of the story, dealing with financial assessment, moved into the murkier realms of time and love lost, it became hard to separate tale from teller.

Davis’ preoccupations and style are radically different from Salter’s. In fact, ‘Break it Down’ is atypical of Davis and was chosen, Salter admits in a post-reading interview, for its length – Davis’ stories often running no longer than a paragraph or two. But for these twenty minutes or so at least, they are simpatico. Salter’s voice reading Davis has become the voice of his own work in the mind of this long-time reader, the melancholic but stoic voice of his late fiction and his finest stories.

It is a matter of tone, of course, but primarily of rhythm. Salter does not stop and start as period and paragraph dictate, but runs by breath’s logic; his reading is chatty and lived-in, while still observant of the craft of Davis’ prose. It is a wonderful reading – felt, animating – and Salter’s voice is a marvel: weary with age yet somehow rugged, papery, and occasionally wobbly when he pauses mid-sentence, but always sure. Full of contradictions.

The male voice of the story – sexualised, itemizing, a little possessive, but fundamentally tender and anguished – offers a useful analogue to Salter’s world. His men live through their bodies. They are not, by contemporary standards, neurotic. The voice in Salter’s work is patient and wise and bruised and above excitement. As a reader, you are guided through his fiction, never hurried along. His is an older voice, unironically anguished.

To begin with that wonderfully Beckettian title: All That Is. It is an apt title for a book by an older man – unfazed, elegant, illusionless. There is no cyncism intended, no crass reductionism. Salter is the least cynical writer imaginable. When things go badly in his books, it doesn’t feel like a deterministic squalour orchestrated by a pessimist. There is often a resigned or crestfallen tone to his work. The worst has already passed, or can be assumed to be arriving shortly.

It is difficult to provide a synopsis of All That Is, not because the writing is complicated or obtuse, but because events don’t fall into place with the kind of pointed accumulation of drama that would necessitate the use of the word ‘plot’. Bowman, the central protagonist of the novel, is a young man in the navy. He serves, but avoids active combat. An early highlight of the book, the sinking of Yamato, thrillingly evoked by Salter, takes place with Bowman many miles away. The war ends with him anchored in Tokyo Bay. He is, at best, a bystander to history. His early life contains a paucity of romantic entanglements, particularly his Harvard years (‘He knew what the ignudi were but not the simply nude’). He finds work in publishing, and makes a friend for life, Eddins. He falls in love and marries Vivian. He travels. He grows older. There are other women. He is, in many ways, an unmodern man. As the 1960s arrive, we can feel him moving out of his historical moment, slightly uncertain, a stranger.

Geoff Dyer, reviewing Light Years (1975), which was reissued in 2007, captured this peculiar quality of Salter’s work:

If we take Ian McEwan as the master of a certain kind of novelistic execution whereby every thread and hint is neatly tucked in and subsequently tied up, then Light Years is chaotic, a draft, full of holes waiting – in vain – to be filled. Incidents that are crucial are not worked through or resolved; affairs are begun but we sometimes learn nothing of how they end (or even develop). And yet there is an assurance about these apparent inadequacies, a purposefulness about the hesitancies.

All That Is can be described in a similar fashion. The novel is both sweeping – a man’s entire adult life is covered, beginning from the age of eighteen and ending in old age, just before serious illness might begin – and minute. Despite the span of time covered in the book, it is under 300 pages. It is a book of small breaths.

One of the novel’s most striking features is how it often positions Bowman at the edges of the narrative. For long stretches, Salter is happy to have him waiting in the wings, while other characters have the stage – lovers, friends, acquaintances. The novel is full of what are almost flash fictions, cameos from the unfamous, people who disappear after a scene or a moment. There is a density to these people, a hinted-at history that makes them seem larger than the short space afforded them. Here, for example, is Bowman’s Uncle, Frank, at a celebratory dinner at war’s end:

He was dark with a rounded nose and thinning hair. Stocky and good-natured, he had gone to law school in Jersey City but dropped out with the idea of becoming a chef, and at the restaurant, when he was in the mood, sometimes went back into the kitchen to cook himself, though his real joy was music. He had taught himself to play the piano and would sit in happiness, drawn up close to the keyboard with his thick fingers, their backs richly haired, nimble on the keys.

Or Alexsei Parris, partner of Edina Dell:

He was an encyclopedia salesman at this stage, but even in his shirtsleeves, walking around the house looking for cigarettes, he gave the impression of someone for whom life would work out. He was tall and overweight and could charm men as well as women with little effort.

Or Bernard Wiberg, publisher:

At the opera or ballet, Wiberg was a figure of style, in white tie when the occasion called for it, and his household retained its elegance. He’d dined with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in France, tremendous protocol, everyone had to be there before the royal couple entered. He was encouraged by Catarina, the ex–dancer, to give occasional after-theater suppers, soirees, she liked to call them, the dining table laid with plates of cold beef, pate, and pastries, and wine with well-known labels. Intimately and just between them she called him her cochon. In his bathrobe or white braces he could be Falstaff or Figaro with her and she had an irresistible laugh.

There are dozens of such portraits in All That Is, some a paragraph long, others just a single sentence. They serve no narrative purpose. These portraits are not inserted instrumentally for future use; Salter is not planting information he will come back to later. They are simply humanity described, each person quickly sketched before they are shown the door. While some characters have a small but continuing role in Bowman’s life, most do not. Nonetheless, they earn from Salter a vividness that a more traditional writer, one devoted to his central characters above all, might deem unnecessary.

Even information itself – narrative, colour, context – receives a kind of condensed portraiture. Here is Bowman’s syllabus at Harvard, his memory accelerating like an older man without patience, someone who has said this before and who now understands how to gather quick impressions into a dazzling rush. Notice how the grammar accommodates fragments, quick turns, abrupt declarations and shifts in focus:

Fitful lightnings, garments of richness. The aristocrats who were writers – the Earl of Oxford, the Countess of Pembroke – the courtiers, Raleigh and Sidney. The many playwrights of whom no likenesses existed, Kyd, arrested and tortured for irregular beliefs, Webster, Dekker, the incomparable Ben Jonson, Marlowe whose Tamburlaine was performed when he was twenty–three, and the unknown actor whose father was a glovemaker and mother illiterate, Shakespeare himself. It was an age of fluency and towering prose. The queen, Elizabeth, knew Latin, loved music, and played the lyre. Great monarch, great city.

Then there is Eddins, Bowman’s colleague in his first publishing job and his lifelong friend. He is the most intriguing character in the book: the funniest, the most charming, the most relatable, the kindest. He also suffers the greatest tragedy, in what are by far the book’s most moving pages. His life has the kind of dramatic arc that is usually given the spotlight in a traditional novel, yet he remains in a supporting role.

Salter’s aim here is not pedantic or didactic. Bowman is not a blank, or a cipher, or a fake amidst the real. He is not exceptional or a scourge. He is a resolutely ordinary character. And yet the novel is never dull, or pointedly anti-human. It is as if Salter’s conception of time and its players could not extend to a hog lead actor. There are times when the novel feels like a brilliantly decorated stage filled with passing bit-players and reticent leads. Salter, only a year or two short of 90, seems to be saying: the older one gets, the less important one seems – yet without the self-pity that so often accompanies such a statement. It is as if, slowly, but with complete certainty, the centrality that all humans feel about their position in the world (I stand here, and you move around me) has been eroded. Left with this truth, Salter lets its melancholy infect the work.

There are always fires, diseases, random cruelties, but what defines adult tragedy is not disaster; it is failure. If genre fiction (crime, melodrama) takes the rare violence of extremity and normalises it – every alley a mugging, every car trip ending in a crash – then Salter’s adults are comparatively free of this tendentious trouble. They are undone by milder yet more persistent forces. In All That Is, there is one genuinely tragic moment where the furies claim a character, but in Salter’s world these moments are rare. For the most part, his characters face the erosion of time and the minor setbacks of relationships.

Two of Salter’s finest short stories revolve around literary failure. In the first, ‘Am Strande von Tanger’, it is part of a general sense of dissatisfaction that permeates the story, while in the second, ‘The Destruction of the Goetheanum’, it is the source of the misery. For Malcolm in ‘Strande’, one of many characters in the story to walk as if in a cloud of uncertainty, it is his failure as an artist that haunts him. Or rather, he is haunted by a vision of creation so overblown that failure awaits him, by his own design:

Malcolm believes in Malraux and Max Weber: art is the real history of nations. In the details of his person there is evidence of a process not fully complete. It is the making of a man into a true instrument. He is preparing for the arrival of that great artist he one day expects to be, an artist in the truly modern sense which is to say without accomplishments but with the conviction of genius. An artist freed from the demands of craft, an artist of concepts, generosity, his work is the creation of the legend of himself. So long as he is provided with even a single follower he can believe in the sanctity of this design.

There is a whole life of frustration and waste and regret here, beautifully captured in a single paragraph. The sociological abstraction (Weber) moves into a personal version of the same (preparing for isolation, expecting it), then into grandiosity and, finally, self-pitying pride (‘a single follower’). As in his portraiture – a figure in a few gestures, an anecdote – Salter captures an enormous amount in a dash. In this instance, there is the movement of thought, not through the barrelling scramble of interior monologue, but from a stranger perspective: a present voice already defeated by the future.

Even more brutal is this passage from the haunting story ‘The Destruction of the Goethenauem’, which details the failing relationship between Hedges, a struggling writer, and his long suffering partner:

Hedges was alone. The men his age had made their reputations, everything was passing him by. Anyway he often felt it. He knew the lives of Cervantes, Stendhal, Italo Svevo but none of them was as improbable as his own. And wherever they went there were his notebooks and papers to carry. Nothing is heavier than paper.

The last line, for any struggling writer (perhaps for any writer), is devastating. Yet it is not writers alone who walk with the weight of failure upon them. Many of Salter’s stories deal with broken promises, broken dreams, squandered potential. In ‘Last Night’, there is not only the failed attempt at euthanasia, but what is left of a marriage operating under false premises. In ‘Lost Sons’, a naval reunion at West Point brings only disrespect, missed connections and a sense of estrangement to the story’s protagonist, Reemstra (‘whose name tag was read more than once’). More often than not, age equates for Salter to disappointment and resignation.


In his introduction to the Collected Stories, John Banville notes that Salter ‘is a master chronicler of quotidian lives’. I would be quoting that with absolute approval were it not for that penultimate word, which leads me to wonder what Banville considers everyday life. Salter’s milieu is firmly upper-upper-middle class, with occasional detours into outright wealth. In stories like ‘Such Fun’, people always seem to have rather high-flying jobs – they are bankers, translators, lawyers, movie stars. Affluence and style are givens: ‘Malcolm wrote for a business magazine. He was short, but a very careful dresser – beautiful, striped suits and shined shoes.’ These are characters who return from affairs with Counts in Athens and dine at luxurious restaurants.
This world is not indulged or mocked. The bank accounts of these characters are neither irrelevant nor telling. Salter does not flatter the comfortable, or play up to some luxurious fantasy for the vicarious thrills of the reader. There is always the slight possibility of parody with Salter, but because his touch is so gentle, he often does not let on how ridiculous some of his characters are supposed to sound. As a result, he can be easy to misread. Consider this moment from ‘The Cinema’:

‘It’s stupid to be making this in color,’ Lang said to the man beside him.

‘What?’ He was a film company executive. He had a face like a fish, a bass, that had gone bad. ‘What do you mean, not in color?’

‘Black and white,’ Lang told him.

‘What are you talking about? You can’t sell a black and white film. Life is in color.’


‘Color is real,’ the man said. He was from New York. The ten greatest films of all time, the twenty greatest, were in color, he said…

‘What about …’ Lang tried to concentrate, his elbow slipped, ‘The Bicycle Thief?’

‘I’m talking about modern films.’

Take it from someone who has suffered through numerous cinephile turf wars: Salter nails the tone of pretentious film culture, its love of proclamations, its need to make ‘statements’. The story captures perfectly the ennui and low stakes positioning. The story is a cousin to Fassbinder’s Beware A Holy Whore (1971), the great film of European Cinema on the skids. As another character in the story puts it: ‘I am really a romantic and a classicist. I have almost been in love twice.’ The self-regard and conceit of that ‘almost’ does all the work. Salter’s characters frequently trail their illusions and projections around with them, hoping to impress or convince others, but the comic dialogue in stories like ‘The Cinema’ or ‘Such Fun’ refuses to distinguish between the foolish and the wise. Salter is not trading in satire, or setting up easy pins to knock down from a position of authorial superiority.

If the milieu of Salter’s fiction is an unexamined luxury of a very American kind, this is mirrored in the style of many of the short stories, which build towards their epiphanies in the modern ‘story where nothing happens’ style. They are examples of the kind of domestic fiction frequently given ample room in the New Yorker. ‘Am Strande von Tanger’ is exemplary in this regard: the limited setting and stage, the small cast, the slowly brewing trouble between people, the elegiac prose and subtle symbolism. It details an uneventful and rather joyless trip to a Barcelona beach made by a couple, Nico and Malcolm, and their tagalong friend Inge. The story is shrouded in sadness and uncertainty. The town fails to delight them – ‘They stop at a cafe. It isn’t a good one, Inge complains.’ There seems to be lingering tension between Nico and Malcolm. It is a story of small telling details and careful accumulation. At its end, things have begun to fall apart. Nico’s bird has died, and for a second it is the bleakly elegant conclusion to a story you have read a dozen times before, wonderfully written if very familiar:

She has opened the cage door.

‘He’s dead,’ she says.

‘Let me see.’

He is stiff. The small feet are curled and dry as twigs. He seems lighter somehow. The breath has left his feathers. A heart no bigger than an orange seed has ceased to beat. The cage sits empty in the cold doorway. There seems nothing to say. Malcolm closes the door.

Later, in bed, he listens to her sobs. He tries to comfort her but he cannot. Her back is turned to him. She will not answer.

The compact prose, the poetic comparison (‘no bigger than an orange seed’), the measured action – this is as close to traditional as the modern short story gets, particularly its suggestive ending, the action arranged like the last frame of a film. But then Salter adds a final paragraph from nowhere, which hints at a personal and familial trauma lying beneath the present moment, its arbitrariness denying easy answers:

She has small breasts and large nipples. Also, as she herself says, a rather large behind. Her father has three secretaries. Hamburg is close to the sea.

Far from playing into the readerly daydream of Europeans at leisure (even in their mourning) Salter leaves us with something altogether more inscrutable and sad. This is often his way. The standard elegiac or epiphanic ending, familiar to any reader of the contemporary short story, is frequently complicated with material that cuts against its polish, its easy suggestiveness. Here, after the human moment has passed – lovers alone in the dark – there is the catalogue, the list. How do these sudden facts help us? What do they add? A young woman’s physical ungainliness, her father’s power and authority – these can be paired to suggest a life of awkwardness in the patriarch’s shadow. And Hamburg, the sea? It is an observation that denies ready explication. At Salter’s weakest, in stories such as ‘Palm Court’ and ‘Foreign Shores’, we get endings which present the human moment unadorned (‘He did not know what came over him, but on the street he broke into tears’) which, in themselves, can feel underdone. Yet in others, such as the excellent ‘Via Negativa’, the often plain human content (a quarrel) is successfully made strange with yet more late-arriving curiousness – in this instance, an odd sexual comparison that tonally cuts against everything else in the story.


I have seen accusations of sexism thrown Salter’s way, and while I find them for the most part to be lazy and reactive, there is nonetheless in his writing an attitude and a method of female portraiture that is rare in today’s fiction and can, to an unsympathetic eye, look timebound. He often writes about women with an assessor’s eye, with that tendency towards miniaturism-in-portraiture, though in these instances more driven towards the physical and social than the narrative demands. Take, for example, this paragraph from the story ‘Dusk’, about the aging Mrs. Chandler:

She was a woman who lived a certain life. She knew how to give dinner parties, take care of dogs, enter restaurants. She had her way of answering invitations, of dressing, of being herself. Incomparable habits, you might call them. She was a woman who had read books, played golf, gone to weddings, whose legs were good, who had weathered storms, a fine woman whom no one now wanted.

Or the opening lines of his story ‘Eyes of the Stars’:

She was short with short legs and her body had lost its shape. It began at her neck and continued down, and her arms were like a cook’s.

There will no doubt be readers who might find the idea of assessing a woman’s body for signs of age innately sexist. Nothing in Salter’s work reads as crass or misogynistic in the slightest, but just as there are moments in his work that come perilously close to a kind of high-toned unconsciousness about money and status, there are times when his descriptions can feel distinctly old-fashioned and seigneurial. He writes of these women the way a suitor might, weighing up options. But these descriptions are also self-portraits of women who have come to see themselves as public figures. Very few of the men or women Salter writes about are, by our scattered modern standards, neurotic; they are people who define themselves by actions, and the appraisal of those actions, whether it is military service or high society dining. They exist, in many instances, as outwardly observable selves with little psychological shading – not shallow, but with profiles made of telling details instead of dense histories. In this way, Salter’s female portraiture, occasionally shading towards cruelty or preoccupation with the body, makes a kind of sense. The words are as final as the judgements of the other inhabitants of these often harsh milieus.

Yet there is also, in this approach, great tenderness and empathy. Consider the collection’s most touching story, ‘Twenty Minutes’, about a dying woman’s final moments. It opens like this:

This happened near Carbondale to a woman named Jane Vare. I met her once at a party. She was sitting on a couch with her arms stretched out on either side and a drink in one hand. We talked about dogs.

In a prose that blends plainspokenness with restrained elegance, Salter moves across the woman’s dying thoughts in a register of enormous sensitivity and frustrated longing. As contradictory as this might sound, there is an unsentimental sentimentality to the writing, a restraint that is clearly in the service of stronger feelings held in reserve. It is a story that takes a strong turn from its opening, which primes you for one kind of story (a seduction) only to deliver another kind altogether (a tragedy) – one the ‘I’ of the story cannot possibly have access to, but which he conjures all the same.

These reversals of the expected are not rare in Salter’s stories. In the collection’s final story, ‘Last Night’, what might seem at first to be a story of female suffering contemplated through a blinkered male view becomes, in the final narrative turn, a story of a couple and the unresolvability of their relationship, heavy with dimensions the story seemed initially to lack. If I continue to insist on Salter’s mature viewpoint as unique, it is for this reason – that there is no cynicism and no laziness in it, just resolve and stoicism. It is the acceptance of complication, beyond issues and slogans and the noise of accusation. This is the final sentence of ‘Last Night’, and it could as easily work as a title for All That Is: ‘That was just the way it was’.

If Salter’s portrayal of women occasionally reveals a sensibility removed from our own, this goes doubly for his treatment of sex. Which is to say: it is frequently purple, and it can be quite bad. Here is a short sample from All That Is:

She seems indifferent but accepting, and he kneels and puts his lips to her. He lifts her and holds her up by the waist, like a vessel, to his mouth. He can see himself as they pass a dark silvery mirror, her legs dangling, beginning to kick as he hardens his tongue. She is leaning backward as in one smooth movement he sets her, in the dream and to an extent in life, on his unholy hard-on and as he does, comes in a flood.

All the clichés and overblown tropes of sex writing can be found here. What in Salter’s earlier novel, A Sport and a Pastime (1967), successfully walked the line between the lyrical and ridiculous here fails completely. Generic erotic prose tends to exist on a fairly plain level, only winding itself into rhetorical force for what Clive James once termed ‘paradisiacal thrashing’. That slightly overblown quality is part of Salter’s sensibility, which treats every aspect of life with an earnestness at odds with our self-critical age. In the current era, unembarrassed and non-parodically presented sensuality can be as awkward for contemporary readers as sincere confessions of spiritual upheaval – we seem to have forgotten how to listen to them with a straight face. Despite our purported freedoms, we live in the era of the Bad Sex Award, and I am sure that the above passage would make a fine nominee most years.

But it is not Salter’s writing that’s wrongheaded; it is the idea behind the award. You have to be unafraid of embarrassment to write about sex, at least if you want to be sincere about it as a rapturous and joyous act, and not depict is as something that is inherently cruel, pitiful or dismal. There is easy mileage to be made in the comic-pathetic angle, but the sex in All That Is and other Salter works is incredibly chancy because he tends to view each encounter as genuine rapture. What is avoided is bad sex, or low sex. Salter risks serious embarrassment many times in his novels, from A Sport and a Pastime to All That Is. Yet in every paragraph that might fail, or strike us as ludicrous or insufficiently self–aware, we risk missing Salter’s larger vision of eroticism, which, like nearly everything else in his books, is presented without irony. Once again, this is a matter of our sensibility as much as his. ‘Unholy hard-on’ might be objectively bad writing, but the poetry that exists elsewhere in the passage (‘in the dream and to an extent in life’) is worth retaining, as is the fearlessness and the lack of qualifications or excuses.

‘These years are endless, but they cannot be remembered.’

This line from Light Years – somehow causal, paradoxical and haunting all at once – comes close to capturing the art of James Salter. His work is time-obsessed, yet time’s destructive work passes over his characters with none of the hallmarks of obsessiveness: the itchy irritability, the monomania. All of his work, even the bleakest, is tinged with a melancholic acceptance. It is a word made chintzy and weightless through unearned overuse, but in the rare and complicated mixture of tones in his best work, Salter achieves grace. His famously lyrical openings measure time as an event of enormous beauty sailing past the comprehension of his characters.

But then writing about time is famously difficult – theory is tired and common expression will invariably wander off into platitude. There is no complete summary of time, no catching all of it. Salter’s wariness of totalising recollection is expressed, with his characteristic mixture of lyricism and brevity, right at the opening of his memoir Burning The Days (1997):

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.

Even the subtitle of that book is telling: ‘Recollection’, without an article, as if memory itself were faulty.

This is the magic of Salter’s technique, and one of his lasting gifts: he has managed to revive realist writing by letting in the mess and drift of life, without resorting to violent avant-garde means (and I mean that in a completely non-pejorative sense). In essence, he is having it both ways. Without aping modernist techniques, or wandering further into fragmentation, he has presented the lacunae of memory and the mysteries of time while developing an unashamedly beautiful style, one of pure surface and elegance that nonetheless lets in the cracks and breaks. He is a modern and a classicist at the same time.