James Salter is the great enigma of post-war American letters. Hailed as a “writer’s writer” (at once the highest accolade and a tacit admission that he has never enjoyed commercial success) he is both under-rated and occasionally over-praised. The author information in the UK edition of Cassada (first published in the US in 2000) explains that “with the publication of his second novel in 1961, his reputation as an author was established.”
According to Salter himself, in his 1997 memoir Burning the Days, this second novel “disappeared without trace.” (Things are additionally complicated by the way that Cassada is actually a revised and reworked version of that second novel, originally published under a different title, The Arm of Flesh.) Burning the Days was adorned with admiring sound bites from some of America’s most prominent writers, among them Richard Ford who believes that “sentence for sentence Salter is the master.” So it’s odd, on first encountering these sentences that a number of them seem ungainly, as if Salter’s stylistic distinction renders part of what he intends to convey at variance with the syntactical demands of the language: “There was an elevator within the steel framework and we had once gone up in it, perhaps in my imagination, even the Olympian view.” This is not a definitive judgement; it takes a while to adjust, to feel at home with the unsettled rhythms of his prose. The uncertainty surrounding Salter’s reputation and craft is exacerbated by A Sport and a Pastime (1967). An account of a passionate sexual affair in France, complete with frankly euphemistic depictions of anal sex, Salter’s best-known novel is also the one that has fared least well with the passage of time.
All of which makes the reissue of The Hunters and Light Years, as Modern Classics doubly welcome: a cause for celebration and appraisal. In their very different ways both are great books. The Hunters (1957) was Salter’s first novel and remains the most concise expression of his talents. It is based closely on his own experience as a pilot flying combat missions in Korea. The war in the air proceeds in tandem with a near- civil war on the ground as the pilots vie with each other to achieve the coveted five kills which will make them aces. The conflicting demands between ensuring the safety of comrades (the “sacred” duty of the wingman) and the individual daring – recklessness even - needed to shoot down MiGs threaten to destroy the central character, Cleve Connell.
In Burning the Days Salter recalls a friend advising him that “The original form of storytelling is someone saying, I was there and this is what I beheld.” As soon as he began writing, Salter knew that his time as a fighter pilot would give his storytelling this elemental immediacy and power. (The magnificent climactic scene of the novel involves an incident mentioned briefly in the memoir, when two planes, out of fuel, are forced to glide back to base.) Earlier still, when he was learning to fly, Salter had fallen under the spell of the most famous writer-pilot of them all, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “it was his knowledge I admired, his wholeness of mind, more than his exploits… In [his] footsteps I would follow.” (This tradition – or perhaps trajectory is a better word – has recently been extended by Jed Mercurio. Part of his novel, Ascent , about Soviet pilots flying MiGs in Korea, can be read as a commentary on - or duel with? – Salter whose novel, presumably, served as template and inspiration.) Cassada has at its core an event which is in some ways a reworking of the kind of crisis imaginatively depicted by Saint-Exupéry in Night Flight as two lost planes drift past their landing strip, cut off from the earth by darkness and rain clouds. The Hunters contains a direct allusion to the master, a translation of the lyricism of Wind, Sand and Stars (“Below the sea of clouds lies eternity”) into the argot of the jet age, the dawn of the right stuff: “There was a mission when they conned across seas of eternity, never catching sight of the ground except at the beginning and end.” Not that Salter is lacking in his own lyric gifts. The experience of flight, the mysteries of the sky, remain as intoxicating and magical as they were for the pilots of propeller-driven biplanes:
“Suddenly Pell called out something at three o’clock. Cleve looked. He could not tell what it was at first. Far out, a strange, dreamy rain was falling, silver and wavering. It was a group of drop tanks, tumbling down from above, the fuel and vapour streaming from them. Cleve counted them at a glance. There were a dozen or more, going down like thin cries fading in silence. That many tanks meant MiGs. He searched the sky above, but saw nothing.”
The movement of this passage is entirely characteristic: an inventory of the procedural dialogue of the cockpit dissolves into lyrical evocation which is then identified and absorbed as data - to be computed, worked with, responded to. At the start of the novel, when Cleve is a passenger en route to Korea, gazing out the cabin window, Salter stresses that “His eye was the flyer’s. He saw the hostile mountains, the absence of good landmarks, and the few places flat enough to land in an emergency.” But in Cleve’s later straining to make out exactly what he is seeing in the “dreamy rain” and his failure to see the MiGs that he knows must be there Salter hints at a potential flaw in his protagonist’s make-up. For pilots the eyes are everything: “It came down to that, time after time, who could see the farthest”. Cleve’s wingman and rival, Pell, has vision so good - “he can see a bird’s nest from forty thousand” - it amounts almost to a kind of second sight.
Everything in the novel is rendered from within the world-view and idiom of the fighter pilots (the planes are almost always referred to as ships!). It is, without question, one of the greatest flying novels ever written. However meticulously and faithfully rendered, though, flying is important not simply as an end in itself but as a test of character, of how one reacts in the face of destiny (again there are echoes of Saint-Exupéry here). You do everything you can to control what happens but at some point – to return to Burning the Days – you are left “facing the unalterable.” Cocooned in his cockpit, as alone “and isolated as a deep-sea diver”, the pilot achieves - or fails to - a state of grace in and through his isolation.
This is at the heart of Salter’s ethic of solitary splendour. It is part of the sheer definition of self attained by Rand, the climber-hero of his later novel Solo Faces (1979): “There is something greater than the life of the cities, greater than money and possessions; there is a manhood that can never be taken away. For this, one gives everything.”
Even here there is ambiguity, however. For Rand also basks in recognition. “A kind of distinction surrounded him, of being marked for a different life. That distinction meant everything.” It is the same with Cleve and the other pilots; their kills have to be recorded on film or vouched for by others to be verified. Cleve craves the bestowal of public acclaim that five kills will grant him. Only when that has been achieved can it be rejected; until then failure stalks him like a curse. On leave in Tokyo Cleve explains to a girl he has met that “truth doesn’t always come from truthful men.” In a defining twist he ultimately achieves his moment of truth through a kind of falsehood; having “searched the whole heavens for his destiny and godliness” he ends up finding them “on earth.” His triumph lies in attaining what he has most sought and then voluntarily renouncing it - and all the acclaim that should have gone with it.
In this light it is difficult not to see the fictionalised version of Salter’s flying experience in The Hunters as a prophetic allegory of his subsequent career as a writer. Cleve longs to succeed, both in the hermetic isolation of the cockpit and through the admiration of his peers. When Salter finished Light Years he “wanted glory” and craved praise, “widespread praise”. To an extent this was achieved in America. In Britain the novel was published thanks to the intervention of Graham Greene whose “opinion of it was higher than the English critics’” This is not just gossipy irrelevance, for in Light Years one of Salter’s characters addresses the issue nakedly: “‘The thing I would really like to know is,’ Nedra said, ‘must fame be a part of greatness?’” It is the question that haunted Cleve - and it is a question that brings Nedra’s husband Viri to an appalling realisation of his own insufficiency: “fame was not only part of greatness, it was more. It was the evidence, the only proof. All the rest was nothing, in vain. He who is famous cannot fail; he has already succeeded.” On a general level this explains why Fitzgerald with all his early success, could wallow in his later, ostensible failure. In Salter’s case it offers a dramatic and unusual instance of a writer’s work and his reputation coming into mutually illuminating adjacency.
If The Hunters is Salter’s most perfectly achieved novel, Light Years is his strangest, the most complex and ambitious. It depicts the idyllic life of a young couple, Nedra and Viri (possibly the most irritatingly named characters in literature) living in upstate New York. Their lives are bathed in a domestic, earthly version of the crisp radiance that illuminated the pilots in their planes (or, for that matter, Rand on his mountains). “Autumn morning.The earliest light. The sky is pale above the trees, pure, more mysterious than ever, a sky to dizzy the fedayeen, to end the astronomer’s night. In it, dim as coins on a beach, fading, shine two last stars.” At first an atmosphere of abundance - economic, familial – pervades the novel. It opens in 1958 and - pace A Sport and a Pastime - the passing years have favoured it in one very simple way. Viri is always driving into and out of Manhattan, to work or for dinners. The prospect of having to do that now is enough to fill anyone with dread; back in the late 50s and early 60s the commuter’s lot is enviably uncongested.
The novel is so saturated with its own intensity that it is surprising to see the seasons roll quickly by, to witness the narrative extend itself so extravagantly. As Viri’s and Nedra’s marriage grows strained it becomes evident that the stress had been there from the start, was inseparable, in fact, from its apparent or backlit perfection. They both have lovers; their children grow up; friends die or simply drop out of sight; the couple divorce – and the novel follows them after they move, separately, abroad. In a weird way Salter’s account of his characters lives seems both definitive and haphazard, inconclusive. 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.
Salter offers an important guide to the nature of his unusual and oblique form of authorial command in Burning the Days. In 1972 he completed a sixty-five page outline: “I was nervous and elated. I knew what I wanted: to summarize certain attitudes towards life, among them that marriage lasted too long. I was perhaps thinking of my own. I had in mind a casting back, a final rich confession, as it were. There was a line of Jean Renoir’s that struck me: The only things that are important in life are those you remember. That was the key. It was to be a book of pure recall. Everything in the voice of the writer, in his way of telling.” With this in mind the book’s weirdnesses begin to melt away, its lacunae become part of an essential, overarching design. It becomes an extraordinary, light-inflected narrative made up of defining moments, an unfolding reminder that certain instants can be so charged that their consequences do not merit recounting.
Salter thought, with justification, that he was on to something, but he had trouble persuading a publisher of his intentions. When it was eventually finished and accepted, Salter explains in Burning the Days, his editor sent a note that offers a brisk summing up of his ambiguous status as an American master: “An absolutely marvellous book in every way, probably.”
Remember Nedra’s line about fame and greatness? By the terms of that question and Viri’s reaction to it it is not just Salter’s reputation which is changed by Light Years being installed as a Modern Classic; the text itself, the very words on the page, are also subtly altered. His editor’s qualifying “probably” can be edited out. ENDS.