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Department of English

Introduction to James Salter

By Julie Schumacher, Professor of English

It is a great pleasure for me to introduce James Salter, whose novel Light Years I stumbled across about 25 years ago, without anyone telling me ahead of time what an astonishing and singular experience it would be to read it. So I felt I had discovered the novel myself, as if pulling a chunk of gold off the bookstore shelves, and I have re-read it, and read his other work, many times in the years since.

James Salter was born in 1925 and grew up in Manhattan, graduating from West Point in 1945. He served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, flying combat missions during the Korean War – an experience he writes about vividly, almost ecstatically, in his memoir, Burning the Days. In 1957, after the publication of his first novel, The Hunters, Salter resigned his military commission to write full-time. In the decades since, he has published well over a dozen highly acclaimed works: novels, short story collections, screenplays, poetry, essays, a memoir, and, most recently, with Kay Salter, a “food lover’s book of days” called Life Is Meals. His collection, Dusk and Other Stories, won the 1989 PEN/Faulkner Award.

James Salter’s prose is immediately recognizable; it resembles no other writer’s. His style has been described as “compressed,” “iridescent,” and “hypnotic.” It is startlingly powerful. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times has said that Salter “. . . can suggest in a single sentence an individual’s entire history, the complex interplay of longing and fear, hope and need, that has brought about the present.” Reading Salter’s work, we experience the almost physical sensation of life’s dramatic and ordinary moments alike being distilled and then wrought into language.

In his novels and short stories, but particularly in A Sport and a Pastime (called “a tour de force in erotic realism”) and in Light Years, Salter’s subject is his characters’ internal lives, and the process by which they discover what matters to them most; which thoughts and images and memories will survive – and even thrive, polished – with the passage of time. In a Paris Review interview, Edward Hirsch calls Light Years “a series of luminous moments.” And Salter responds, in the interview, noting that “these moments, these scenes, are themselves the narrative.”

Though Salter’s books are beautifully structured and calibrated, the reader is astonished not by the machinations of the plot but by the force and intimacy of the aesthetic experience. Characters are portrayed with extraordinary insight and depth. Viri, a character in Light Years, notes that “There are really two kinds of life. There is... the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.” And the reader of Salter’s work does see it: the contentment and the despair, the erotic and the mundane. All are rendered in crystalline, exquisite prose, Salter’s sentences opening under the reader’s gaze like a series of jeweled boxes.

In much of his work, Salter’s narrators seem to function as preservationists engaged in a marvelous, essential battle against time. This moment must be saved, and this one, and this one. One of my favorite of Salter’s stories, “Comet,” begins with a wedding:


Philip married Adele on a day in June. It was cloudy and the wind was
blowing. Later the sun came out. It had been a while since Adele had
married and she wore white: white pumps with low heels, a long white
skirt that clung to her hips, a filmy blouse with a white bra underneath,
and around her neck a string of freshwater pearls. They were married in
her house, the one she’d gotten in the divorce. All her friends were there.
She believed strongly in friendship. The room was crowded.

A few pages later, Philip, the groom, is perfectly described in a single sentence: “He was mannerly and elegant, his head held back a bit as he talked, as though you were a menu.”

In the words of writer Brendan Gill, “[Salter] pictures the world in all its perishable loveliness." In doing so, he reminds the reader that literature and art are not decorative; they are essential. While immersed in a book, Nedra, one of Salter’s characters, savors this feeling of aesthetic transformation – and I’ll end with this passage:


The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark.
The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river
water and enter the bodies of swimmers. [Nedra] was excited, filled with
strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many
other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives
should be without the illumination of the lives of others?

Please welcome James Salter.

October 27, 2010
Coffman Union Theater

 

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