James Salter

10/01/2020

The Tears of the Temporal

James Salter was working indeed in a crowded field: a post-war America that included Mailer, Bellow, Updike, Roth, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Yates, Ford, Barth, Coover and Barthelme, Morrison, Baldwin, O’Connor. The list does indeed go on. Salter also started late, with a prior career as an airforce pilot, and alongside his novel writing he worked on various scripts and directed a film that seemed to distract him from his main focus rather than augment it, no matter if the film he made, Three, is a fine examination of three young adults traversing France in the sixties. It is as good as many a road movie of the period, and there was also a fine script for Downhill Racer that led to an ongoing professional relationship with Robert Redford. Yet perhaps because of the late start and the time-consuming digressions, Salter’s body of work is small. Though he lived till his late eighties, Salter, born in 1925 and raised in Manhattan, produced half a dozen novels, around twenty plus stories and collections of non-fiction. There is more than enough here to add up to a body of work but there is a shy thoughtfulness in the prose, a sense in which lives are never that central, and thus narrative can never quite take hold. Salter often wants to find the means by which to show failure within success, to show that a life is always a matter of perspective. Whatever one’s achievements or merits, there is a quiet, even throughline that matters most. As James meek proposed: there is “a Japanese simplicity and purity of line.” (London Review of Books

This is partly why there is a meteorological sense in James Salter’s work which suggests he wants a perspective quite distinct from point of view. When in The Hunters he opens many of the chapters with a description of the weather conditions we might think this is just consistent with the material: a book about fighter pilots in the Korean War. After all, isn’t it standard pilot procedure when we get on a plane to tell us what the conditions are like when we take off and what we can expect when we land? But Salter’s meteorological descriptions run throughout his work, and don’t differ greatly from those in The Hunters. Here are several from the flight novel. “At 5:15 in the morning it was piercingly cold, with an icy moon still bright in the sky.” “The morning was blue with a warm wind blowing.” “In June came ponderous heat and mornings like eggshells, pale and smooth.” Here are a couple from Light Years, “In the morning the light came in silence., The house slept. The air overhead, glittering, infinite, the mist earth beneath…” “Winter comes, a bitter cold. The snow creaks underfoot with a rich, mournful sound.” And one from the story ‘Palm Court’: “it was still light outside, the pure full light before evening, the sun in a thousand windows facing the park.” And finally, A Sport and a Pastime: “these slow days with their misty beginnings, the fields all cool and quiet, the great viaduct still.”

When we distinguish between perspective and point of view it is partly to indicate that while the former is an ontological problem, the latter is a technical one. Technically the writer needs to be careful not to violate the given limits of the point of view the writer apparently sets up, which is why we have terms like third-person restrictive, unreliable narrators, free indirect discourse, stream of consciousness and so on. These are very useful technical terms to describe what can be achieved from a given narrative position. Richard Ford notes however that, in his introduction to Light Years, Salter's novel about a couple over several decades, there is a “relaxed adherence to chronology, to narrative continuity and to that old writing-workshop taskmaster, point of view.” Point of view implies an anthropological limit that even the omniscient narrators of the 19th century couldn’t escape from; indeed vital to the omniscience was the narrative authority of the figure telling us the story. This wouldn’t quite be Balzac, Dickens or Austen: these were merely the authors who wrote down the tale: one wasn’t reading Dickens, Austen or Balzac but the storyteller who happened to go by that name. This didn’t even mean the novel had to be in the third person as long as we sensed the first-person narrator either knew how to tell a story well or remained at its centre causing no problem to the narrative development. As John Mullan notes, “some important novels that followed [the first person Robinson Crusoe], also took for granted that, if the purpose of fiction was to explore the inner life of a credible character, a first-person narrative was the best means.” (How Novels Work). The first person narrator wasn’t there to cause problems for the story but to facilitate it just as smoothly as an impersonal narrator would. Tzvetan Todorov says, “now and then critics invoke a narrative that is simple, healthy and natural - a primitive narrative untainted by the vices of modern versions” and works through a few of the demands contained: the sort of laws invisibly evident in many a story well told. One is the law of stylistic unity that insists “the low and sublime cannot mix”. Another is the antidigressive law: where digressions are seen as “not only useless but inappropriate, for it suspends the narrative at a crucial moment.” a third the law of realism: “all of the character’s words and actions must agree with a psychological verisimilitude.” Todorov is talking about a work a lot older than 19th-century fiction —The Odyssey and some of the commentators on it who see any deviation from the rules of narrative as somehow added by others at a later date and that must be detrimental to the text as Todorov discusses the “myth of the proper narrative”.

It is this myth of the proper narrative writers are still contending with, and when Ford mentions point-of-view in Salter and his frequent slippage from one character to another without much warning, this can seem like a failure of technique. Hasn’t literature indeed developed technical possibilities in which to broaden point-of-view, to allow for a less restrictive narrative method? Hence we mention various techniques that can allow a writer freedom while still respecting in essence the principle of point of view. Take stream-of-consciousness for example. Mullan notes that "Mrs Dalloway…is a prime example of ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative. Such a narrative is supposed to follow not just the voiced thoughts of a character (Jane Austen’s Emma does that), but the leaps of association that connect those thoughts”. Mullan adds: "Woolf uses the very spaces of the city to move between different streams of consciousness, As characters cross each others’ paths, their thoughts cross in front of us too.” (How Novels Work) Woolf creates a fluidity of point of view so that she can move from one character to another, capturing the flux of thought and feeling in a technique much less static than Austen telling us what happens to be going on in someone’s head. Another modern technique is free indirect discourse, which, allows us to see things from a character’s position without using dialogue and then inserting the dialogical equivalent into the perception. Thus James Wood reckons that if the writer were to say “Ted watched the Orchestra through tears” this wouldn’t free indirect but if “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears” it would be. “The addition of the word ‘stupid’ raises the question: whose word is this?” It isn’t so much the narrator who thinks Ted is stupid, more Ted acknowledging his own stupid embarrassment in listening to the orchestra. Another, slightly different example Wood gives is from A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man: “Uncle Charles ‘repairs’ to the outhouse. Repairs is a pompous verb which belongs to outmoded poetic convention. It is ‘bad’ writing. Joyce, with his acute eye for cliche, would only use such a word knowingly.” (How to Read Fiction). We might question slightly Wood’s examples, especially when he extends the term so completely that he says “there is a final refinement of free indirect style - we should just call it authorial irony - when the gap between an author’s voice and a character’s voice seems to collapse altogether” but these two examples are worth keeping in mind. We can easily hear someone saying after crying at a concert that they cried stupid tears, or someone insisting they will just repair to the outhouse. It is indirect discourse because these are words the character would use which the author might not, but wants to convey their thoughts in their own language. Both stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse are useful ways in which to keep the point of view very flexible, moving between various characters thoughts in a very tentative form as we find in Mrs Dalloway, or momentarily moving into a character’s head by using words that the character uses that the author would be less inclined to utilise as a narrator, as in Portrait of a Young Man.

But Salter appears to us more interested in perspective than point of view; that the techniques developed to create clarity no matter how initially confusing (evident in Mrs Dalloway) become clear partly through the consistency of the technique used, and the same is true, finally with metafictional devices that bring the writer into the very material they are writing, as when Martin Amis brings in Martin Amis talking to his central character John Self in Money. When Salter brings the first person into what seems like an omniscient third-person novel it surprises us: Light Years, for example, doesn’t open on such a voice but it happens to be dropped in relatively late in the novel when the narrator says two-thirds of the way through the book: “they were divorced in the fall. I wish it could have been otherwise. The clarity of those Autumn days affected them both.” Who is this ‘I” who seems not at all to be a character in the novel, but where there hasn’t been the metafictional telegraphing we might usually expect? There seems to be some vaguer reason than technique for such a choice, evident when he talks about A Sport and a Pastime. “You could not tell Dean’s story, I don’t believe, in the first person without losing the reader’s sympathy, some essential sympathy…” he said speaking to Nick Paumgarten. “And in the third person it merely becomes an account. It dries up a little and becomes a dossier, a report on something, no matter what the language does to enrich it.” Paumgarten reckons, “the inference: to tell the story of his own affair, with intimacy and allure, he had to find a way to make it not only someone else’s but someone else’s as imagined by someone else.” The novel is narrated by someone who speaks about his friend but also suggests that it is a work he is making up as readily as relating. The novel, however, doesn’t at all suggest the playfulness of a Coover or Barthelme but appears to stem from a discretionary necessity. Is there an aspect of fiction that defies technique, which insists that the technical virtuosity of the writing is only as good as the ontology that underpins it? 

Salter wouldn't deny much of his fiction is based on his own life and the lives of those he knew. Paumgarten says that the satyr turning up in the Swiss hotel in Light Years making all sorts of generalizations about women to one of the book’s central characters is based on Irwin Shaw; the two leading characters, Nedra and Viri, Paumgarten explains, were based closely on friends of Salter’s at the time — as Barbara and Laurence Rosenthal discovered when they read the novel. Even when writing non-fictionally Salter exposed people, describing Charlotte Rampling (who starred in Three) as someone who “chewed wads of gum, had dirty hair, and, according to the costume woman, wore clothes that smelled.” (Burning Days) Then there are the vivid descriptions of sex. Speaking of A Sport and Pastime, he says the “book would have been difficult to write in the first person—that is to say if it were Dean’s voice. It would be quite interesting written from Anne-Marie’s voice, but I wouldn’t know how to attempt that. On the other hand, if it were in the third person, the historic third, so to speak, it would be a little disturbing because of the explicitness, the sexual descriptions.” (Conversations with James Salter) Salter reckoned, “the question was how to paint this, more or less. I don’t recall how it came to me, but the idea of having a third person describe it, somebody who is really not an important part of the book but merely serving as an intermediary between the book and the reader, was perhaps the thing that was going to make it possible; and consequently, I did that. I don’t know who this narrator is. You could say it’s me; well, possibly. But truly, there is no such person.”

Here we see an ontology meeting an ethics, as if the aesthetic, or the technical, remains subsidiary to another question. Imagine a fiction of which there is no such person, no narrative anchor, and haven’t so many developments in narrative technique tried to find the means by which to eradicate the assertiveness of the narrator, to call its presence into question? When the novelist uses stream-of-consciousness it allows the characters’ thoughts to run away with themselves; when a writer puts a word into his or her narration that would beforehand have only been in the dialogue, as in free indirect discourse, the writer appears to be giving his novel over to the characters. Obviously, he or she is doing no such thing and yet, at the same time, Alain Robbe-Grillet was far from alone when proposing that novelists must escape from the presuppositions so many techniques contained, however developed and self-conscious. “…We are so accustomed to discussions of “character’, “atmosphere’, “form”, and ‘content’, of ‘message’ and ‘narrative ability’ and ‘true novelists’ that it requires an effort to free ourselves from this spider web and realize that it represents an idea about the novel (a ready-made, idea, which everyone admits without argument, hence a bad idea), and not at all that so-called “nature’ of the novel in which we are supposed to believe.” (For a New Novel) The problem with ‘technique’ is that it can mask the reality the writer seeks to expose rather than reveals it. Hence a writer very different from Robbe-Grillet, Norman Mailer reckoned “…I am a bit cynical about craft. I think there’s a natural mystique in the novel which is more important than craft. One is trying to capture reality, and that is extraordinary and exceptionally difficult.” (Cannibals and Christian)

This allows us to return to a couple of our earlier propositions: the importance of the weather and variability of perspective. Concerning the former, John Mullan discusses weather in Ian McEwan’s Atonement but also mentions Austen and Forster, too. Yet he speaks of the latter’s use as a setting rather than an enframing. “It transforms or saturates European characters, overcoming their defences, draining them of self-assurance. It is a received truth that foreign heat undoes oppression.” Of Emma, he says “there is a memorable heatwave…” in the “novel in which the weather is several times important to the plot.” Mullan also quotes a couple of lines from Atonement, “I love England in a heatwave. It’s a different country. All the rules change.” Interestingly, Mullan suggests that “in eighteenth-century fiction, storms or balmy days are merely convenient for the story. Real weather is more intrusive as he notes it impacts on the plot, giving the 19th century Emma as an example. But if the weather can provide no more than a bit of contextual verisimilitude in 18th-century fiction and starts to be utilised for the purposes of the story in the 19th, then how might it function in certain works of the 20th, including Salter’s, perhaps Walker Percy’s, certainly Peter Handke’s? One way is to see it as unframing, taking into account Heidegger’s belief that modern man in enframed within the technological; that nature serves man’s thought which then allows for the technology it then produces, quite contrary to the agricultural. Thus Heidegger says “a tract of land is challenged in the hauling out of coal and ore. The earth now reveals itself as a coal-mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit.” Heidegger contrasts this with “the field that the peasant formerly cultivated and set in order [and which] appears differently than it did when to set in order still meant to take care and maintain. The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field.” (‘The Question Concerning Technology’) Now for Heidegger the enframing isn’t the technological initself, which is why he can suggest it precedes the scientific revolution as a means by which to manipulate the earth, an expansionist mindset that then finds its pragmatic method in the technological. David Farrell Krell says, “the technological framework is inherently expansionist and can reveal only by reduction. Its attempt to enclose all beings in a particular claim - utter availability, and sheer manipulability - Heidegger calls Ge-stell, ‘enframing’. (Basic Writings

The novelist who uses nature as Mullan proposes, and that became central to the 19th-century novel as important for setting and plot, falls into a certain novelistic enframing. It becomes a technique: a means by which to change for example the habits and behaviour of the characters, to allow someone to lose their temper and blame it on the heat as we see the person acting out of character; as a means by which to allow two people to become intimate as the rain starts to fall and they find shelter in a bandstand and after ten minutes tentatively hold hands and kiss. We needn’t dismiss such uses altogether; a lot will depend on how such moments are shown and developed, but we will know in numerous examples that they are no more than techniques: a means by which to get a character to lose their temper plausibly; to have a couple finally get close. 

Writers like Handke, Salter and Percy resist such techniques, as if resisting in as fundamental a way as they can the enframing for an unframing. Nature isn’t there as a means but as an end that encompasses our being even as we move within it. Returning to Salter, here are a couple more uses of the weather in his work. “Over France a great summer rain, battering the trees, making the foliage ring like tin. The walls grow dark with water. The gutters are running, the streets are all abandoned. It started at dusk. By nine it is still pouring down.” (A Sport and a Pastime) “The sun appears, without body, without heat, its color pale, serene. The water lies as if dead. The moorings are dark on its surface, the pennants hang limp. The river is English, cool as silver.” (Light Years) These are disembodied descriptions of nature and there are many of them to be found in Salter’s work, giving the material perspective that distances rather than a point of view which draws us in. We needn’t become schematic and insist that an obsession with point-of-view indicates an enframed assumption and the perspective an unframed one — writers are usually far too subtle and nuanced for that. But if someone has reservations about writing workshops, about creative writing courses, it might rest on the fear that ‘technique’ will be taught as fundamental, when technique is a particular means rather than an end, a point Mailer determinedly points out. Frequently the description of weather in Salter’s work isn’t just scene-setting nor does it push the story; it gives to the work an objectivity: it demands we see the subjects within a world much greater than their own agency.  

This might help explain Salter’s odd relationship with point-of-view. In The Hunters, most of the novel is viewed from central character Cleve’s position. We have his thoughts on the other characters and his more general feelings as well. When in the middle of the book a chapter starts with “the next day was Sunday. He spent the early afternoon at Miyata’s. He had brought two cartons of American cigarette’s with him as a gift…” we are in little doubt this is Cleve. Throughout the book, we have access to his thoughts and will often assume, though the book is in the third person, that when the narrator details events they are passing through his eyes. Speaking of the character who will be central to Cleve’s thoughts, Pell, the narrator says: “at the moment he [Pell] was interested in meeting the nurses in the hospital down Yongdongpo, and he’d arranged to borrow a jeep to go there the following night. His reputation of always having had great success with women was something that required constant renewal. He was intrigued by the prospect of a conquest under difficult circumstances.” It isn’t quite Cleve’s thinking, evident elsewhere when Cleve reckons, “he was increasingly tortured by the thought that it might be something more insidious, he was afraid to identify what. If it was something unacknowledged within himself, then he was lost. The torment of that possibility tore at his heart.” In the description of Pell we have the sort of claims made by various pilots passing through what Cleve has also seen. In Cleve’s fears this is nobody’s thought about him but his own. It means we are close to Cleve but the others remain the property usually of external narration. 

Yet this is where the book’s conclusion surprises. As the various pilots and others discuss the mission, we realise as they talk that Cleve is dead. A correspondent then interviews Pell, who says, “he was like a brother. I just don’t know what to say, I can’t believe they got him.” The book then gives us the correspondent’s internal thoughts: “He watched Pell closely. He could not subdue a sense of suspicion, but then he became a little ashamed of himself.” Here we have a character of apparently no consequence suddenly given a private voice. It can seem an odd ending to a book that could easily have concluded on the previous chapter. Cleve has been obsessed with improving his record of one downed MiG; he is older than the others at thirty-one and Pell has taken out half a dozen. Yet in the penultimate chapter where he has shot down a second and lost his wingman, and where nobody can credit him with his second score, he says one person has seen the incident. He gives the downed MiG to his dead colleague as he says he witnessed it in a moment that suggests a  dignified realisation there are values more important than racking up numbers. But instead, Salter ends the book with Cleve gone and others thinking in his place. From a certain angle, it can seem like a flaw, from another a clever device to make his absence much stronger than if the book had been more omnisciently narrated. Yet above all else, and in the context of Salter’s work more generally, it registers as a determined need to obliterate point-of-view with askew perspectives.

We see it frequently in Light Years and often in the short stories too. InMy Lord You’ for example, a story told more or less from the wife’s angle suddenly switches to her husband’s observations upon her. “My life has meant nothing, she thought. She wanted above all else to confess tha.,” This is consistent with the rest of the story that follows her thoughts and actions closely. But then the story briefly switches perspectives: “Her face annoyed him, he did not know why. She could be good-looking but there were times when she was not. Her face was like a series of photographs, some of which ought to have been thrown away”

In Light Years, the book’s main characters Viri and Nedra are visiting Europe and, while spending six days in London and two in Kent, the book tells us of their encounters with a couple who own a beautiful house in the county, and various places they visit in the capital. In the middle of this trip in the south of England, the book moves from following their itinerary to moving quite suddenly into their daughter’s life in New York. The paragraph begins so that we are still in London. “It was summer, the blue exhaust from automobiles tinted the airless city. They had cucumber sandwiches at tea. They dined in Italian restaurants. They visited Chelsea and the Tate.” Then, in the same paragraph, “in a section of New York that was deserted after five, Danny sat with her god. The streets were empty…She was a young girl stunned by love…You cannot imagine the depth of these summer days, the silence. She came to his room almost daily. He employed her with the greatest pleasure on earth.” And then the next paragraph returns to “her parents dined in Marlow, a town an hour from London. The restaurant was crowded.” A breach opens up between the sentences that hasn’t been anticipated even by even a paragraph break. In another chapter, we are viewing things from Nedra’s point of view as the chapter opens: in six years she would be forty. “She saw it from a distance, like a reef, the whitened glimpse of danger. She was frightened by the idea of age…” Later in the chapter she notices when a friend arrives at the house “she looked older. In a single year she had abandoned her youth. Her eyes had lines round them, her skin showed tiny pores.” Yet a few lines later we are getting another friend Rae’s angle on Eve’s son, Anthony. “She watched him through the window, drawn to him. He was too old for her to imagine as a son, he was a youth already…” Usually, in the former instance, such a shift in point of view would be anticipated by a separate chapter. In the second instance, we might have viewed Rae’s attraction to Anthony through Nedra’s eyes. Obviously such sudden shifts aren’t new — Mrs Dalloway for one is a book that constantly moves from one character to another without a clear break announcing itself. Yet there is also a logic to Woolf’s device within the irrationality she explores. Salter’s is more mysterious, as if he wants to suggest these sudden moments where perspective becomes embodied in time with characterisation present only as a means by which to capture this fleetingness of being. If Mrs Dalloway was one of a number of 20th-century novels that compressed itself into a short time span of a day or two, Salter goes for a temporal sprawl that means people can age years from chapter to chapter. 

Thus the characters seem to have been dropped into time as readily as they pass through it, a Bergsonian reality that influenced novelists in at least two ways. When Henri Bergson differentiated clock time from duration, the external coordinates of time from our experience of time passing experientially, he wanted to show not so much how life happens to us but how we make life happen. “Here we have one of the ruling ideas of this book — the idea, indeed, which served as the starting point of our inquiry. That which is usually held to be a greater complexity of this psychical state appears to us, from our point of view, to be a greater dilation of the whole personality, which normally narrowed down by action, expands with the unscrewing of the vice in which it has allowed itself to be squeezed, and always whole and unindividuated, spreads itself over a wider and wider surface.” (Matter and Memory) Woolf brilliantly contracts time to suggest what happens when action is secondary to thought: experiences of war or a party years earlier become no more than fragments of memory in a contracted present as Mrs Dalloway prepares for a dinner party in 1923 while events pass through her mind and the minds of others. Salter appears to be interested also in accessing thoughts, but they seem to be secondary to Time as that other great Modernist Proust sees it near the end of Time Regained. “I was astonished to see at her [Gilberte’s] side a girl of about sixteen, whose tall figure was a measure of the distance which I had been reluctant to see. Time, colourless and inapprehensible Time, so that I was almost able to see it and touch it, had materialised itself in the girl, moulding her into a masterpiece, while correspondingly on me, alas!, it had merely done its work.” 

When we think back to the two examples we have given from Light Years, we see how they capture an aspect of Proust’s approach to time, one that combines the external fact of ageing with the experience of such an observation. Salter is finally interested less in the Woolfian experiments with time as character subjectivity than with the temporal conflict between time continuing unheeded and our perception of it as belonging to us. That comment by Proust seems so pertinent to much of Salter’s work that we may be surprised to find the French author’s book doesn’t make it into Salter's list of favourites — which include Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Dead Souls. Nevertheless, when we look at his oeuvre, so often age manifests itself as realisation. A Sport and a Pastime presents its conclusion in the subjunctive. The central character Dean is dead, and the narrator thinks of Dean's lover Anne-Marie. "Many fragments come to me, are discovered, reappear. I wander about the room picking up or remembering things which are narcotic, which induce me to dream-the details, the relics of love, suffused with an aching beauty.” The book then ends a page and half later: "As for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes, now, or did. She is married, I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.” Who exactly is this narrator and how ironic are we to take this conclusion? 

Perhaps it doesn’t quite matter who is narrating the book; that part of Salter’s determination in writing is the obliteration of narration itself, trying to find a position beyond it, an impossibility of course but that the ostensible awkwardness of point of view somehow reveals. And as for the irony or otherwise in the conclusion, what is most interesting is that it suggests time not so much standing still as one’s determination to avoid the pain of time’s horrible imposition. Anne-Marie has the life we all greatly desire as a means by which to escape the anomalies of time for instead its daily habits. In the latter, time isn’t so completely felt, with the process of child-rearing, daily work and weekends dictating the necessity of clock time, giving to a life a sense of inevitability and predictability. But the former, the anomalies of time, suggest that life can easily be very different from what it is, and time becomes both a personal responsibility and a state both constantly lost and found. It is lost in the natural time of chronology as we get older and the experience fades further into the past, but it is constantly regained by an existence that isn’t so rigorously affiliated with clock-time and action, one that attends to the possibilities in those anomalous moments of recapture. Thus for a writer like Salter there aren’t good stories that you tell but these anomalous moments that you find, and perhaps a properly existential life, a life one takes responsibility for, as it might seem Anne-Marie does not, would accumulate as many of these moments as possible. When Paris Review reckons Salter “is a consummate storyteller” we are inclined to disagree, and think of a remark Salter makes in the same interview: “The deepest instinct, I think, is to want to do something enduring, something worthwhile, and to be engaged by that, whether one achieves it or not . . .”  But even more we can think of another interview, Salter’s last. The interviewer says, that vital to Light Years is the question of how to live and Salter replies: “of course it’s one of the principal motives in Light Years. I felt that she (Nedra) had an idea of how to live, and he did too (Viri). By that I mean I approved their idea of how they wanted to live" as Salter makes clear “it doesn’t take a firm moral stand. It is certainly permissive. I think it could be criticized for the infidelity, and I don’t know whatever else there is in it. That’s about all. The book is sympathetic to itself.” (Literary Hub)

There is no suggestion that consummate storytelling is what interests Salter in this comment, but what does he mean by a book that is sympathetic to itself? Perhaps that he doesn’t want to judge the lives because the point of Salter’s book lies elsewhere: to see in the central characters a search not so much for lost time but for finding in time present what will be recoverable once time has been lost. They wonder how they should live, what they ought to prioritise. As they travel through Europe when the kids are more or less grown-up, and after which Nedra travels to Europe alone and then later again when they are divorced Viri travels on his own, settling in Italy, they seem to carry within them a nostalgia for the past that is still in their future. Their search is for the memories they can have that a limited life will deny them even if within that search Nedra will constantly look forward to a future that is forever unfulfillable, and Viri will become increasingly aware just how many of his emotional memories are embedded in his life with Nedra. When Viri is in Italy he meets a woman who will become his next wife, someone of limited life experience who latches onto Viri and sees him as the love she has been waiting for. “Of course I’ll wait,” Lia says. “You know I am yours… do what you like to me.” But though he marries Lia, “there was not a day, not an hour, that his immediate, undefended response would not have been to surrender [to Nedra].” His search for the lost time of the past to be found in a future that could be looked back on longingly was never as strong as Nedra’s — perhaps because in Nedra he had found that search, but Nedra had not found that search in him. Is this what love is? Is that why Viri knows he cannot love Lia?

Yet a little earlier in the book, when Viri sells the house and moves to Europe, Nedra is distraught. She may have wished for the divorce but even she can’t quite countenance the proper end of their life together. In the chapter before she “was struck by the distances of life, by all that was lost in them…She remembered only the sunlight that made her amorous, the certainty she felt, the emptiness of the restaurant as they talked…” Nedra never seems to find the lost time that she is searching for and Viri finds it in the woman he loses. The book is tragic not because they have lacked the moral werewithal to live properly but the capacity to find in their lives the moments that can define them in the future self of their present existence. Is this not what yearning is: that we cannot discover in our present life one that a future self can look back on meaningfully? This is quite distinct from boredom, which asks only that the moment be alleviated by excitement. Viri and Nedra do not at all have a boring life as we find them at the start of the book living in their large Victorian house in the late 1950s on the River Hudson, the husband an architect who commutes back and forth to New York. They have plenty of friends and a hectic social life, but it is as if they need to break out of the mechanical existence they have created for themselves and find in their lives a more durational one. We offer the terms in a Bergsonian way but also to indicate that a mechanical life needn’t be dreary; more that it is consistent, coherent, contained. Memory can coalesce around mechanical time, dissolving it into habit and expectation. Duration isolates time, removing it from the predictable. From a certain perspective yearning is what drives the self towards duration and away from the mechanical. It is this we often find in Salter’s work and partly why it can seem technically troublesome, as though it is seeking a form to contain the mechanical within the durational, and also find a perspective that can contain both. 

In the last interview with Salter, Alexander Slotnick asks: “One of the most striking technical features of both A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years is the way in which you made some unconventional decisions in terms of perspective. The distance of the narrator and the narrator’s positioning in regard to the characters. What brought you to these ideas?” (Literary Hub) Salter talks then about the architecture and focuses chiefly, and briefly, on A Sport and a Pastime. We would see in this unusual perspective Salter’s attempt to escape clock time for a sort of meteorological time that allows for duration and our own small place in a world that is both existentially necessary and cosmically all but irrelevant. But let us not end on generalities and conclude, briefly, on a couple of Salter short stories: the earlier mentioned ‘My Lord You', and ‘Palm Court’. In the former ‘My Lord You’, a couple visit another couple for dinner and after the meal a drunken man, Brennan, arrives and drinks some more, a wild look on his face that the central character Ardis finds initially repellent but in time fascinating. Ardis discovers he lives nearby and, in his absence, as she wanders around his house, becomes no less enchanted by his dog. But after a while she stops seeing the dog and though she passes the house many times there was never a sign of him again. She does, however, see Brennan one night at a bar, but he is alone, “the dog was not outside, nor in his car, nor part of his life anymore — gone, lost living elsewhere, his name perhaps to be written in a line someday though most probably he was forgotten, but not by her.” The dog isn’t memorable but he is remembered, which is really what memorable happens to be, if we see the memorable as no more and no less than the collectively remembered: a memory that becomes fixed, as if part of not at all a Jungian collective unconscious but instead a societal conscious. The central character’s determination to fix on this dog, this non-human without a name, touches something in her" “he was unbetraying,  a companion like no other.” In what she sees as the dog’s solitude she seems to recognise something of her own, while in her husband she sees a man whose business was to give advice. “He had a life that served other lives, helped them come to agreements, end marriages, defend themselves against former friends…he lived amid disturbance and self-interest but always protected from it.” Who would have thought a threat to their relationship might come in the form of a dog? There is a comment another woman makes early in the story that strikes Ardis: “I think there’s such a thing as sleeping with one man too many,” but Ardis wonders whether she heard correctly: was it there is such a thing or there is no such thing? Maybe sleeping with someone isn’t the problem; it is much more intangible than that. Thus if, as Ardis thinks, her “life has meant nothing” what is it that will expose the nothingness of that life? Perhaps she finds in the dog’s presence her own durational absence: that she has not accumulated the memories Salter’s work suggests is so important for living a ‘full’ life.

In ‘Palm Court’ a financial consultant and a woman working in advertising enjoy each other’s company but he suggests no sign of commitment and in time Noreen marries someone else. Arthur takes it slowly and badly, and never feels he has got over her when, many years later, the phone rings while he is at work: it is Noreen. They arrange to meet and for her the years fall away while for Arthur they cling to her body, even to what she wears. “Isn’t it funny…five minutes with you and it’s as if none of it [the marriage] ever happened.” He thinks: “Her clothes, he noticed, even her clothes were hiding who she had been.” Some have had problems with Salter’s depiction of women, with Chris Powers noting a problematic perspective on the female form. The headline proclaims less subtly “some of his short stories have conspicuous faults – not least in their portrayal of women – but the best show a unique, sad beauty.” (Guardian) There might be something in that; in a story like ‘Palm Court’ one may see a man waiting many years for the love of his life to come back only to find, when she does, a few gained pounds are enough to put him off. But that would be to impose a superficiality onto the story as readily as seeking to call out its misogynistic shallowness. Certainly, the character is being shallow, but not only in his observations but also in his dishonest claims. “Love never dies” he says when it seems to have done so. Yet while Arthur knows they won’t meet for lunch anytime soon this isn’t simply the misogynist’s lucky escape, it is more significantly the realisation of the temporal bends, a horrible compression of time that has turned Noreen into someone who is very far from “the most beautiful girl” but where time (in the Proustian sense earlier acknowledged) will no doubt have worked on him too. At the very end of the story “he thought of the love that had filled the great central chamber of his life and how he would not meet anyone like that again. He did not know what came over him, but on the street he broke into tears.” These are the tears of the temporal. There are no meteorological references in ‘Palm Court’, nor sudden shifts in point of view, but there is a sense of perspective nevertheless. Anybody who walks away from the story seeing in Arthur a dubious superficiality needn’t also insist that Salter has produced a piece of work to match it. Arthur’s tears are those of lost time, and Salter is a writer who constantly seems to be searching for it, using in so much of his other work an attention to the weather and an ostensible inattention to point of view, to find its aching presence and it still more aching absence as time passes.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

James Salter

The Tears of the Temporal

James Salter was working indeed in a crowded field: a post-war America that included Mailer, Bellow, Updike, Roth, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Yates, Ford, Barth, Coover and Barthelme, Morrison, Baldwin, O'Connor. The list does indeed go on. Salter also started late, with a prior career as an airforce pilot, and alongside his novel writing he worked on various scripts and directed a film that seemed to distract him from his main focus rather than augment it, no matter if the film he made, Three, is a fine examination of three young adults traversing France in the sixties. It is as good as many a road movie of the period, and there was also a fine script for Downhill Racer that led to an ongoing professional relationship with Robert Redford. Yet perhaps because of the late start and the time-consuming digressions, Salter's body of work is small. Though he lived till his late eighties, Salter, born in 1925 and raised in Manhattan, produced half a dozen novels, around twenty plus stories and collections of non-fiction. There is more than enough here to add up to a body of work but there is a shy thoughtfulness in the prose, a sense in which lives are never that central, and thus narrative can never quite take hold. Salter often wants to find the means by which to show failure within success, to show that a life is always a matter of perspective. Whatever one's achievements or merits, there is a quiet, even throughline that matters most. As James meek proposed: there is "a Japanese simplicity and purity of line." (London Review of Books)

This is partly why there is a meteorological sense in James Salter's work which suggests he wants a perspective quite distinct from point of view. When in The Hunters he opens many of the chapters with a description of the weather conditions we might think this is just consistent with the material: a book about fighter pilots in the Korean War. After all, isn't it standard pilot procedure when we get on a plane to tell us what the conditions are like when we take off and what we can expect when we land? But Salter's meteorological descriptions run throughout his work, and don't differ greatly from those in The Hunters. Here are several from the flight novel. "At 5:15 in the morning it was piercingly cold, with an icy moon still bright in the sky." "The morning was blue with a warm wind blowing." "In June came ponderous heat and mornings like eggshells, pale and smooth." Here are a couple from Light Years, "In the morning the light came in silence., The house slept. The air overhead, glittering, infinite, the mist earth beneath..." "Winter comes, a bitter cold. The snow creaks underfoot with a rich, mournful sound." And one from the story 'Palm Court': "it was still light outside, the pure full light before evening, the sun in a thousand windows facing the park." And finally, A Sport and a Pastime: "these slow days with their misty beginnings, the fields all cool and quiet, the great viaduct still."

When we distinguish between perspective and point of view it is partly to indicate that while the former is an ontological problem, the latter is a technical one. Technically the writer needs to be careful not to violate the given limits of the point of view the writer apparently sets up, which is why we have terms like third-person restrictive, unreliable narrators, free indirect discourse, stream of consciousness and so on. These are very useful technical terms to describe what can be achieved from a given narrative position. Richard Ford notes however that, in his introduction to Light Years, Salter's novel about a couple over several decades, there is a "relaxed adherence to chronology, to narrative continuity and to that old writing-workshop taskmaster, point of view." Point of view implies an anthropological limit that even the omniscient narrators of the 19th century couldn't escape from; indeed vital to the omniscience was the narrative authority of the figure telling us the story. This wouldn't quite be Balzac, Dickens or Austen: these were merely the authors who wrote down the tale: one wasn't reading Dickens, Austen or Balzac but the storyteller who happened to go by that name. This didn't even mean the novel had to be in the third person as long as we sensed the first-person narrator either knew how to tell a story well or remained at its centre causing no problem to the narrative development. As John Mullan notes, "some important novels that followed [the first person Robinson Crusoe], also took for granted that, if the purpose of fiction was to explore the inner life of a credible character, a first-person narrative was the best means." (How Novels Work). The first person narrator wasn't there to cause problems for the story but to facilitate it just as smoothly as an impersonal narrator would. Tzvetan Todorov says, "now and then critics invoke a narrative that is simple, healthy and natural - a primitive narrative untainted by the vices of modern versions" and works through a few of the demands contained: the sort of laws invisibly evident in many a story well told. One is the law of stylistic unity that insists "the low and sublime cannot mix". Another is the antidigressive law: where digressions are seen as "not only useless but inappropriate, for it suspends the narrative at a crucial moment." a third the law of realism: "all of the character's words and actions must agree with a psychological verisimilitude." Todorov is talking about a work a lot older than 19th-century fiction The Odyssey and some of the commentators on it who see any deviation from the rules of narrative as somehow added by others at a later date and that must be detrimental to the text as Todorov discusses the "myth of the proper narrative".

It is this myth of the proper narrative writers are still contending with, and when Ford mentions point-of-view in Salter and his frequent slippage from one character to another without much warning, this can seem like a failure of technique. Hasn't literature indeed developed technical possibilities in which to broaden point-of-view, to allow for a less restrictive narrative method? Hence we mention various techniques that can allow a writer freedom while still respecting in essence the principle of point of view. Take stream-of-consciousness for example. Mullan notes that Mrs Dalloway...is a prime example of 'stream of consciousness' narrative. Such a narrative is supposed to follow not just the voiced thoughts of a character (Jane Austen's Emma does that), but the leaps of association that connect those thoughts". Mullan adds: Woolf uses the very spaces of the city to move between different streams of consciousness, As characters cross each others' paths, their thoughts cross in front of us too." (How Novels Work) Woolf creates a fluidity of point of view so that she can move from one character to another, capturing the flux of thought and feeling in a technique much less static than Austen telling us what happens to be going on in someone's head. Another modern technique is free indirect discourse, which, allows us to see things from a character's position without using dialogue and then inserting the dialogical equivalent into the perception. Thus James Wood reckons that if the writer were to say "Ted watched the Orchestra through tears" this wouldn't free indirect but if "Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears" it would be. "The addition of the word 'stupid' raises the question: whose word is this?" It isn't so much the narrator who thinks Ted is stupid, more Ted acknowledging his own stupid embarrassment in listening to the orchestra. Another, slightly different example Wood gives is from A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man: "Uncle Charles 'repairs' to the outhouse. Repairs is a pompous verb which belongs to outmoded poetic convention. It is 'bad' writing. Joyce, with his acute eye for cliche, would only use such a word knowingly." (How to Read Fiction). We might question slightly Wood's examples, especially when he extends the term so completely that he says "there is a final refinement of free indirect style - we should just call it authorial irony - when the gap between an author's voice and a character's voice seems to collapse altogether" but these two examples are worth keeping in mind. We can easily hear someone saying after crying at a concert that they cried stupid tears, or someone insisting they will just repair to the outhouse. It is indirect discourse because these are words the character would use which the author might not, but wants to convey their thoughts in their own language. Both stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse are useful ways in which to keep the point of view very flexible, moving between various characters thoughts in a very tentative form as we find in Mrs Dalloway, or momentarily moving into a character's head by using words that the character uses that the author would be less inclined to utilise as a narrator, as in Portrait of a Young Man.

But Salter appears to us more interested in perspective than point of view; that the techniques developed to create clarity no matter how initially confusing (evident in Mrs Dalloway) become clear partly through the consistency of the technique used, and the same is true, finally with metafictional devices that bring the writer into the very material they are writing, as when Martin Amis brings in Martin Amis talking to his central character John Self in Money. When Salter brings the first person into what seems like an omniscient third-person novel it surprises us: Light Years, for example, doesn't open on such a voice but it happens to be dropped in relatively late in the novel when the narrator says two-thirds of the way through the book: "they were divorced in the fall. I wish it could have been otherwise. The clarity of those Autumn days affected them both." Who is this 'I" who seems not at all to be a character in the novel, but where there hasn't been the metafictional telegraphing we might usually expect? There seems to be some vaguer reason than technique for such a choice, evident when he talks about A Sport and a Pastime. "You could not tell Dean's story, I don't believe, in the first person without losing the reader's sympathy, some essential sympathy..." he said speaking to Nick Paumgarten. "And in the third person it merely becomes an account. It dries up a little and becomes a dossier, a report on something, no matter what the language does to enrich it." Paumgarten reckons, "the inference: to tell the story of his own affair, with intimacy and allure, he had to find a way to make it not only someone else's but someone else's as imagined by someone else." The novel is narrated by someone who speaks about his friend but also suggests that it is a work he is making up as readily as relating. The novel, however, doesn't at all suggest the playfulness of a Coover or Barthelme but appears to stem from a discretionary necessity. Is there an aspect of fiction that defies technique, which insists that the technical virtuosity of the writing is only as good as the ontology that underpins it?

Salter wouldn't deny much of his fiction is based on his own life and the lives of those he knew. Paumgarten says that the satyr turning up in the Swiss hotel in Light Years making all sorts of generalizations about women to one of the book's central characters is based on Irwin Shaw; the two leading characters, Nedra and Viri, Paumgarten explains, were based closely on friends of Salter's at the time as Barbara and Laurence Rosenthal discovered when they read the novel. Even when writing non-fictionally Salter exposed people, describing Charlotte Rampling (who starred in Three) as someone who "chewed wads of gum, had dirty hair, and, according to the costume woman, wore clothes that smelled." (Burning Days) Then there are the vivid descriptions of sex. Speaking of A Sport and Pastime, he says the "book would have been difficult to write in the first personthat is to say if it were Dean's voice. It would be quite interesting written from Anne-Marie's voice, but I wouldn't know how to attempt that. On the other hand, if it were in the third person, the historic third, so to speak, it would be a little disturbing because of the explicitness, the sexual descriptions." (Conversations with James Salter) Salter reckoned, "the question was how to paint this, more or less. I don't recall how it came to me, but the idea of having a third person describe it, somebody who is really not an important part of the book but merely serving as an intermediary between the book and the reader, was perhaps the thing that was going to make it possible; and consequently, I did that. I don't know who this narrator is. You could say it's me; well, possibly. But truly, there is no such person."

Here we see an ontology meeting an ethics, as if the aesthetic, or the technical, remains subsidiary to another question. Imagine a fiction of which there is no such person, no narrative anchor, and haven't so many developments in narrative technique tried to find the means by which to eradicate the assertiveness of the narrator, to call its presence into question? When the novelist uses stream-of-consciousness it allows the characters' thoughts to run away with themselves; when a writer puts a word into his or her narration that would beforehand have only been in the dialogue, as in free indirect discourse, the writer appears to be giving his novel over to the characters. Obviously, he or she is doing no such thing and yet, at the same time, Alain Robbe-Grillet was far from alone when proposing that novelists must escape from the presuppositions so many techniques contained, however developed and self-conscious. "...We are so accustomed to discussions of "character', "atmosphere', "form", and 'content', of 'message' and 'narrative ability' and 'true novelists' that it requires an effort to free ourselves from this spider web and realize that it represents an idea about the novel (a ready-made, idea, which everyone admits without argument, hence a bad idea), and not at all that so-called "nature' of the novel in which we are supposed to believe." (For a New Novel) The problem with 'technique' is that it can mask the reality the writer seeks to expose rather than reveals it. Hence a writer very different from Robbe-Grillet, Norman Mailer reckoned "...I am a bit cynical about craft. I think there's a natural mystique in the novel which is more important than craft. One is trying to capture reality, and that is extraordinary and exceptionally difficult." (Cannibals and Christian)

This allows us to return to a couple of our earlier propositions: the importance of the weather and variability of perspective. Concerning the former, John Mullan discusses weather in Ian McEwan's Atonement but also mentions Austen and Forster, too. Yet he speaks of the latter's use as a setting rather than an enframing. "It transforms or saturates European characters, overcoming their defences, draining them of self-assurance. It is a received truth that foreign heat undoes oppression." Of Emma, he says "there is a memorable heatwave..." in the "novel in which the weather is several times important to the plot." Mullan also quotes a couple of lines from Atonement, "I love England in a heatwave. It's a different country. All the rules change." Interestingly, Mullan suggests that "in eighteenth-century fiction, storms or balmy days are merely convenient for the story. Real weather is more intrusive as he notes it impacts on the plot, giving the 19th century Emma as an example. But if the weather can provide no more than a bit of contextual verisimilitude in 18th-century fiction and starts to be utilised for the purposes of the story in the 19th, then how might it function in certain works of the 20th, including Salter's, perhaps Walker Percy's, certainly Peter Handke's? One way is to see it as unframing, taking into account Heidegger's belief that modern man in enframed within the technological; that nature serves man's thought which then allows for the technology it then produces, quite contrary to the agricultural. Thus Heidegger says "a tract of land is challenged in the hauling out of coal and ore. The earth now reveals itself as a coal-mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit." Heidegger contrasts this with "the field that the peasant formerly cultivated and set in order [and which] appears differently than it did when to set in order still meant to take care and maintain. The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field." ('The Question Concerning Technology') Now for Heidegger the enframing isn't the technological initself, which is why he can suggest it precedes the scientific revolution as a means by which to manipulate the earth, an expansionist mindset that then finds its pragmatic method in the technological. David Farrell Krell says, "the technological framework is inherently expansionist and can reveal only by reduction. Its attempt to enclose all beings in a particular claim - utter availability, and sheer manipulability - Heidegger calls Ge-stell, 'enframing'. (Basic Writings)

The novelist who uses nature as Mullan proposes, and that became central to the 19th-century novel as important for setting and plot, falls into a certain novelistic enframing. It becomes a technique: a means by which to change for example the habits and behaviour of the characters, to allow someone to lose their temper and blame it on the heat as we see the person acting out of character; as a means by which to allow two people to become intimate as the rain starts to fall and they find shelter in a bandstand and after ten minutes tentatively hold hands and kiss. We needn't dismiss such uses altogether; a lot will depend on how such moments are shown and developed, but we will know in numerous examples that they are no more than techniques: a means by which to get a character to lose their temper plausibly; to have a couple finally get close.

Writers like Handke, Salter and Percy resist such techniques, as if resisting in as fundamental a way as they can the enframing for an unframing. Nature isn't there as a means but as an end that encompasses our being even as we move within it. Returning to Salter, here are a couple more uses of the weather in his work. "Over France a great summer rain, battering the trees, making the foliage ring like tin. The walls grow dark with water. The gutters are running, the streets are all abandoned. It started at dusk. By nine it is still pouring down." (A Sport and a Pastime) "The sun appears, without body, without heat, its color pale, serene. The water lies as if dead. The moorings are dark on its surface, the pennants hang limp. The river is English, cool as silver." (Light Years) These are disembodied descriptions of nature and there are many of them to be found in Salter's work, giving the material perspective that distances rather than a point of view which draws us in. We needn't become schematic and insist that an obsession with point-of-view indicates an enframed assumption and the perspective an unframed one writers are usually far too subtle and nuanced for that. But if someone has reservations about writing workshops, about creative writing courses, it might rest on the fear that 'technique' will be taught as fundamental, when technique is a particular means rather than an end, a point Mailer determinedly points out. Frequently the description of weather in Salter's work isn't just scene-setting nor does it push the story; it gives to the work an objectivity: it demands we see the subjects within a world much greater than their own agency.

This might help explain Salter's odd relationship with point-of-view. In The Hunters, most of the novel is viewed from central character Cleve's position. We have his thoughts on the other characters and his more general feelings as well. When in the middle of the book a chapter starts with "the next day was Sunday. He spent the early afternoon at Miyata's. He had brought two cartons of American cigarette's with him as a gift..." we are in little doubt this is Cleve. Throughout the book, we have access to his thoughts and will often assume, though the book is in the third person, that when the narrator details events they are passing through his eyes. Speaking of the character who will be central to Cleve's thoughts, Pell, the narrator says: "at the moment he [Pell] was interested in meeting the nurses in the hospital down Yongdongpo, and he'd arranged to borrow a jeep to go there the following night. His reputation of always having had great success with women was something that required constant renewal. He was intrigued by the prospect of a conquest under difficult circumstances." It isn't quite Cleve's thinking, evident elsewhere when Cleve reckons, "he was increasingly tortured by the thought that it might be something more insidious, he was afraid to identify what. If it was something unacknowledged within himself, then he was lost. The torment of that possibility tore at his heart." In the description of Pell we have the sort of claims made by various pilots passing through what Cleve has also seen. In Cleve's fears this is nobody's thought about him but his own. It means we are close to Cleve but the others remain the property usually of external narration.

Yet this is where the book's conclusion surprises. As the various pilots and others discuss the mission, we realise as they talk that Cleve is dead. A correspondent then interviews Pell, who says, "he was like a brother. I just don't know what to say, I can't believe they got him." The book then gives us the correspondent's internal thoughts: "He watched Pell closely. He could not subdue a sense of suspicion, but then he became a little ashamed of himself." Here we have a character of apparently no consequence suddenly given a private voice. It can seem an odd ending to a book that could easily have concluded on the previous chapter. Cleve has been obsessed with improving his record of one downed MiG; he is older than the others at thirty-one and Pell has taken out half a dozen. Yet in the penultimate chapter where he has shot down a second and lost his wingman, and where nobody can credit him with his second score, he says one person has seen the incident. He gives the downed MiG to his dead colleague as he says he witnessed it in a moment that suggests a dignified realisation there are values more important than racking up numbers. But instead, Salter ends the book with Cleve gone and others thinking in his place. From a certain angle, it can seem like a flaw, from another a clever device to make his absence much stronger than if the book had been more omnisciently narrated. Yet above all else, and in the context of Salter's work more generally, it registers as a determined need to obliterate point-of-view with askew perspectives.

We see it frequently in Light Years and often in the short stories too. In 'My Lord You' for example, a story told more or less from the wife's angle suddenly switches to her husband's observations upon her. "My life has meant nothing, she thought. She wanted above all else to confess tha.," This is consistent with the rest of the story that follows her thoughts and actions closely. But then the story briefly switches perspectives: "Her face annoyed him, he did not know why. She could be good-looking but there were times when she was not. Her face was like a series of photographs, some of which ought to have been thrown away"

In Light Years, the book's main characters Viri and Nedra are visiting Europe and, while spending six days in London and two in Kent, the book tells us of their encounters with a couple who own a beautiful house in the county, and various places they visit in the capital. In the middle of this trip in the south of England, the book moves from following their itinerary to moving quite suddenly into their daughter's life in New York. The paragraph begins so that we are still in London. "It was summer, the blue exhaust from automobiles tinted the airless city. They had cucumber sandwiches at tea. They dined in Italian restaurants. They visited Chelsea and the Tate." Then, in the same paragraph, "in a section of New York that was deserted after five, Danny sat with her god. The streets were empty...She was a young girl stunned by love...You cannot imagine the depth of these summer days, the silence. She came to his room almost daily. He employed her with the greatest pleasure on earth." And then the next paragraph returns to "her parents dined in Marlow, a town an hour from London. The restaurant was crowded." A breach opens up between the sentences that hasn't been anticipated even by even a paragraph break. In another chapter, we are viewing things from Nedra's point of view as the chapter opens: in six years she would be forty. "She saw it from a distance, like a reef, the whitened glimpse of danger. She was frightened by the idea of age..." Later in the chapter she notices when a friend arrives at the house "she looked older. In a single year she had abandoned her youth. Her eyes had lines round them, her skin showed tiny pores." Yet a few lines later we are getting another friend Rae's angle on Eve's son, Anthony. "She watched him through the window, drawn to him. He was too old for her to imagine as a son, he was a youth already..." Usually, in the former instance, such a shift in point of view would be anticipated by a separate chapter. In the second instance, we might have viewed Rae's attraction to Anthony through Nedra's eyes. Obviously such sudden shifts aren't new Mrs Dalloway for one is a book that constantly moves from one character to another without a clear break announcing itself. Yet there is also a logic to Woolf's device within the irrationality she explores. Salter's is more mysterious, as if he wants to suggest these sudden moments where perspective becomes embodied in time with characterisation present only as a means by which to capture this fleetingness of being. If Mrs Dalloway was one of a number of 20th-century novels that compressed itself into a short time span of a day or two, Salter goes for a temporal sprawl that means people can age years from chapter to chapter.

Thus the characters seem to have been dropped into time as readily as they pass through it, a Bergsonian reality that influenced novelists in at least two ways. When Henri Bergson differentiated clock time from duration, the external coordinates of time from our experience of time passing experientially, he wanted to show not so much how life happens to us but how we make life happen. "Here we have one of the ruling ideas of this book the idea, indeed, which served as the starting point of our inquiry. That which is usually held to be a greater complexity of this psychical state appears to us, from our point of view, to be a greater dilation of the whole personality, which normally narrowed down by action, expands with the unscrewing of the vice in which it has allowed itself to be squeezed, and always whole and unindividuated, spreads itself over a wider and wider surface." (Matter and Memory) Woolf brilliantly contracts time to suggest what happens when action is secondary to thought: experiences of war or a party years earlier become no more than fragments of memory in a contracted present as Mrs Dalloway prepares for a dinner party in 1923 while events pass through her mind and the minds of others. Salter appears to be interested also in accessing thoughts, but they seem to be secondary to Time as that other great Modernist Proust sees it near the end of Time Regained. "I was astonished to see at her [Gilberte's] side a girl of about sixteen, whose tall figure was a measure of the distance which I had been reluctant to see. Time, colourless and inapprehensible Time, so that I was almost able to see it and touch it, had materialised itself in the girl, moulding her into a masterpiece, while correspondingly on me, alas!, it had merely done its work."

When we think back to the two examples we have given from Light Years, we see how they capture an aspect of Proust's approach to time, one that combines the external fact of ageing with the experience of such an observation. Salter is finally interested less in the Woolfian experiments with time as character subjectivity than with the temporal conflict between time continuing unheeded and our perception of it as belonging to us. That comment by Proust seems so pertinent to much of Salter's work that we may be surprised to find the French author's book doesn't make it into Salter's list of favourites which include Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Dead Souls. Nevertheless, when we look at his oeuvre, so often age manifests itself as realisation. A Sport and a Pastime presents its conclusion in the subjunctive. The central character Dean is dead, and the narrator thinks of Dean's lover Anne-Marie. Many fragments come to me, are discovered, reappear. I wander about the room picking up or remembering things which are narcotic, which induce me to dream-the details, the relics of love, suffused with an aching beauty." The book then ends a page and half later: As for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes, now, or did. She is married, I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired." Who exactly is this narrator and how ironic are we to take this conclusion?

Perhaps it doesn't quite matter who is narrating the book; that part of Salter's determination in writing is the obliteration of narration itself, trying to find a position beyond it, an impossibility of course but that the ostensible awkwardness of point of view somehow reveals. And as for the irony or otherwise in the conclusion, what is most interesting is that it suggests time not so much standing still as one's determination to avoid the pain of time's horrible imposition. Anne-Marie has the life we all greatly desire as a means by which to escape the anomalies of time for instead its daily habits. In the latter, time isn't so completely felt, with the process of child-rearing, daily work and weekends dictating the necessity of clock time, giving to a life a sense of inevitability and predictability. But the former, the anomalies of time, suggest that life can easily be very different from what it is, and time becomes both a personal responsibility and a state both constantly lost and found. It is lost in the natural time of chronology as we get older and the experience fades further into the past, but it is constantly regained by an existence that isn't so rigorously affiliated with clock-time and action, one that attends to the possibilities in those anomalous moments of recapture. Thus for a writer like Salter there aren't good stories that you tell but these anomalous moments that you find, and perhaps a properly existential life, a life one takes responsibility for, as it might seem Anne-Marie does not, would accumulate as many of these moments as possible. When Paris Review reckons Salter "is a consummate storyteller" we are inclined to disagree, and think of a remark Salter makes in the same interview: "The deepest instinct, I think, is to want to do something enduring, something worthwhile, and to be engaged by that, whether one achieves it or not . . ." But even more we can think of another interview, Salter's last. The interviewer says, that vital to Light Years is the question of how to live and Salter replies: "of course it's one of the principal motives in Light Years. I felt that she (Nedra) had an idea of how to live, and he did too (Viri). By that I mean I approved their idea of how they wanted to live as Salter makes clear "it doesn't take a firm moral stand. It is certainly permissive. I think it could be criticized for the infidelity, and I don't know whatever else there is in it. That's about all. The book is sympathetic to itself." (Literary Hub)

There is no suggestion that consummate storytelling is what interests Salter in this comment, but what does he mean by a book that is sympathetic to itself? Perhaps that he doesn't want to judge the lives because the point of Salter's book lies elsewhere: to see in the central characters a search not so much for lost time but for finding in time present what will be recoverable once time has been lost. They wonder how they should live, what they ought to prioritise. As they travel through Europe when the kids are more or less grown-up, and after which Nedra travels to Europe alone and then later again when they are divorced Viri travels on his own, settling in Italy, they seem to carry within them a nostalgia for the past that is still in their future. Their search is for the memories they can have that a limited life will deny them even if within that search Nedra will constantly look forward to a future that is forever unfulfillable, and Viri will become increasingly aware just how many of his emotional memories are embedded in his life with Nedra. When Viri is in Italy he meets a woman who will become his next wife, someone of limited life experience who latches onto Viri and sees him as the love she has been waiting for. "Of course I'll wait," Lia says. "You know I am yours... do what you like to me." But though he marries Lia, "there was not a day, not an hour, that his immediate, undefended response would not have been to surrender [to Nedra]." His search for the lost time of the past to be found in a future that could be looked back on longingly was never as strong as Nedra's perhaps because in Nedra he had found that search, but Nedra had not found that search in him. Is this what love is? Is that why Viri knows he cannot love Lia?

Yet a little earlier in the book, when Viri sells the house and moves to Europe, Nedra is distraught. She may have wished for the divorce but even she can't quite countenance the proper end of their life together. In the chapter before she "was struck by the distances of life, by all that was lost in them...She remembered only the sunlight that made her amorous, the certainty she felt, the emptiness of the restaurant as they talked..." Nedra never seems to find the lost time that she is searching for and Viri finds it in the woman he loses. The book is tragic not because they have lacked the moral werewithal to live properly but the capacity to find in their lives the moments that can define them in the future self of their present existence. Is this not what yearning is: that we cannot discover in our present life one that a future self can look back on meaningfully? This is quite distinct from boredom, which asks only that the moment be alleviated by excitement. Viri and Nedra do not at all have a boring life as we find them at the start of the book living in their large Victorian house in the late 1950s on the River Hudson, the husband an architect who commutes back and forth to New York. They have plenty of friends and a hectic social life, but it is as if they need to break out of the mechanical existence they have created for themselves and find in their lives a more durational one. We offer the terms in a Bergsonian way but also to indicate that a mechanical life needn't be dreary; more that it is consistent, coherent, contained. Memory can coalesce around mechanical time, dissolving it into habit and expectation. Duration isolates time, removing it from the predictable. From a certain perspective yearning is what drives the self towards duration and away from the mechanical. It is this we often find in Salter's work and partly why it can seem technically troublesome, as though it is seeking a form to contain the mechanical within the durational, and also find a perspective that can contain both.

In the last interview with Salter, Alexander Slotnick asks: "One of the most striking technical features of both A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years is the way in which you made some unconventional decisions in terms of perspective. The distance of the narrator and the narrator's positioning in regard to the characters. What brought you to these ideas?" (Literary Hub) Salter talks then about the architecture and focuses chiefly, and briefly, on A Sport and a Pastime. We would see in this unusual perspective Salter's attempt to escape clock time for a sort of meteorological time that allows for duration and our own small place in a world that is both existentially necessary and cosmically all but irrelevant. But let us not end on generalities and conclude, briefly, on a couple of Salter short stories: the earlier mentioned 'My Lord You', and 'Palm Court'. In the former 'My Lord You', a couple visit another couple for dinner and after the meal a drunken man, Brennan, arrives and drinks some more, a wild look on his face that the central character Ardis finds initially repellent but in time fascinating. Ardis discovers he lives nearby and, in his absence, as she wanders around his house, becomes no less enchanted by his dog. But after a while she stops seeing the dog and though she passes the house many times there was never a sign of him again. She does, however, see Brennan one night at a bar, but he is alone, "the dog was not outside, nor in his car, nor part of his life anymore gone, lost living elsewhere, his name perhaps to be written in a line someday though most probably he was forgotten, but not by her." The dog isn't memorable but he is remembered, which is really what memorable happens to be, if we see the memorable as no more and no less than the collectively remembered: a memory that becomes fixed, as if part of not at all a Jungian collective unconscious but instead a societal conscious. The central character's determination to fix on this dog, this non-human without a name, touches something in her "he was unbetraying, a companion like no other." In what she sees as the dog's solitude she seems to recognise something of her own, while in her husband she sees a man whose business was to give advice. "He had a life that served other lives, helped them come to agreements, end marriages, defend themselves against former friends...he lived amid disturbance and self-interest but always protected from it." Who would have thought a threat to their relationship might come in the form of a dog? There is a comment another woman makes early in the story that strikes Ardis: "I think there's such a thing as sleeping with one man too many," but Ardis wonders whether she heard correctly: was it there is such a thing or there is no such thing? Maybe sleeping with someone isn't the problem; it is much more intangible than that. Thus if, as Ardis thinks, her "life has meant nothing" what is it that will expose the nothingness of that life? Perhaps she finds in the dog's presence her own durational absence: that she has not accumulated the memories Salter's work suggests is so important for living a 'full' life.

In 'Palm Court' a financial consultant and a woman working in advertising enjoy each other's company but he suggests no sign of commitment and in time Noreen marries someone else. Arthur takes it slowly and badly, and never feels he has got over her when, many years later, the phone rings while he is at work: it is Noreen. They arrange to meet and for her the years fall away while for Arthur they cling to her body, even to what she wears. "Isn't it funny...five minutes with you and it's as if none of it [the marriage] ever happened." He thinks: "Her clothes, he noticed, even her clothes were hiding who she had been." Some have had problems with Salter's depiction of women, with Chris Powers noting a problematic perspective on the female form. The headline proclaims less subtly "some of his short stories have conspicuous faults - not least in their portrayal of women - but the best show a unique, sad beauty." (Guardian) There might be something in that; in a story like 'Palm Court' one may see a man waiting many years for the love of his life to come back only to find, when she does, a few gained pounds are enough to put him off. But that would be to impose a superficiality onto the story as readily as seeking to call out its misogynistic shallowness. Certainly, the character is being shallow, but not only in his observations but also in his dishonest claims. "Love never dies" he says when it seems to have done so. Yet while Arthur knows they won't meet for lunch anytime soon this isn't simply the misogynist's lucky escape, it is more significantly the realisation of the temporal bends, a horrible compression of time that has turned Noreen into someone who is very far from "the most beautiful girl" but where time (in the Proustian sense earlier acknowledged) will no doubt have worked on him too. At the very end of the story "he thought of the love that had filled the great central chamber of his life and how he would not meet anyone like that again. He did not know what came over him, but on the street he broke into tears." These are the tears of the temporal. There are no meteorological references in 'Palm Court', nor sudden shifts in point of view, but there is a sense of perspective nevertheless. Anybody who walks away from the story seeing in Arthur a dubious superficiality needn't also insist that Salter has produced a piece of work to match it. Arthur's tears are those of lost time, and Salter is a writer who constantly seems to be searching for it, using in so much of his other work an attention to the weather and an ostensible inattention to point of view, to find its aching presence and it still more aching absence as time passes.


© Tony McKibbin