FAO Quotables

"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
-Anne Applebaum

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Game of Solitaire: Salter Sails Sets Sail

Salter passed away on 19 June--an event noted in the New York Times.   As an English major, aspiring writer and avid reader I am embarrassed to say that I only discovered him in 2014.  Since then, I've written about him numerous times on this blog: 

Last Night by James Salter: My Notes and Kindle Highlights 
Light Years: My Notes and Kindle Highlights 
Burning the Days: My Notes and Kindle Highlights 
All That Is: My Notes and Kindle Highlights
A Sport and a Pastime: My Notes and Kindle Highlights 
Solo Faces: My Notes and Kindle Highlights (coming soon)
What We Read in 2014 
2015 Reading List

Honestly, I have emotional problems with his writing as it doesn't reflect a value placed on family and children which makes me a little sad since I can't imagine a life without my amazing wife and magical children.  But this is only an initial reaction--like all great writers Salter needs to be reread and reread, to be grappled with.  He has a wonderful line in Light Years concerning children that challenges my initial reaction:  

Of them all, it was the true love. Of them all, it was the best. That other, that sumptuous love which made one drunk, which one longed for, envied, believed in, that was not life. It was what life was seeking; it was a suspension of life. But to be close to a child, for whom one spent everything, whose life was protected and nourished by one’s own, to have that child beside one, at peace, was the real, the deepest, the only joy. 

But this is probably unfair as I don't hold other writers to the same standards (or even think about this type of thing).  When one reads Salter, however, one immediately discovers a blurred line between autobiography and fiction--this blurred border is something that Salter has openly acknowledged as key to his ability as a writer.  This is part of what makes his writing so powerful--one reads it his sentences and associates them to the core of the writer himself.   Salter wrote lines and crafts similes that knock you down with their detail and power.  His lines were slender ones that penetrate the reader and inhabit them. Below I've tried to compile as many of the interviews and articles as I could find on him--and then--because I'm just that type of guy, I copied them below so you can read them all in one place.  But first a collection of my favorites quotes from his novels and short stories.
  • Her teeth are hypnotic. Her smile crushes one’s hope.
  • Around her neck there are festoons of glass beads the color of nightclub kisses.
  • As I look back, I see that life is like a game of solitaire and every once in a while there is a move.
  • She was just thirty-one, the age when women are past foolishness though not unfeeling.
  • She was insolent but there were times when she was not. To put your hand on the small of her naked back was to have all you ever hoped to possess.
  • She is twenty-eight. Her dreams still cling to her, adorn her; she is confident, composed, she is related to long-necked creatures, ruminants, abandoned saints.
  • What confidence, what success there is in a man’s face at thirty.
  • “A bad shirt is like the story of a pretty girl who is single and one day she finds herself pregnant. It’s not the end of life, but it’s serious.
  • LIFE IS WEATHER. LIFE IS MEALS. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.
  • But knowledge does not protect one. Life is contemptuous of knowledge; it forces it to sit in the anterooms, to wait outside. Passion, energy, lies: these are what life admires. Still, anything can be endured if all humanity is watching. The martyrs prove it. We live in the attention of others. We turn to it as flowers to the sun.
  • She is a woman whose cool remark forms the mood of a dinner; the man seated next to her smiles. She knows what she is doing, that is the core of it; still, how could she know? Her acts are unrepeated. She does not perform. Her face is a face that electrifies—that sudden, exploding smile—and yet, she somehow gives nothing.
  • Summer is the noontime of devoted families. It is the hour of silence when the only sound is sea birds. The shutters are closed, the voices quiet. Occasionally the ring of a fork.
  • Viri watches, sitting on the sand. She waves at him, her shouts carried off by the wind. He understands suddenly what love of a child is. It overwhelms him like the line from a song.
  • His wife—people found her strange—was in the last years of her youth. She was like a beautiful dinner left out overnight.
  • “You have a wonderful sense of humor.” “Unfortunately,” he said. “Humor comes largely from not caring.” “Oh, I don’t think so.” “Detachment is what brings forth humor. It’s a paradox.We’re the only creatures hat laugh, they say, and the more we laugh, the less we care.
  • My eye and ear criticize every move and every intonation. I listen to the “commas” of the play as if they were drops falling from a fountain.
  • Her laugh was gorgeous, it was like applause.
  • Reinhart was right: 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.
  • Her nature showed itself in the generosity of her table.
  • The book was in her lap; she had read no further. 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. “The only thing I’m afraid of are the words ‘ordinary life,’ ” Nedra said.
  • Beneath their brilliance women have a power as stars have gravity.
  • “You’re so American. You believe everything is possible, everything will come. I know differently.
  • The teeth in his bearded mouth were perfect; they were like the soft hands that betray fleeing aristocrats. He was twenty-three. From the first instant she was ready to forget her studies, her dog, her home. He paid no attention to her in that tribute which the stricken have learned to expect. 
  • Love must wait; it must break one’s bones.
  • There were beads of saliva in the corners of his mouth. His movements were loose, his hands waved freely. Solid, generous, practical, he was all hull; he had no keel. The rudder was small, the compass drifting.
  • He knew everything; his knowledge was vast. He was like the irreverent student who passes any examination. His eyes were dark, the muddy brown of a Negro. His cuffs were soiled. Many of his sentences began with a proper noun.
  • Reading, falling again into sleep. He said very little. They were deep in contentment; it was full, beyond words. It was like a day of rain.
  • When it came to stories, though, he was like a man who knew railroad schedules, he was exact, assured. He would begin in wonderful, faintly witty sentences. His stories were light but not frivolous; they had a strange clarity, they were like a part of the ocean where one could see the bottom.
  • Beneath the gleaming black hair burning in the sun, behind the intense eyes, for a moment Nedra saw something which touched her deeply—that rare thing, the idea of a friend one makes when the heart has already begun to close.
  • “Nice. Didn’t that once belong to Italy?” “Everything did once,” she said.
  • A warmth flooded through him, a dizziness as if he had fought an enemy. With a word, a glance she embraced him; she had opened the dull sky, the light poured down. It is always an accident that saves us. It is someone we have never seen.
  • How touching old people are, she thought. How honest they are, how emptied of deception and pride.
  • Of them all, it was the true love. Of them all, it was the best. That other, that sumptuous love which made one drunk, which one longed for, envied, believed in, that was not life. It was what life was seeking; it was a suspension of life. But to be close to a child, for whom one spent everything, whose life was protected and nourished by one’s own, to have that child beside one, at peace, was the real, the deepest, the only joy.
  • Her lean fingers and long hands were like a woman’s on a foreclosed farm.
  • It happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leave, we stand on the shore. Yes, he thought, I am ready, I have always been ready, I am ready at last.
  • When was I happiest, the happiest in my life? Difficult to say. Skipping the obvious, perhaps setting off on a journey, or returning from one.  In my thirties, probably, and at scattered other times, among them the weightless days before a book was published and occasionally when writing it. It is only in books that one finds perfection, only in books that it cannot be spoiled. 
  • In youth it feels one’s concerns are everyone’s. Later on it is clear that they are not. Finally they again become the same. We are all poor in the end. The lines have been spoken. The stage is empty and bare. Before that, however, is the performance. The curtain rises.
  • Families of no importance—so much is lost, entire histories, there is no room for it all. There are only the generations surging forward like the tide, the years filled with sound and froth, then being washed over by the rest. That is the legacy of the cities. 
  • I found the poem to be untrue, that is, I never found an adversary to love as deeply as a comrade, but I kept a place open for one always.
  • The past is haphazard. I think of the remark of the English cabinet member who was retiring to the seventeenth-century Cornwall farmhouse that had always been in his family. It is the men without roots, he said, who are the real poor of this century.
  • An officer, wrote Dumas, is like a father with greater responsibilities than an ordinary father. The food his men ate, he ate, and only when the last of them slept, exhausted, did he go to sleep himself. His privilege lay in being given these obligations and a harder duty than any of the rest.
  • The company commander was someone whom difficulties could not dishearten, privation could not crush. It was not his strength that was unbreakable but something deeper, his spirit. He must not only have his men obey, they must do it when they are absolutely worn out and quarreling among themselves, when they are at the end of their rope and another senseless order comes down from above. He could be severe but only when it was needed and then briefly. It had to be just, it had to wash things clean like a sudden, fierce storm. 
  • Among his most important traits were decency and compassion. He was not unfeeling, not made of wood. Especially in time of grief, as a death in a soldier’s family at home, he brought this news himself—no one else should be expected to—and granted leave, if possible, even before it was asked for, in his own words expressing sympathy. Ties like this would never be broken. This was not the parade-ground captain, the mannequin promoted for a spotless record. It was not someone behind the lines, some careerist with ambitions. It was another breed, someone whose life was joined with that of his men, who had reached the peak of the human condition, admired, feared, and loved, someone hardened and uncomplaining upon whom the entire struggle somehow depended, someone almost fated to fall. I knew this hypothetical figure. I had seen him as a schoolboy, latent among the sixth formers, and at times had caught a glimpse of him at West Point. Stroke by stroke, the description of him was like a portrait emerging. 
  • That was death: to leave behind a photograph, a twenty-year-old wife, the story of how it happened. What more is there to wish than to be remembered? To go on living in the narrative of others? More than anything I felt the desire to be rid of the undistinguished past, to belong to nothing and to no one beyond the war. At the same time I longed for the opposite, country, family, God, perhaps not in that order. In death I would have them or be done with the need; I would be at last the other I yearned to be.
  • He climbs out of the cockpit and stands on the wing. “You take her up,” he says. This consent, the words of which I could not even imagine. Alone in the plane, I do what we had done each time, taxi to the end of the bare spot, turn, and almost mechanically advance the throttle. I felt at that moment—I will remember always—the thrill of the in-achievable. Reciting to myself, exuberant, immortal, I felt the plane leave the ground and cross the hayfields and farms, making a noise like a tremendous, bumbling fly. I was far out, beyond the reef, nervous but unfrightened, knowing nothing, certain of all, cloth helmet, childish face, sleeve wind-maddened as I held an ecstatic arm out in the slipstream, the exaltation, the godliness, at last!
  • Among the great firsts: first solo, first breath of outside air, in here belongs first love affair.
  • Eventually you meet generals, walk beside them, talk, and slowly, as with beautiful women, manage to hold your eyes on them. 
  • Clean-limbed in blue and white, she seemed prepared to like someone I was not ready to be, and I remembered her long after and her town, Green River, Wisconsin.
  • The accidents. They were the stark trees in the forest that stood alone, at the foot of which nothing thereafter grew. The wreckage of the cities would be cleared away but never the oil slick on the sea that was all they found of Smart. For me, however, it was a siren song—the fierce metal planes with their weathered insignia, the great noise as they launched, the distant runways at Negros, Yontan, Cebu. The danger of it was a distinction which nothing else could afford. It would not happen to you, of course, it would never happen to you, and also, as has been pointed out, you could discover death as quickly by fleeing from it, be stung the soonest. 
  • We shared a taste for books and sentimental lines. Leland shrugged at it. He didn’t have that particular weakness. He was rather like an English aristocrat, a man of decency, little sensitivity, and certain prejudices. The things he knew he knew very well, and they were social things: on which side the guest of honor sat at dinner, how to carve a roast, tie a dress tie, which shoes were best, which clubs
  • He retired as a colonel and they went to live in the south of Spain. I had news of him only rarely. I imagined him as he had always been: a perfect companion on the links, drinker in the bar afterwards, the heels on his loafers a bit worn down. Like an unimaginative British officer in some remote town, but knowing exactly who was who and what their business was.
  • The fighter aces had names like Adolph and Sailor, Ginger and Don. They had five or more kills and appeared suddenly and unseen, in the first terrifying seconds letting loose a stream of fire. A kind of blood poured from the plane being hit—black smoke really, but it foretold everything. Pieces of metal were flying off, the whole carefully constructed machinery was coming apart miles above the earth, shedding wings, hurtling out of control.
  • War is so many things. It is an opportunity to see the upper world, great houses that have become hospitals or barracks, precious objects sold for nothing, families with ancient names at the mercy of quartermaster sergeants. In the familiar footage the guns jump backwards as they fire, the tanks roll past and forgotten men wave. It is all this and also the furnace of the individual in a way that a life of labor is not. Its demands are unending, its pleasures cruel.
  • But in war nothing lasts and the poets are killed together with the farm boys, the flies feast on their faces. For us it was simple and always the same: Who was scheduled, what was the weather, what had the earlier missions seen?
  • By subsequent standards these were uncomplicated airplanes, but they could fly above forty-five thousand feet and, going straight down, flirt with the speed of sound. There was a second red needle on the airspeed indicator that moved to mark the limit beyond which you were not supposed to fly though we often did, the needles crossed by thirty or forty knots, usually at low altitude or in a dive, the ship bucking and trying to roll. “On the Mach”—the absolute limit and a favorite phrase.
  • There are certain indestructible people, stalwarts—leaders of squadrons and their best followers; mechanics numb-fingered in the cold; bleak colonels with eyes reddened by late hours—all having one thing in common: They are the dikes that stand against aimlessness and indifference, that hold back the sullen waters that would otherwise mingle and flood. Kasler was one of these.
  • In Paris, a lifetime later, in a hotel room I watched as on screens everywhere he walked dreamily in space, the first American to do so. I was nervous and depressed. My chest ached. My hair had patches of gray. White was turning slowly, upside down, tethered to the spacecraft by a lazy cord. I was sick with envy—he was destroying hope. Whatever I might do, it would not be as overwhelming as this. I felt a kind of loneliness and terror. I wanted to be home, to see my children again before the end, and I was certain it was near the end; I felt suicidal, ready to burst into tears. He did this to me unknowingly, as a beautiful woman crossing the street crushes hearts beneath her heel.
  • In formation with Minish one day, coming back from a mission, I on his wing—without a word he pulled up and did an Immelmann, I as close as you can get, then another and another, then some loops and rolls, two or three away from me, all in hot silence, I had not budged a foot, the two of us together, not a word exchanged, like secret lovers in some apartment on a burning afternoon.
  • had a bottle of Haut Brion with me that I was carrying on the off chance we could have a glass of it in the hospital room. They once wet the lips of newborn kings of France with such wine. I was thinking of that, and the journey he was soon to take.
  • He died afar, surrounded by women like a biblical king. He had come a long way, like Dickens or d’Annunzio, from his beginnings. He died with the best of everything, a cook, Hungarian vodka, a fine apartment on the main street over the Patek Philippe store, a housekeeper, a secretary, a nurse. There were books everywhere.
  • The poets, writers, the sages and voices of their time, they are a chorus, the anthem they share is the same: the great and small are joined, the beautiful lives, the other dies, and all is foolish except honor, love, and what little is known by the heart. 
  • The proper order of things is that they be seen first from a distance, then up close. Paris, however, could not be seen that way. It was a city of intimacy, by which I mean privacy, filled with the detail of life, moody, and above bowing to any individual. Kerouac went there once, for two or three days, and left saying, “Paris rejected me.
  • his new wife, Sally, was young and like a sheaf of silver. Witty, taut, she was like a new child in school who had come from some unnamed but difficult elsewhere, someone who made friends and also enemies quickly and who cut a swath;
  • So easy, all of it, such play. To go into New York restaurants with him and his wife, in the beautiful filthy city, the autumn air in the streets outside, eyes turned to watch as we cross the room. The glory seems to be yours as well. There was a dreamlike quality also, perhaps because Redford seemed to be just passing through, not really involved. It was washing over him, like a casual love affair.
  • Lane Slate. He was irreverent and well-read, with a handsome face and a mouth that never opened in a smile, his teeth were so bad. When he laughed he would stuff his necktie in his mouth to conceal them.
  • Liked the way he spoke, the speed of his conclusions, the breadth of his scorn, the exactness of his references. Also his aplomb. He had not been to college—he had read his way up and somehow knew everything. Though I could not quite picture it, he had been in the navy. He retained none of its lore except for a belief that one could always make out with girls who wore little gold crucifixes.
  • She talked constantly that night, a cigarette between her fingers. Her laugh was irresistible. Smoke poured from her mouth. She was blonde, a bit heavy, perhaps thirty years old, the sort of woman who proudly wore a latent sadness.
  • Gaby was her name—Gabrielle, I suppose. She was seductive and at the same time disdainful; life had taught her hard lessons, among them to think always of money and to hate men. 
  • She rained images on me, some of them so intense they remain in my flesh like wounds.
  • I tried to visualize the younger, unhardened woman Sheilah Graham had been, the unexpected gift for the broken writer. Love is your last chance. There is really nothing else on earth to keep you there. Nothing of that seemed to remain. 
  • In the riches of that smile one would never be lonely or forgotten. 
  • Nina, my daughter, lived, but twelve years afterwards her older sister, Allan, died tragically. I have never been able to write the story. I reach a certain point and cannot go on. The death of kings can be recited, but not of one’s child. 
  • Looking back, I suppose I have always rejected the idea of actor as hero, and no intimacy has changed this. Actors are idols. Heroes are those with something at stake.
  • There was a line of Jean Renoir’s that struck me: The only things that are important in life are those you remember.
  • Art, in a sense, is life brought to a standstill, rescued from time. The secret of making it is simple: discard everything that is good enough
  • should take the time to write down twenty lines a day, shouldn’t I?” she asked. Yes, like putting pennies in a jar, it would add up, be valuable some day, perhaps salvage her life. 
  • There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.
  • Kindrigen stirred the coffee, opened the newspaper, and began reading it, sitting sideways to the table. Bowman had seen villains in Westerns sit this way.
  • He could not keep his eyes from her. Her face was as if, somehow, it was not completely finished, with smouldering features, a mouth not eager to smile, a riveting face that God had stamped with the simple answer to life. In profile she was even more beautiful.
  • And England had won. Its enemies stumbled through ruins, went hungry. What was left of their cities smelled of death and sewage, the women sold themselves for cigarettes, but it was England, like a battered fighter somehow left standing, that had paid too much.
  • The white glint of a brassiere strap that she pushed underneath as an afterthought seemed a sign of purity. When she said good-bye, it was like a play ending.
  • Enid smoked cigarettes, she did it only now and again, and breathed out the rich fragrance slowly. The light in the Ritz made her beautiful. The sound of her high heels. There is no other, there will never be another.
  • He treated her offhandedly, as he might treat bad weather.
  • Age doesn’t arrive slowly, it comes in a rush. One day nothing has changed, a week later, everything has. A week may be too long a time, it can happen overnight. You are the same and still the same and suddenly one morning two distinct lines, ineradicable, have appeared at the corners of your mouth.
  • He tried to look slowly at her but couldn’t. It was the first time, it was always blinding.
  • Afterwards they were like victims, face up, unable to move.
  • There was the moment like the one at a dance when before taking your partner’s hand for the first time, you know without touching whether he or she can dance or be any good.
  • The walls were falling away. The city was collapsing like stars.
  • “Never give men your best,” Nadine said. “They come to expect it.
James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime Documentary, Amazon. James Salter, 1925–2015, in Grantland by Louisa Thomas. June 22, 2015
Remembering James Salter, Writing’s Silver Surfer, in Vanity Fair by James Wolcott. June 2015.
Spellbound, in Paris Review by .  April 2011.
Love and Glory, in Paris Review by Ian Couch. April 2011
Document: An Outline for Light Years, in Paris Review by Thessaly La Force April 2011.
An Interview with James Salter, in Paris Review by Kate Petersen.  April 2011.
A Teller of Tales Tells His Own, in New York Times by Samuel Hynes. September 1997.
A Few Well-Chosen Words in New York Times by Adam Begley. October 1990.  

Her body awakened, she was suddenly aware that within it, as if existing by themselves, there were deep feelings of strength. When it was extended, hung upside down, when the muscles beneath were warmed and loose, when she felt like a young runner, she realized how much she could love this body, this vessel which would one day betray her — no, she did not believe that; the opposite, in fact. There were times she felt its immortality: on cool mornings, summer nights alone lying naked on top of the covers, in baths, while dressing, before love, in the sea, when limb-weary and ready to sleep.

When he undressed at night, he was like a diplomat or judge. A white body, gentle and powerless, emerged from his clothes, his position in the world lay tumbled on the floor, fallen from his ankles; he was clement, he was froglike, a touch of melancholy in his smile.
Light Years

He craved glamour, fame, the curve of a woman’s hip, the dark smell of a fighter plane parked in the morning mist. He used words like hero without self-consciousness, and also noble and love. He was frightened of forgetting and of being forgotten. But everything would be forgotten; he was no different. And so he wrote it all down, in notes that he turned into novels. He pillaged his experiences and the lives of others; he took conversations, crises, gestures, arguments, perfumes — everything — and made them half-accurate. He fractured stories into vying viewpoints. What he was after, he liked to say, was truth.

James Salter, who died on Friday, was known for being unknown and for writing exquisite sentences. By the end of his life — by the time The New Yorker profiled him, by the time Vintage reissued his books and the honors poured in — he had turned his reputation as an underrated author (or, as the critic James Wolcott put it, an “underrated underrated author”) into a kind of legend. He talked about it openly: He wanted sales, he wanted to be famous, he wanted to be more than loved. Instead they talked about his sentences. Such slender reeds, sentences are.

There it was, his truth. Strength and weakness, power and powerlessness. Nedra’s coiled strength; Viri’s froglike body, his melancholy smile. He wrote about people falling in love and out of it; every individual was the king or queen of her own crumbling empire. He turned lives, including his own, into small tragedies, failed protests against obscurity.

He called his memoir Burning the Days. What remains now that his days are done? The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years, Dusk & Other Stories, All That Is, and many others; essays about food and travel and skiing; novels about rock climbers; screenplays.

“He wanted immortality, of course, ‘What else is there?’” Salter wrote of Irwin Shaw. “Life passes into pages if it passes into anything else, and his had been written.”


He was born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1925, and grew up in New York; his name was James Horowitz. He used a pen name when he published The Hunters, which drew heavily on his experience flying jets in the Korean War, where he flew more than a hundred missions. Then he decided that Salter suited him. James Horowitz was Jewish, from New York. James Salter lived in Bridgehampton and Aspen, had stints in Paris, married, divorced, slept with actresses, had children and lost one, married again, skied into his old age. He fashioned himself as a kind of pagan aristocrat, concerned with purity, excellence, bravery, heroism. He celebrated the body, cultivated an eroticism that was passionately cool. His language was sacerdotal, intimate, almost archaic.

He was not merely a stylist. But the language did matter. He once called himself a “frotteur,” saying he liked to rub words between his fingers. His language is a thing in itself, something with shape and weight and heft and power. He wrote for the ear, not the eye, in lines that are long and unspooling or short and taut as bowstrings. By themselves, his sentences are often unlovely, spare, evasive; they are water where the light hits and blinds you to depths. It is in their quiet accumulation, the way they weave together, that they become transparent, graceful, and devastating.

I started reading James Salter in high school. I began with A Sport and a Pastime, as one does, and went from there; I still haven’t stopped. His lines have left their hooks in me. No other writer has guided me more.

This is, and has always been, a little embarrassing. There is something not so faintly ridiculous about a man who writes: “the great and the small are joined, the beautiful lives, the other dies, and all is foolish except honor, love, and what little is known by the heart.” Salter’s brand of elitism is irresponsible and easily dangerous; it is a kind of apolitical ideology that, in celebrating the best of humanity, attracts the very worst of mankind.

Salter is the kind of writer who asks why soldiers are willing to die but does not ask the whys of war. His worldview is urgently moral, but it is a morality interested in aesthetics instead of ethics. His characters are often casually cruel. Even his incessant refrain about the lack of recognition, which has so come to dominate the way that he is viewed, could seem more like a pose than an animating concern. Immortality? His books have no negotiation of principles, no critique, no awareness of history or politics. They can be selfish, deeply selfish. In place of grace, there is no sense of justice. There is only desire.

And yet, when I read Salter, I run my fingers through the water; I feel alive.


Last week, I finished reading the memoir of another great writer and flier, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.1 Published in France in 1939, Wind, Sand & Stars recounts Saint-Exupéry’s years as a mail carrier, back in the days when motors routinely dropped out of planes and pilots flew out of clouds and into mountainsides. It is a marvelous, vital, tender book.

Near the end, Saint-Exupéry turns from his adventures to a meditation on art, the individual, and human relations. “Death is sweet when it comes in its time and in its place, when it is part of the order of things, when the old peasant of Provence, at the end of his reign, remits into the hands of his own sons his parcel of goats and olive-trees in order that they in their turn transmit them to their sons,” he writes. “When one is part of a peasant lineage, one’s death is only half a death. Each life in turn bursts like a pod and sends forth its seed.”

I thought of those lines when I heard of Salter’s death, and I thought of something Salter had written to me. As it happens, my grandfather published The Hunters; he was Salter’s first editor. “Evan was absolutely the only connection I had, the only person I knew in publishing,” Salter once wrote to me. Each life in turn bursts like a pod and sends forth its seed. His note to me was a gift. Yes, I thought, I can be a writer.

The last line of his email was, “I hope you’ll consider writing my obituary.”

Photograph by Gasper Tringale.
June 22, 2015 6:19 pm
Remembering James Salter, Writing’s Silver Surfer by 
“Importance isn’t important,” Kingsley Amis once decreed. “Good writing is.”
A sentiment that doesn’t appear to have offered a lime slice of solace to the late novelist, screenwriter, former fighter pilot, and one-time director James Salter, who died last week at the preposterous age of 90—preposterous because his prose and persona possessed a silvery preserve that seemed to arrest him in time, suspending the rules the rest of us mortals erode by. In his prime he was Don Draper handsome, as Farran Smith Nehme pointed out on Twitter, he wrote with a worldly pointillism about skiing, mountain climbing, flying, seduction, epicurean dining, the accruing seasons of marriage, the qualities of light (as a word painter of light John Cheever was his only rival), and the internal exile of solitude that made so many of his contemporaries look like muckers and den hermits. It was a Hemingwayesque mode without the Popeye spinach of bluster and automythology that turned the later Hemingway into a tragic, patriarchal gasbag. Salter had all the makings of literary stardom, complete with Hollywood connections (he did the brilliant, elliptical script for Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer, with Robert Redford hitting the slopes), and had to settle for “writer’s writer” cult status, which is fine enough for Paris Review numinosity but won't feed the chickens or reserve a space in the pantheon.
“You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales,” as Salter was quoted lamenting in the New York Times obituary, and even sales offer no guaranteed price of admission. John O’Hara’s literary importance seemed to diminish in his lifetime as he belted out bestselling blockbusters that had all of the bloat and excess furnishing that his earlier breakthrough work acidly avoided. (Which posterity has handled by ditching most of the later novels overboard, recognizing Appointment in Samarra, BUtterfield 8, Pal Joey, and his best short stories as the true keepers.) And Norman Mailer, who had a handful of bestsellers over the span of his locomotive career, regretted near the end of his life that he had not done the masterpiece(s) he had hoped for, detoured by too much journalism, tight-deadline alimony-money books, and personal turmoil, though he kept working up to the end, as did Salter, whose All That Is came out in 2013, his first novel since the Carter administration, the late-late work that many of his admirers thought we would never see. It’s a novel I haven’t quite gotten the hang of, its spell more elusive and jagged than its predecessors (those sensuous canticles A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, not to mention his memoir Burning the Days), but one I intend to go back to. Salter had an almost French genius for capturing time present and time past in the leaf flicker of a single sentence, and All That Is has a more freighted sense of time and its characters a more predatory appetite—a hint of fangs beneath the well-bred manners.
Perhaps no writer escapes without regrets or, worse, resentments, because resentments are more global, blaming the world for not giving you what you wanted and deserved, and they gnaw more at the spleen than the regrets we are all nursing with a sigh. Esteemed by fellow writers, honored with critical praise and awards, the beneficiary of a third act burst of attention, Salter had it better than most—nearly everything good and profitable for the career of Richard (Revolutionary Road) Yates happened after he was too dead to appreciate it; posthumous acclaim is the ultimate example of too-little-too-late—and I suspect the Times obit painted a more wan impression than the actual truth. I never met the man so I can’t attest to that, but he was a man who lived by a code that he never deviated from in print, and print is where we will continue to know him best. Rest in peace, James Salter.
When I was interviewed for Sandy Gotham Meehan and Edgar Howard’s documentary about Salter, which you can order here, I brought with me my beat-up paperback copy of A Sport and a Pastime, the closest thing I have to a psalmbook.

Spellbound April 5, 2011 | by 
Our Spring Revel is on April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.
For over half my life, I have returned repeatedly to Light Years. It was the first of James Salter’s books I discovered; it has since led me to all his others. Light Years is the one I know best. The first copy was borrowed. It belonged to my college roommate and was among the handful of books she’d brought with her from home, having nothing to do with our classes. It was a beautiful paperback published by North Point Press: yellow border, rough edges, thickly woven pages, a Bonnard painting on the cover. It was 1985. The book was ten years old; I was eighteen. I was new to New York, a freshman at Barnard College. I was unsophisticated, unmoored, bewildered by college and by the city. Reading the novel was like opening a window for the first time in spring, after a long winter has passed. Something worn out was set aside, something invigorating ushered in.
At the time I had not read much contemporary literature. I had certainly never read sentences so precise, so clean, so fervent and yet so calm. I reacted to the novel as I did to the books of my childhood: it cast a spell in the same way, provoking a reaction that was visceral and dreamlike and whole. But here was a book that was about adulthood, the undiscovered country that lay on the other side of a bridge I was only beginning to cross.
I loved the mood of the book, which was sober and sophisticated, but also casual, playful. I loved its structure, restrained and orderly, while at the same time loose and unspooling. I loved its intimate texture and its images: Nedra’s hands flat on a table, her oat-colored sweater. Pigeons crowding into the R of a furniture store, a martini that is like a change in the weather. I loved the devotional rendering of meals, peoples’ faces, rooms and the objects they contained. Though it felt startlingly modern, I recognized certain ancient forms of literature I was studying in my classes: myth, elegy, ode. The five acts of Shakespeare. Long passages of conversation, as unadorned but as revelatory as dialogue in a classical play.
Viri, Nedra, Franca, and Danny—the family in the book—live outside Manhattan, but I found in the novel a portrait of the city I was getting to know. As a student, I often used to take walks to clear my head, down Broadway to Seventy-ninth Street and back. After reading Light Years, I never walked into Zabar’s without thinking of Nedra somewhere in the crowd, her car parked hastily outside, her hair flowing over the back of her coat. I saw her asking to taste some cheese, the men behind the counter pausing in their work to admire her.
In the beginning it was the light, the warmth of the novel that enchanted me. Afternoon trysts, evenings by the fire, languorous days by the sea. I was about the age of the daughters at one point in the story. Nedra and Viri were more remote, traveling toward middle age. I understood that the couple betrayed one another and separated, that the family lost its center, that death came. But in the beginning, coming to the book in a state of innocence, I was less affected by its outcome than I was captivated by what had come before. I was still at an age when the passage of time felt predominantly generous, benevolent.
In the course of nearly thirty years, I have come to read the book differently. I fell in love, married, became a writer, a mother. I am now older than Nedra when she leaves Viri, approaching the age when she grows ill and dies. Now I respond, as I did not before, to Salter’s moving reflections on parenthood, on solitude, on the earth’s beauty. Pleasure is something I continue to associate with the book; it is a novel that taught me the profundity of it. But I have grown vulnerable to its darker currents: the breach between family and autonomy, between possessing and renouncing, between being and nothingness.
As a writer, I am shamelessly in its debt. There is even a very minor character in one of my stories named Franca. That same story is set partly in Rome, as is Light Years toward the end. There is a visit to Keats’s grave, which Viri also goes to see. Reading Salter taught me to boil down my writing to its essence. To insist upon the right words, and to remember that less is more. He taught me that a plot can be at once a straight line and a collage, that tense and perspective are fluid things. That great art can be wrought from quotidian life. These teachings are ongoing. Each time I revisit the novel, I am humbled by how high a bar its author has set.
Oddly, the geography of Light Years has come to reflect, in some sense, my own journey thus far. The North Atlantic shore, New York City, Rome: these are places that have come to inspire and inform me in different but significant ways. England, where Viri and Nedra spend their last days together, is where I was born. India, too, is a presence in the book, evoked less literally than philosophically. I had no idea, at eighteen, that a novel that felt so foreign contained a map of my own future, that by midlife, it would correspond to my evolving definition of home.
“The best education comes from knowing only one book,” Viri tells Nedra. “Purity comes from that, and proportion, and the comfort of always having an example close at hand.” Nedra dismisses him, but I agree.
Jhumpa Lahiri is the author, most recently, of Unaccustomed Earth. She is currently at work on a novel.

Dreams and Work: On ‘Light Years’ April 6, 2011 | by 

Our Spring Revel is April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.

I discovered James Salter just late enough, in grad school, at the suggestion of a brooding alcoholic, the best writer in the room, with whom I’d become entangled in a very Salter-esque doomed affair. I was the writer who’d gush about the stylists, steer the conversations from plot and story to diction and syntax, the one who’d make over-earnest pleas about art over mechanics, always to the rolled eyes of the Ivy Leaguers who made up most the program. Most everything I wrote failed on a story level as much as it succeeded on a sentence level, and so this writer-fling of mine one day said, “You should read Salter. Because he does that thing you like. But he also tells stories. He can help you.”
I dashed to Light Years—Salter’s fourth novel, published in 1975—as I did to any of his suggestions. Up to that point, stylists meant maximalists, hysterical realists, the breathless and the sprawling: William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Stephen Dixon. I had never encountered a minimalist I could live inside of. But as minimal as Light Years was aesthetically, it was maximal emotionally. The sentences were sharp and piercing, alarmingly brief, and yet they contained entire lifetimes rendered in stream of consciousness within three-word observations about the seasons. “I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible,” Salter said in his Paris Review interview. I lived for that poet’s spirit in my storytellers. That taut and yet tender surface simplicity was applied to amplifying the elemental in this world destroyed me, as if trees and desks and fog and smoke are their own metaphors in a universe that is essentially figurative:
The trees are naked. The eels sleep.
Life is weather. Life is meals.
Dreams and work. 
The mornings were white, the trees still bare.
And other times he punctuates the spare landscapes with nearly proverbial and aphoristic declarations as timeless and true as the sleeping eels and white mornings:
We preserve ourselves as if that were important and always at the expense of others. We hoard ourselves. We succeed if they fail, we are wise if they are foolish, and we go onward, clutching until there is no one—we are left with no companion save God. In whom we do not believe. Who we know does not exist.
The book was everything I was not. Crisp, distilled, minimal, elegant, somehow patrician in its Hamptons country seasoning and midcentury American bohemia trimming; I was indoorsy, devoutly urban, messy, rambling, broke, Iranian, a blur of black frizzy hair and purple mixed metaphors. In the first several pages, I was highly conscious of my inadequacy; all I could think was how my family of four, the Khakpours—immigrant lower-middle class, adjunct professor dad and accountant mom, grateful for their basic survival in suburban LA—were the opposite of Salter’s family of four, the Berlands—creative upper-middle class, a restless New York architect and his perilously free-spirited wife, who could afford to move just outside the city to the idyllic Hudson, who could afford a certain bourgeois discontentment. But as I progressed, I began to read it as Americans might read foreign writers, for anthropological insights, for their very otherness, for escape to an exotic place, et cetera.  And then a fourth of the way into it—Part II—past the pet pony and shirt fittings and seemingly immaculate dinner parties—I started to forget my own insecurities as they melded into Viri and Nedra Berland’s. I lost myself in a book—a book about marital crisis, a topic that never interested me—for the first time in nearly a decade. It felt like I had discovered a new continent when I found a literature that I thought, against all odds, could reach everyone.

DAYS AFTER I finished it, carrying it much as a child does a favorite stuffed animal, one of my fellow grad students—a woman—looked me up and down, puzzled, and said, “But he’s such a guy’s writer.” It shocked me then, though by now I’ve heard it many times. For Salter has always avoided Hemingway’s bullfights-broads-and-booze virility; he says in his Paris Review interview that “I deem as heroic those who have the harder task, face it unflinchingly and live. In this world women do that.” And one can argue that Light Years is Nedra’s story, though it goes on without her in Viri’s hands. Nedra is as entirely unique and yet universal as any woman—at once hard and extravagant, both old and young, an artist and an observer, creator and destroyer, wanderer and homebody, a mother and the ultimate antimatriarch. Losing yourself in Nedra is dangerous; my experience—nearly a decade since I first read the book—is evidence enough that she can haunt you a few steps ahead of yourself.
I taught the book five years later in an advanced fiction seminar, where all the poets and language writers swooned and a few genre fiction writers protested. “But what’s the story here?” a student of mine kept asking. He also seemed alarmed by the modesty of Salter’s claim that the idea for the novel came from a Jean Renoir quote: “The only things that are important in life are the things you remember.” “That’s it?” he said, to which another student snapped, “What else is there?” Indeed, dump out its contents and Light Years is just scattered bits of memory, a collage of the surviving instances all in their different lighting. William Dowie, in his 1988 essay, "A Final Glory: The Novels of James Salter,” calls his style, as many have, “impressionistic” in its portrayal of “the cumulative effect of our smallest actions. The pattern of Viri and Nedra's daily life leads to their ultimate fates, not simply their dramatic acts of un-faithfulness.” The power of the smallest things is everywhere in Salter, in content and in form, but as you hurdle toward the end—past the fifties and through the seventies, into Amagansett and out of Rome, over the rebound and around the lovers—you realize small suddenly means something else altogether.
This book changed my life. Salter would see past the cheap glitter of hyperbole and cliché there—after all, it’s Nedra’s reading of one passage in a book on Kandinsky that marks her most urgent doing and ultimate undoing:
The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark … 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?
Porochista Khakpour, author of the novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects, contributes essays to publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, among others, and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Love and Glory 
April 7, 2011 | by 

Our Spring Revel is on April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.
There may have been less startling primers on adult sexuality than James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime for me to read as a young man, but few could have been as illuminating or comprehensive. Anyway, as with cold water, it is best to jump in. Or as the novel's narrator explains, citing Rilke, “there are no classes for beginners in life, the most difficult thing is always asked of one right away.” The erotic passages are justly famous, scandalous in 1967 and still instructional, in a practical sense, decades later. There was much to learn: about terminology (the male organ is rightly called a prick), positions (nothing tantric, but interesting for a teenager), and accessories (“In his clothing he conceals, like an assassin, a small tube of lubricant”). Salter is a great celebrant of the human anatomy and its various uses, but is equivocal about the emotions that sex produces: it can be tender, selfish, thrilling, boring, and, at times, even murderous, producing a “satanic happiness.”
The more significant education, however, came from Salter’s sensibility, his mature insistence that sex is more than just a private act conducted by two people in the dark, that it exists as a part of history, with a past and future as well as a present. Also: that sex is central to love, which is central to life; that greatness and heroism exist in even the most common of places; and perhaps most striking, that “straight” men could be in love with each other.
The novel follows an affair in France between Phillip Dean, an American, and his lover, a young Frenchwoman named Anne-Marie, and is told from the perspective of a voyeuristic, sometimes obsessive third person, the narrator, who feels from Dean “the pull of a dark star.” Dean may be petulant and inconstant, but he is in some essential way pure.
Dean is still asleep. His clothes are strewn about. The shutters are closed. He never dreams. He’s like a dead musician, like a spent runner. He hasn’t the strength to dream, or rather, his dreams take place while he is awake and they are marvelous for at least one quality: he has the power to prolong them.
Terms like homoerotic and homosocial seem crudely scientific and beside the point. We didn’t need Leslie Fiedler to tell us about such feelings of envy and admiration; they are manifest in life, but rarely revealed so beautifully as by Salter, in his small but polished collection of novels, short stories, and memoir writing from the past half century.
Salter has written about fighter pilots and mountain climbers but also about poets and novelists, notably in two fine short-story collections, Dusk and Last Night. He has created persuasive and robust female characters, but it would be correct, I think, to identify him as a writer of men—though his prose is not muscular in some senselessly macho vein. (He has written, after all, such lines as “There is love when you lose the power to speak, when you cannot even breathe.”) One thinks, in terms of tone, of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, of Hemingway at his most tender, and the best of Irwin Shaw. In his memoir Burning the Days, Salter writes about the sometimes distant friendship he conducted with Shaw, whom he met in France after Shaw had already achieved his stardom. He is protective of Shaw’s literary reputation, which has faded, but mostly he admires a man who “had known glory” and found “a way of living that seemed his alone.”
There are men who seem to have seized the trunk of life, and he was one of them. It might not be for everyone, the great, scarring thing you could not get your arms around, but it was there for him.
Shaw had once said, perhaps dismissively, that Salter was a “lyric” writer. That may be right; Salter’s narratives, even in his nonfiction, are elliptical and dedicated to what could be seen as a limited set of preoccupations: sex, love, money and its lack, art (though a life limited to such things would remain rich indeed). His fiction is remarkable for its absences: children exist off to the side, politics is absent, the particularities of work are never much explored, and there is a striking lack of humor. Instead, you get luminosity, an evocation of mood, as if life were scenes of various natural light—dying hours, sunrises, gray afternoons—or else, a liquid substance, and its events appeared as ripples and, occasionally, as waves.
We appreciate Salter’s earnestness, though, because life in his telling is a serious undertaking, a gesture toward glory and immortality through love and a kind of private ethics revealed in the large and small choices that add up to tell a story. Salter stands out as a writer with a devotional purpose, though not religious in a modern sense. Instead, there are ancient, perhaps unspoken, tests to pass. Salter was a cadet at West Point and an Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War, and in his prose about flying, we see his guiding assumptions:
It was among the knowledgeable others that one hoped to be talked about and admired. It was not impossible—the world of squadrons is small. The years would bow to you; you would be remembered, your name like a thoroughbred’s, a horse that ran and won.
Pilots were the elegant gladiators of the twentieth century, their battles were distilled examinations of mettle and will. Later, as Geoff Dyer points out, writers replaced pilots for Salter—the stakes were different, the outcomes less plain. And yet still there was the push for glory. “Nothing is heavier than paper,” Salter writes in the story collection Dusk. Of another writer:
If he was not great, he was following the path of greatness which is the same as disaster, and he had the power to make one devote oneself to his life.
If we take seriously the idea that fiction can teach us something (maybe everything) about how to live, then Salter’s lessons extend beyond manners and moods to an unfamiliar place where we are challenged to live at an emotional extreme. Love (like sex, flying, and writing) is experienced as a faith, and as Salter writes, “Beliefs are meant to cleave us to the bone.” His characters give themselves completely, perhaps dangerously, to each other. A man leaves his wife to spend a glorious season with a younger woman in Mexico; a married woman develops an irrational attachment to a mysterious writer whom she barely knows. In A Sport and a Pastime, Phillip Dean and Anne-Marie are torn apart. Most of Salter’s characters end up heartbroken and alone with their memories, aware that moments of glory leave only paler times in their wake. Most of us will opt to play it safer, preferring consistency to perfection; Salter’s characters go for broke. In Burning the Days, he writes:
The poets, writers, the sages and voices of their time, they are a chorus, the anthem they share is the same: the great and the small are joined, the beautiful lives, the other dies, and all is foolish except honor, love, and what little is known by the heart.
Ian Crouch is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog.
Document: Possible Titles for ‘Light Years’ 
April 8, 2011 | by 
At every magazine or publishing house, there’s always an editor or two with a knack for titles. But even so, rarely does one come in a flash of divine inspiration. There are iterations and themes and the same words written over and over. Here is a glimpse of what James Salter’s process was like with his novel Light Years (a book both Jhumpa Lahiri and Porochista Khakpour wrote about this week). Salter seems so close at points, circling back to light and years, sometimes on the same page but not always the same line, ranking his favorites and weighing the opinions of others.

Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center. Click to enlarge.

Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center. Click to enlarge.

Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center. Click to enlarge.

Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center. Click to enlarge.

An Interview with James Salter 

April 11, 2011 | by 

Photograph by Lan Rys.
Our Spring Revel is tomorrow, April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. Here is Salter himself, discussing his new novel and reflecting on his work as a writer and a teacher.
Tell me about your new novel.
I’ve been working on it for some years. I’d had the idea for a long time, but I was unconsciously waiting for a line from Christopher Hitchens. He wrote somewhere that “No life is complete that has not known poverty, love, and war.” That struck me, and I began with that.
I haven’t followed it through. Poverty doesn’t play much of a part. Betrayal does, and it’s a book that has a little more plot than other books of mine. It’s about an editor, a book editor, it’s the story of his life.
In your Paris Review interview with Edward Hirsch, you describe this image of your friend Robert Phelps going through his books, taking down the ones that didn’t measure up and leaving them in the hall. Reading your work, one gets the sense that there is a similar process at work—that everything unnecessary or plain has been taken away.
Yes, that’s probably a fault of the writing.
How so?
I think I’d like to write a little less intensely.
For your sake or for your readers’?
For everyone’s.
How do you come to your characters’ names?
I once asked some students in a workshop how they invented dialogue. We went around, and most of them said they just tried to imagine what people would say. Then I came to a particularly good writer from the South who had it down perfectly and he said: “Well, I usually just go to a barbershop and sit behind a newspaper.”
You hear people say things you couldn’t have invented. The same for names. People have names that for some reason you cannot invent. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to get an approximation of that name for the person you’re writing about, sometimes you simply have to name them yourself. But I would say it’s like dialogue: if you are lucky, it’s a found thing.
There are writers for whom names mean nothing; everybody could be called John and Elizabeth and the writing would be just as good. A name, of course is like a piece of clothing, isn’t it? It gives you an impression right away.
I think Roth is particularly good at finding the names for his people. Bellow, on the other hand: sometimes he has the right name, sometimes I don’t think so. And of course, with some writers you don’t even notice whether they have the right name or not. It’s like having beautiful hair. If you have it, fine. If you don’t, you know, wear a hat.
What are you reading now?
Well, I don’t read much for pleasure. But I am reading a book now, The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund De Waal. It’s wonderful to pick up a book finally and feel: I can’t put this down.
It’s possible of course, especially when you’re young, to read a book and take it to your heart. And you don’t need to speak to anybody about it, it’s so important to you: You have found it.
I think later on, you are unable to recapture that feeling, exactly, and the societal nature of books—what they mean to other people—enters into it.
I think I could read Gogol’s Dead Souls every week from now on, and never tire of it. I can’t think of an American writer today who, for me, has that kind of power.
Gogol only wrote one book. He wrote some short stories, but only one novel, and he never finished that. But it’s fantastic.  There are lines in it—it’s not because of their poetry, it’s not the same kind of thing at all—where you simply have to put the book down for a minute and give yourself a chance to restore yourself a little and go on.
I have my own work, that’s the main thing. When I’m writing I find it hard to read on the side. Even though I have my own thinking, I can lose track of it, in the midst of something else. You don’t know what you’re really thinking in the middle of a concert, where the crowd is going mad, the performer is going mad, and everything is Dionysian: I don’t believe you’re your own self. And as a writer, I’m not tremendously imaginative. So I want to have my feet on the ground.
What does one learn from one book to the next? Does each one start from zero or is there an accrued understanding of where you’re going and how to get there?
Well, of course you learn things. If you write enough, you begin to learn to do things. But in a way you do start from zero each time. You know something, but you more or less forget what you know, and as you go on you may remember a little, unless you’re a writer like Trollope who simply has the ability to sit down to a page and write and write and write, and there is nothing between you and the page but the time it takes to describe and explain. I’m not that kind of writer. I tend to start from zero.
How should a writer be educated?
Oh, I have no idea, they all come to it in different ways. Normally I think of a writer as someone who has read a lot and learned from reading, but I can imagine writers who have never read a thing: a voice from the crowd, from somebody who has only heard songs, or listened to talk on the street, or at work, or in bars, and who can say remarkable things, who is in touch with something true, either in themselves or outside themselves, I can see them writing, and writing very well. You don’t have to have read everything to write.
Given that, then, there’s no real education for a writer. The writing workshops and programs that are everywhere have encouraged writing. And if that produces more writing, it’s also producing more readers of an elevated level. So all in all, a good thing.
Vonnegut used to say that he couldn’t teach anybody to write, but like an old golf pro, he could go around the course with you and maybe take a few strokes off your game. That seemed to me very accurate.
But I’ve changed my mind. I think you can be taught to write. You can’t be taught to be a good writer. For that you have to bring something to it, yourself, something that can’t be given to you.
War is in the headlines these days. You once wrote that war is the furnace of the individual, and in The Hunters you show how in a war without a unanimous moral urgency—Korea—a soldier can be obsessed with of making a place in history, as if the war itself might not warrant one. Do you still believe that to be true?
When you think back to the war, to history and your life, you have quite a different perspective than when you were there looking  ahead. Because now you know what happened, and you are free of any apprehension about it, any anguish or angst. You remember that perhaps you were a little frightened.
But that’s not the way it was at the time. At the time it was all uncertainty -- you were with a lot of people you didn’t know, you didn’t know where you were going exactly, you had no idea what was going to happen to you, there was every chance that it might be something not good.
When you read about a war, it’s exciting or maybe terribly depressing, depending on who the writer is. If you are reading about the most awful part of Vietnam, you feel depressed as a human, depressed for your country.
On the other hand, you can read about war and not feel that at all. If you read about Waterloo in Victor Hugo, or at the beginning of Stendhal, or even in Tolstoy, the bullets are whistling merrily, people fall off horses and are killed, but there’s none of the sickening butchery.  The immolation of war, the full terror of it, only appears in certain books.
As a boy, I was fascinated by soldiers and the First World War. Of course I’m not the only kid who had toy soldiers. Maybe part of it is cultural, imbibed, but I think it’s more than that. We’re still reading Homer, and when you read Christopher Logue’s translation of The Iliad, it is so immediate, so staggering.  It would be going over the top if I said it changes your life, but for a moment it changes who you are and what you might be, which a terrific piece of writing can do.
I didn’t know The Iliad when I was a boy, didn’t have the classical education in which one was taught Greek or Latin and could read it as a child. So I don’t even know The Iliad in its full power.
Like books you will never have the chance to read, there are languages you do not know, and you’re not going to get a chance to learn, so you’ll never really know what was written, only the approximation.

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