James Sal­ter re­mem­bered as an un­der­rated master of nar­ra­tive

The China Post - - ARTS & LEISURE -

James Sal­ter, who died Fri­day at 90, had a small but ex­quis­ite literary out­put, earn­ing him dis­tinc­tion as a con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can master.

Sal­ter long craved but never achieved wide­spread pop­u­lar­ity, set­tling in­stead for crit­i­cal ac­claim and praise from a small, ad­mir­ing au­di­ence.

This writer’s writer had been one of the last great liv­ing Amer­i­can post­war nov­el­ists.

He wrote so scrupu­lously, his sen­tences so care­fully crafted, that fel­low nov­el­ist Richard Ford came to say: “It is an ar­ti­cle of faith among read­ers of fic­tion that James Sal­ter writes Amer­i­can sen­tences bet­ter than any­body writ­ing to­day.”

Sal­ter wrote his first novel, “The Hun­ters” (1956) when he was an Air Force fighter pi­lot. He flew in the Korean War along­side the as­tro­naut Buzz Aldrin — the sec­ond man to walk on the moon.

Although the book, writ­ten be­tween dog­fights with Chi­nese fighter jets in Korea, was made into a Hol­ly­wood film star­ring Robert Mitchum, his five sub­se­quent nov­els had a much smaller though no less ador­ing read­er­ship.

‘Ev­ery­thing is a dream’

At age 87, Sal­ter pub­lished his last novel, “All That Is” (2013), his ob­ser­va­tional pow­ers undi­min­ished by age as he traced the life of book editor Phillip Bow­man in post­war New York.

“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,” he wrote in the book’s epi­graph.

It was with that vale­dic­to­rian ef­fort as a con­sum­mate sto­ry­teller that Sal­ter fi­nally achieved some of the global rep­u­ta­tion he had sought through­out his ca­reer.

French bookshop work­ers voted it their fa­vorite book of 2014.

A hand­some, ram­rod-straight sports­man even into his late 80s, Sal­ter died Fri­day dur­ing “a gym ses­sion” at Sag Har­bor near his home in Bridge­hamp­ton in New York state, his French pub­lisher Olivier Co­hen said.

Born James Horowitz on June 10, 1925 in New York, Sal­ter trained at the pres­ti­gious West Point mil­i­tary academy and sur­vived a crash-land­ing while train­ing as a U.S. Air Force pi­lot be­fore be­ing posted to the Pa­cific.

His fa­ther was a vic­tim of the Wall Street crash of 1929, plung­ing the fam­ily into fi­nan­cial mis­ery.

The young Sal­ter took refuge in read­ing, de­vour­ing works by Charles Dick­ens, Leo Tol­stoy, Rud­yard Ki­pling, Lord By­ron and Ernest Hem­ing­way.

The at­tack on Pearl Har­bor marked a life-chang­ing mo­ment for Sal­ter, who joined the U.S. Air Force.

He idol­ized “The Lit­tle Prince” and “Night Flight” au­thor An­toine de Saint-Ex­u­pery, pi­lot writer like him.

Af­ter “The Hun­ters,” his ex­pe­ri­ence in the mil­i­tary re­turned to haunt him for his memoir “Burn­ing the Days” (1997).

He also drew on his mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence to de­scribe the lives of of­fi­cer in an Air Force squadron for the 1961 novel “The Arm of Flesh,” later ex­ten­sively re­vised and ini­tially reis­sued as “Cas­sada” in 2000.

From his mil­i­tary ca­reer, Sal­ter re­tained a cer­tain rigor and el­e­gance ev­i­dent in his writ­ing, de­void of flour­ishes, where ad­jec­tives are care­fully cho­sen and words leap from the pages.

Un­par­al­leled Style

In “A Sport and a Pas­time,” a brief novel packed with eroti­cism in its tale of the steamy love af­fair be­tween Yale dropout Phillip Dean and young French shopgirl An­neMarie Costal­lat, Sal­ter brushed against con­tro­versy.

“She comes to life with a soft ex­hausted sound, like some­one saved from drown­ing,” he wrote in the novel.

Sal­ter told The New York Times that his pub­lisher at the time, Harper, had balked at the “more than nor­mal amount of sex” in the book, and that pub­lish­ers were “hold­ing it like it was a pair of dirty socks.”

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