James Salter's Lectures Collected In 'The Art of Fiction' - 27 East

Arts & Living

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James Salter’s Lectures Collected In ‘The Art of Fiction’

author on Jun 14, 2016

When reading James Salter’s lectures, “The Art of Fiction,” (University of Virginia Press, 120 pp, $19.95) one can almost hear his voice, graceful as his prose, slightly gravelly, assured and to the point, with no wasted words.

For years he had been saddled with the label “writer’s writer,” which was intended as a mark of respect from reviewers, but the high tone of it in all likelihood reduced sales. He hated the term.

A case can be made that Mr. Salter—who lived in Bridgehampton for many years before he died last year—was one of a handful of the great American writers of the last half of the 20th century. His short stories, collected in two volumes, “Dusk and Other Stories” and “Last Night,” are among the finest in the genre. His novels, “A Sport and a Pastime,” “Light Years,” “Solo Faces” and “All That Is,” bear reading and rereading. The same is true of his wonderful memoir, “Burning the Days.” They are all brilliantly written and very readable.

“The Art of Fiction” consists of three lectures given at the University of Virginia. Only months before he died at the age of 90, he accepted the newly created position of Kapnick writer-in-residence there. His only responsibility was to deliver these lectures.

The introduction by novelist John Casey is perhaps overlong, but contains some delightful quotations, like this from “Burning the Days”: “I sat next to a green-eyed young woman, a poet, who declared loftily that you learned nothing from books, it was life you learned from, passion, experience. The host, a fine old man in his seventies, heard her and disagreed. His hair was white. His voice had the faint shrillness of age. ‘No, everything I’ve ever learned,’ he said, ‘has come from books. I’d be in darkness without them.’”

In the lectures, Mr. Salter speaks of the books that influenced him, including Balzac’s “Old Goriot,” a 19th century “King Lear” set in Paris. Mr. Salter had a great affinity for France and French writers. He is not unlike Flaubert in his quest for le mot juste. Reading and writing are part of the same circular process.

Mr. Salter’s friend Robert Phelps introduced him to the stories of Isaac Babel, the Russian writer who wrote with such sang froid about the brutality of the Red Cavalry in its campaign against Poland, and about the criminal underworld of Odessa. His prose, Mr. Salter said, “was like a handful of radium.”

He talks about why writers write. “Well, really for pleasure, although it’s clear it’s not such great pleasure. Then to please others. I’ve written with that in mind sometimes, thinking of certain people, but it would be truer to say that I’ve written to be admired by others, to be loved by them, to be praised, to be known. In the end, that’s the only reason. The result is barely related to it. None of those reasons give the strength of the desire.”

But one is not always admired. There are pitfalls to the art of writing. He tells of not one, but two, devastating reviews of the same book in The New York Times. After these he went to “France, where you can always feel it’s worthwhile to be a writer and where I had always been able to write.”

He tells us of looking in a bookstore window and seeing a book by a high school classmate, and of the jealousy he felt upon seeing it. The classmate was Jack Kerouac.

Mr. Salter didn’t think that novel writing could be taught, which must have slightly dismayed the writing students in his audience.

He warns his audience, “Writing novels is difficult.” To write a novel is a large undertaking, requiring immense effort and a memory that doesn’t fail. A novel is a complex structure with many rooms and many inhabitants. It is often permeated by a sense of place, like Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, Thomas Mann’s Lübeck and Venice, and Saul Bellow’s Chicago.

But when all is said and done, it is style that remains. “Style is substance,” he says. In Mr. Salter’s case, it is a style influenced as much by André Gide and Vladimir Nabokov as by Hemingway, graceful and clear.

“... there are certain books,” he says, “I’d like to read before I die, for what reason it’s hard to say. I’d somehow feel incomplete otherwise, not quite ready. … I see myself as reading at the end in the way that Edmund Wilson in his last days was learning Hebrew with oxygen tanks at the foot of his bed.”

When he wrote these words, he had little time left to do that kind of reading, but it is impossible to think of him as being incomplete.

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