James Salter’s Strange Career


Jeffrey Meyers

“Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise.”

— Milton, “Lycidas”

   After reading and admiring James Salter’s books, I wrote to him for the first time on July 18, 2005. I discussed the influence of Hemingway and Fitzgerald on his work, mentioned some places we’d both lived in (Colorado, Okinawa, Japan and Korea) and my meetings with his friends, especially Irwin Shaw and James Jones. I visited him in Bridgehampton, Long Island, for three days each time in June 2006 and July 2007, and over the years received eighty letters from him.    Salter’s masterpieces—his novels A Sport and a Pastime (1967) and Light Years (1975) and his memoir Burning the Days (1997)—place him, after Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, as the best postwar American novelist. His lyrical evocation of people and places, of luxurious decadence and the danger of death, are unsurpassed. But his two best novels had poor reviews and sold few copies, and he did not achieve fame until much later. On September 7, 1997, when Salter had been writing for forty years, Samuel Hynes observed in the New York Times Book Review that “his reputation is of a curious kind; no single book of his has a secure place in the canon of modern fiction. As a writer he is both known and not known.” Why were Salter’s early novels ignored for so long, and why did his literary reputation revive when he was in his seventies and eighties?    By the mid-1970s, Salter (1925-2015) had abandoned two successful careers: one delayed his progress as a novelist, the other derailed it. He was a fighter pilot who flew one hundred missions against Russian-piloted jets from across the Yalu River in North Korea and shot down one MIG, and was the screenwriter of Robert Redford’s Downhill Racer as well as The Appointment, Three and Threshold. His well-paid work in Hollywood enabled him to return to writing fiction, and he enjoyed an astonishing resurgence of creative power and late success. Salter published eight books in the forty-four years between 1956 and 2000. In his eighties he published ten books in thirteen years. 1    A fighter pilot combines the skill of a brain surgeon with the risk of a matador. Salter surrendered his life whenever he got on a war plane, and the chance of death made his existence seem even more precious. He recalled in an interview that many pilots “got killed early on. There were a lot of accidents. Those I had as real friends, maybe half a dozen, for some reason, they’re all dead.” The macho emphasis in the fighter squadrons was on drink and daring; anything else was suspect. Amid all the alcohol, gambling and whoring, Salter dreamed of being a novelist, even a great one.    In this intellectual vacuum, he secretly wrote his first novel, The Hunters (1956). His real name was James Horowitz, but he published it under the pseudonym of James Salter to disguise his authorship, protect his military career and hide the identity of the pilots he portrayed in his fiction. The Hunters sold a respectable 12,000 copies. His second war novel Arm of Flesh (1961, rewritten as Cassada in 2000), was a derivative and disastrous attempt to imitate William Faulkner’s use of multiple narrators in As I Lay Dying. It got very little notice, failed to sell and vanished without a trace.    Salter’s flying novels were influenced by the stoical tone of Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy (1942) and by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight (1931), with its conflict between duty and freedom, its portrayal in lyrical prose of excitement and danger, knowledge and exploits. (Both Hillary and Saint-Exupéry died in air crashes.) The ace-pilot Pell in The Hunters, like the mountain climbers in Salter’s novel Solo Faces, is a fanatic with a visceral compulsion to risk his life. Salter also wrote about flying, his lifelong theme, in the “Icarus” chapter in Burning the Days and in Gods of Tin, with vivid excerpts from his Korean War journal.    Salter decided to follow Rilke’s advice in “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: “You must change your life.” He explained that “reading about the lives of others is one of the things that gives us courage to change our own, the courage to struggle against our own.” He came to believe that his true life belonged in the literary world, not the Air Force, that “there is the knowledge of the senses that includes carnal happiness, and a greater knowledge that comes from intellect and reason.”    In 1957, when Salter sold the screen rights of The Hunters for $60,000, enough to live on for three years, he left his promising career as a lieutenant colonel (destined perhaps to become a high-flying general) after twelve years in the Air Force. He had two small daughters, born in 1955 and 1957, and discussed this crucial decision—the most important in his life—with his wife, whom he’d married in 1951. She didn’t fully understand what was involved, but did not try to change his mind. He thought there would be some strong reaction in the Pentagon when he resigned his commission, that “someone would shake his head with regret at the departure of a regular officer, but there was none.”    Salter loved the Air Force and left it reluctantly. In his Paris Review interview he declared, “Everything that meant anything to me … everything I had done in life up to that point, I was throwing away. I felt absolutely miserable—miserable and a failure. … It was precisely like divorce,” but even more emotionally searing than the eventual break-up of his marriage. Asked if he regretted leaving the Air Force, he replied: “Yes. Every day. For a long time, every day. I wasn’t really a writer yet… . As a pilot you’re nobility from the very beginning. As a writer you aren’t anybody until you become somebody.” He felt like a failure because he had left the service before realizing his full potential, but the Korean war gave him his first and most valuable subject.    In the terrible descent from fighter pilot to nonentity, Salter feared he’d made a disastrous mistake. After the money from the film rights ran out, he lived a hand-to-mouth existence for several years. In his version of a rags-to-riches story, he even tried selling swimming pools to wealthy neighbors. We don’t know who employed him and what he earned; he might have worked for one summer and sold three pools. But he did have his Air Force pension, his pay from joining the Air National Guard and his wife’s money from her wealthy Virginia fox-hunting family.    Salter had graduated from West Point and had an engineering degree. Conscious of having lived in a cultural void, he deferred to editors with more sophisticated backgrounds and was powerfully influenced by the dilettante and literary snob Robert Phelps (1922-89). Born in Elyria, Ohio, and educated at Oberlin College, he had a wife and son but was secretly bisexual. In his elegy on Phelps, Richard Howard wrote: “[You] were satisfied—or so you asserted—with patching up Colette” in five anthologies, and making flower arrangements of prose by the homosexual writers Jean Cocteau and Glenway Wescott. Salter took the surname of the hero of A Sport and a Pastime from Peter Deane, the coauthor with Phelps of the anthology The Literary Life (1968). He repeatedly praised this scrappy scrapbook and used anecdotes from it in his lectures, The Art of Fiction.    Salter corresponded with Phelps during the 1970s, but when his friend developed Parkinson’s disease and found it difficult to write they drifted apart. In April 2013 Salter wrote me, “I was in love with him, not that kind of love, I was in love with his tastes and what he represented to me.” Salter eagerly adopted Phelps’ Francophilia: his fondness for French phrases and admiration for precious and pretentious writers, especially Paul Léautaud (1872-1956), the eccentric, pet-obsessed theater critic and diarist, and the married bisexual Colette, whom Phelps absurdly equated with Marcel Proust. Reading Colette and Léautaud had a negative effect on Salter and encouraged him to occasionally indulge in mannered self-indulgent prose. He would have learned much more from his natural allies: Albert Camus’ virile and heroic The Plague and André Malraux’s description of aerial combat in the Spanish Civil War in Man’s Hope.    The English novelist Geoff Dyer remarked that “creative writing courses emphasise the importance of point-of-view and p.o.v. characters. Salter blows much of that stuff out of the water.” After the austere prose of his early war books he was no longer interested in traditional narrative and chronological structure, and used a radically different style and form in his third and fourth novels, A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years.    The narrator in Sport is admittedly unreliable and cannot possibly have seen everything he describes. Salter told Phelps (punning in French on his name) that his sentence fragments—which suggest broken thoughts and incomplete speech—are “going to have many beautiful jumps, sauts, perhaps will be a ballet.” One puzzled critic noted that “Salter jumps the gap from one kind of time to another, from broad narrative time to tight episodic time, without a safety net, trusting the reader to follow him.” Salter also alienated readers by killing his main characters at the end of the novels: Connell in The Hunters, Cassada in Arm of Flesh, Dean in Sport, Nedra in Light Years.    Salter’s titles—Light Years, Dusk and Last Night—were increasingly dark. But other titles were prosaic and flat rather than poetic and suggestive: Cassada, There & Then, Memorable Days, Don’t Save Anything. His original title for his last, vaguely named novel, All That Is, was the potentially disastrous Toda. He wrote, “Some names are like magic. Unforgettable.” But Geoff Dyer wittily called the principals in Light Years, Nedra and Viri, “possibly the most irritatingly named characters in literature.” Salter also used obscure, even pretentious, titles for the stories in his first collection, Dusk (1988): “Am Strande von Tanger” (On the Beach at Tangier), “The Destruction of the Goetheanum” and the invented word “Akhnilo,” which he defined as “what matters to me” and “what I know of,” and also suggests the Latin ex nihilo, out of nothing. 2    Sport portrays the intense sexual relations of a Yale dropout and an electrically responsive French shop girl. In the 1960s the explosion of sexual liberation and corresponding freedom to describe it had not reached the still-staid editors, critics and professors. Salter recalled that Doubleday was embarrassed by Sport, didn’t know what to do with the provocative book and failed to promote it: “They were holding it like it was a pair of dirty socks… . Nobody wanted to review it. It was too sexual.” In 2005 he added, “Now, in an era when even anal sex is discussed on prime-time TV, the book is completely inoffensive.”    The perceptive George Plimpton, whose Paris Review Editions co-published the novel with Doubleday, praised “its purity of style and its sensuality, which quickly attracted a cult following that has continued to grow over the years.” But two influential critics took the opportunity to attack Sport, while savagely condemning Light Years, in both the New York Times and the New York Times Book Review in June and July 1975.    Anatole Broyard put the knife in by asserting of Sport: “I couldn’t for the life of me see how these people could possibly get along either with or without each other. Neither, apparently, could the author, for he unforgivably killed off his hero in a meaningless car crash. The thrilling question of the novel [as if they could live happily] shriveled and died with him.”    Light Years is an elegy to the fragile beauty of family life. Broyard discharged his second shot by claiming that novel was even worse than Sport: “The characters and their alleged incompatibility are both less interesting and less convincing. Once separated, they are even more boring than when they were together. They are seen as insulting to our patience and our expectations… . Everyone has a Lawrence Durrell sort of name. Like Mr. Durrell again, Mr. Salter condemns his people to speculative conversations.” Broyard also mocks a female character who declares, “I adore the idea of chicken.” Salter was naturally annoyed that someone named Anatole had criticized the names of his characters.    Robert Towers’ savage review of Light Years focused on Salter’s unusual style, condemned the “relentlessly poetic prose, the unearned lyricism that envelops the novel like Muzak,” and concluded that it was an “overwritten, chi-chi and rather silly novel.” A Sport and a Pastime sold fewer than 3,000 copies; Light Years sold only 7,000 and was remaindered a year later. The contemptuous response to Salter’s best novels in the two most influential newspapers damaged his reputation. These depressing and discouraging blows struck two months before the break-up of his twenty-four-year marriage and scarred him for several decades. Bloodied but unbowed, Salter continued to write and await recognition. As he observed in his story “Via Negativa”: “there is a great, a final glory which falls on certain figures barely noticed in their time, touches them in obscurity and recreates their lives.”    Salter was still in a weak position when Light Years appeared. Unlike his close friends, George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen (as well as Norman Mailer and John Updike), he had no powerful Harvard connections. He got a late start and didn’t publish his first novel until he was thirty-one. Though he later taught for a semester each at Vassar, Iowa, Houston, Williams, Virginia and Duke, he did not have a secure salary nor an influential post at a university. He did not solidify his reputation by belonging to a prestigious group: the New York intellectuals, the Beat poets, the postwar Paris buddies around William Styron and James Jones. The last two, as well as Salter’s more famous contemporaries—J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller—were all extremely productive after they returned from World War Two. Scholars wrote their biographies and published their letters; they got a great deal of critical attention and were commercially successful. Despite his formidable achievements, Salter struggled for respect during the first half of his literary career.    Salter was often called “a writer’s writer,” a term he disliked. This distinction excluded him not only from readers, but also from writers’ groups in the Hamptons where he lived. When Heller and Mario Puzo suggested inviting him to join their group, other members objected and claimed “he was too good a writer” and would not fit in.    More aggressive in the air than on the ground, and unfamiliar at first with the maneuvers of the literary world, Salter did not have the theatrical and provocative persona of a Truman Capote or Gore Vidal, and was not good at promoting himself. But a new generation of patrons—Plimpton, Ben Sonnenberg of Grand Street and Jack Shoemaker of North Point Press—were more insightful and adventurous. Salter was determined to stay alive until his five novels were recognized.    Salter had written his first novel, The Hunters, on an Air Force base, surrounded by his rowdy comrades. When writing at home after leaving the service he moved from solidarity to solitude and had to be alone—preferably in an empty house without children. Insecure and uncertain, he confessed, “I just didn’t have deep enough confidence to go on, and I suppose that let me stray away from writing for periods. I lived this life for at least five or seven years, not writing anything important.” Needing money to support his family, he interrupted his literary career by writing screenplays from the mid-1960s into the following decade. His Guggenheim application was rejected in 1972, he published only one volume between 1979 and 1997, and during part of the 1980s all his books were out of print. In this hiatus, between his mountain-climbing book Solo Faces (1979) and his stories in Dusk (1988), he wrote book reviews, travel essays and high-level journalism, including interviews with Vladimir Nabokov and Graham Greene.    Salter repeatedly emphasized that novels were much more difficult to write than nonfiction, and it took courage to continue. He could not force himself to write on schedule every day and explained, “it’s either because of the press of affairs or I just haven’t brought myself to a position where I’m ready to write anything down.” He always felt a crisis of irresolution before starting to work. He began without ego or expectation, and waited like Hemingway for something true to come. He didn’t have writer’s block, but was constrained by a more subtle impediment: “I have failure to write, or am too distracted to. I have occasional lack of belief. If I really feel futility, I read something like The Iliad.” When composing a story he had to “gather every resource, prepare for a struggle of weeks, even months, and every moment the danger of giving up, giving in.” Alluding to Samuel Beckett’s “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” he found writing as hard as rock climbing and exclaimed: “you come to these places and say to yourself, I can’t do this, I know I can’t do this, I’m certain I can’t do it, but I have to do it. I know I have to.”    Echoing T. S. Eliot’s lines on the fatal crevasse between conception and completion—"Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow"—Salter told Phelps, who was permanently blocked on his second novel: “All week I’ve tried to write a story, I know everything about it, I can almost read it and yet I can’t seem to write a single paragraph which interests me. It’s like looking for something in the dark, there’s such a huge amount of chance in writing.” As he struggled to complete All That Is, he wrote to me in July 2006 about the contrast between his ambition and achievement: “You have caught me at the tail end of life. I thought I would snatch the fire from the gods but each time came away with a piece of wood that only smoldered a little.”    Salter had an idiosyncratic way of collecting his fictional material. He scribbled random notes on odd pieces of paper, even on menus, stuffed them in his pockets and scattered them around his chaotic writing tables. Finally—like Isis gathering the remains of Osiris—he combined them with his journals and fit them all together. When we drove to the beach in Bridgehampton, I sat on bits of his future work and he carefully locked his old car to make sure no notes would escape. He wrote in longhand, feeling the words on the page, then labor-intensively typed, corrected and retyped on a heavy old machine. He felt writing involved “a lot of self-hatred, a lot of despair, a lot of hope and a lot of just absolute effort.” He remembered that Picasso painted and Thomas Mann wrote late in life, and remained like Ford Madox Ford, “an old man mad about writing.” Like the aged man described in Cicero’s De Senectute, who planted trees that would never bear fruit in his lifetime, Salter even published two posthumous works: on writing and a collection of essays. Salter’s range was narrow but he looked in deep. He rarely wrote about politics, art or music, and except for essays on Gabriele D'Annunzio and Isaac Babel did not write about European or English writers.    His satiric stories in Last Night (2005) portray the disappointed, even disastrous love affairs of rich and privileged, sybaritic and spoiled, high-strung and vulnerable, sad and guilty people. The alluring women who ignite his fiction are stripped of illusions, but unable to say farewell and escape from human bondage. The title and contents of Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days (2006), written with his second wife Kay, were strongly influenced by A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1959). In his Introduction to the 1986 reprint, Salter concluded that Liebling’s luminous account (like his own) “stimulates the senses, assists in clarity of view, and provides a feeling of approval towards life such as one gets in fine museums or walking along handsome streets.” It has that rare quality, charm, and celebrates a hedonistic yet civilized life.    Salter’s first novel in thirty-four years was eagerly awaited. He wittily told me that the awkwardly titled All That Is (2013) “has been under construction forever like Gaudí’s cathedral,” still unfinished in Barcelona. Through sensual portrayals of the ideal life, Salter’s novel of manners follows the glamorous tradition of Scott Fitzgerald. The hero, Philip Bowman, has rapturous dreams and wants to achieve perfection. He devotes himself to the fleeting pleasures of landscapes, water, houses, views, parties, talk, taste, food and drink. Suggesting the allure of travel and evoking the spirit of place, the book moves restlessly from Manhattan, Long Island and the Hudson River Valley to lively scenes in England, France, Italy and Spain. All That Is, describing forty years of Bowman’s adult life from 1945 to 1984, opens with a superb account of an American naval victory at Okinawa that tests his courage and reveals his character. Salter’s major themes, like those of Tolstoy and Hemingway, are war and love.    The novel was strengthened by the influence of Conrad as well as Fitzgerald and Hemingway. A crucial incident (also recalled later in the novel) was inspired by the famous scene in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900). Jim, a merchant marine officer, dishonors himself by jumping off a sinking ship that’s carrying Moslem pilgrims to Mecca. Puzzled by his own cowardly behavior, he recalls: “I had jumped… . It seems    … . It was as if I had jumped into a well—into an everlasting deep hole.” When Bowman’s naval ship is hit in battle, his friend “Kimmel had jumped    … . He became a kind of legend. He’d jumped off his ship in error … . He jumped overboard in the middle of the ocean during a big attack. That was the last time I saw him.” Jim is punished for his impulsive act; Kimmel achieves a kind of fame.    The novel ends with an oneiric meditation on time, death and memory that echoes his credo in the epigraph: “everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” This belief recalls Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño and Virginia Woolf’s statement, “Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded.” Salter aims to capture in poetic prose the evanescent moments of life. Art is life perfected and rescued from time before it disappears.    Critics of the novel accepted Salter’s negative portrayal of his hero. Bowman takes cruel and unconscionable revenge on his lover Christina, who has betrayed him with another man and stolen his house. He retaliates by luring her teenaged daughter to Paris, seducing her and then abandoning the helpless girl in that foreign city. The London Observer called All That Is “superb.” The Guardian noted, “though it’s less than 300 pages long, the sharpness and abundance of observed detail give it an epic quality.” In the Independent Geoff Dyer wrote, “Salter has produced a strange masterpiece, a novel that seems a summing-up of much that he groped towards in his long middle period.”    In a striking contrast to the denigration by Broyard and Towers, Michael Dirda, who’d written the Foreword to Salter’s correspondence with Phelps, proclaimed that “Salter and his friends are not just transformed, they are transfigured, made radiant.” He praised “Salter’s gravely serious, precise and musical prose, the close attention to the diction and rhythms of every phrase and paragraph.”    Just before his literary rocket took off, Salter, using a sexual metaphor, alluded to his own undervalued work: “There are books that can be skimmed and fully grasped and others that only yield themselves, so to speak, on the second or even third reading… . There are many writers and many of some magnitude, like the stars in the heavens, some visible and some not, but they shed glory.” In his Paris Review interview he contrasted the admiration that authors receive in France with their lack of recognition in America: “the dissatisfaction of poets, their feeling that the culture, the nation, did not give them the honor or respect they deserved.”    Between Salter’s Solo Faces and Dusk, James Wolcott had announced in Vanity Fair that Salter was “the most underrated underrated writer, whose best novels are all brilliant.” An editorial in Esquire, where Rust Hills had published many of his stories and essays, also declared that Sport is “one of the great literary works of our day” and that Salter “has been more appreciated by more serious literary authors than has any other modern American writer.” Saul Bellow, a friend when he briefly lived near Salter in Aspen, Colorado, praised him as an “exceptionally talented” author whose fiction “turns me around, gives me new bearings, changes my views.” Salter also got printed endorsements from many other distinguished writers. 3    Dusk won the PEN/Faulkner Award, but nine of the eleven stories had been rejected by the New Yorker and Salter never produced the kind of bland, facile, made-to-order stories he felt they wanted. He finally published a story and five articles in the New Yorker, where he received a perceptive profile as well as an obituary by Nick Paumgarten. After decades of neglect, he had excellent reviews in the New York Review of Books by Al Alvarez, Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Dirda of All That Is. Salter told me that “Bob Silvers has it in his head that I can write about aviation matters,” and he contributed six pieces, including two on flying.    In a resurgence of literary power Salter became more self-assured, assertive and effective in promoting his own work. His reprints were admired in a more sexually liberated time; his interviews in Plimpton’s Paris Review (1993) — and 22 others collected in Conversations with James Salter (2015) — projected a wise and sympathetic image. Picador in London reprinted Sport, Collected Stories and All That Is, and paid exceptionally well for them. His daughter Nina, whose small publishing company in Paris, Editions des Deux Terres, translates English writers into French, launched her father on the front page of Le Monde and the cover of Lire. All That Is became a bestseller and sold 70,000 copies in France. 4 Salter’s new agent, Amanda Urban at Curtis Brown, connected him to Knopf, which brought out the stories in Last Night, the handsomely produced Life Is Meals and All That Is. Salter wittily told me that he’d signed more books on his recent publicity tour than all the ones he’d previously sold, and felt pleased but uneasy about this novel experience: “I’ve done more towards promoting this book than for any two or three other books and it’s left me with a prickled feeling. Knopf did nothing.”    Over the years, as Plimpton had predicted, word gradually spread about Salter’s extraordinary intellect and style. Writers who felt he’d been unfairly ignored or condemned were eager to praise his virtues. Readers were now more tolerant of the anal sex scenes in Sport and this novel, with Light Years, became exciting literary discoveries. An excellent retrospective essay on Sport by Sarah Hall, in the Guardian of February 17, 2017, argued that the novel transcended the sexual theme and revealed Salter’s almost miraculous transformation fifty years after it first appeared: “Since its publication in 1967, during the decade of sexual revolution, A Sport and a Pastime has set the standard not only for eroticism in fiction, but for the principal organ of literature—the imagination. What appears at first to be a short, tragic novel about a love affair in France is in fact an ambitious, refractive inquiry into the nature and meaning of storytelling, and the reasons we are compelled to invent, in particular, romances.”    Salter’s late torrent of books reignited his career in an extraordinary way. Between 1982 and 2013 twelve of his novels and stories were reprinted in paperback and widely praised the second time around. He rewrote, revised and reissued them, sometimes with prefaces by himself, and was fortified by many extremely favorable reviews and interviews. Several reprints had introductions by important contemporary writers whose judgments were perceptive and persuasive. Reynolds Price declared in the Farrar, Straus edition that “A Sport and a Pastime is as nearly perfect a narrative as I’ve encountered in English-language letters, a brilliant and heartbreaking portrayal of young sexual intoxication.” In his Introduction to the Penguin Light Years, Richard Ford agreed: “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today… . It is an immensely readable, luminous novel that radiates gravity, great intelligence and verbal virtuosity.” The Irish novelist John Banville enthusiastically wrote in the Picador edition of Collected Stories: “Salter is a magician, and his marvels are exquisitely wrought yet exert a muscular grasp of the everyday realities of life.”    In 2014 Salter gave three well paid but rather casual lectures at the University of Virginia. He then made triumphant processions to pick up a stream of honors and awards. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000; he won the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in short fiction in 2012; and in 2013, when Zeus descended in a shower of gold, he got the first Windham-Campbell literary prize of a staggering $150,000. He told me that all the other winners were young authors who got the prize to encourage their writing: “For me, it’s to enable me to stop.” His Collected Stories “got a big English advance (from Picador) within a stone’s throw of six figures. This is for me unexampled.” The English and French publishers, he ruefully informed me, “claim to have discovered me at the very lips of the grave.”    During the late success in his last decades, as the honors and awards poured in, the victorious Salter regained confidence, overcame his creative inhibitions and began to write with full-throated ease. He was now able to publish his uncollected works in books: his war fiction, stories, travel articles, correspondence, interviews, lectures and essays. Despite the hiatus in mid-career, he always remained faithful to his dominant subjects: aerial combat, sophisticated society and sexual relations. Like Thomas Hardy, Salter continued to write well in his late eighties. Success, beginning with Burning the Days, enabled him to spend several years on All That Is and produce a worthy successor to Sport and Light Years. Michael Dirda concluded his review of the novel by stating, “after years of being ‘becalmed,’ James Salter has now rightly come to be regarded as one of the great writers of his generation.”    When Salter described his ancient contemporary, the actor Kevin McCarthy, he seemed to be portraying himself: “in his 90s, bit rumpled, white uncombed hair, wonderfully glamorous, if you can believe that of someone his age.” On June 10, 2015, two dozen friends gathered in Sag Harbor for a dinner given by Maria Matthiessen (widow of Peter) to celebrate Salter’s clear-minded 90th birthday. His end came in a sudden rush. On June 19, while exercising in a gym, he had a fatal heart attack.    Salter had rare combination of talents and achievements. He was a fighter pilot and Francophile, downhill skier and mountain climber, novelist and screenwriter, expatriate and traveler, epicurean and sensualist. A war hero himself, he hero-worshipped air aces and astronauts, champions on fast snow and high peaks, European directors and literate editors. His tribute to William Styron revealed his own values: “He was a person of conviction regarding what was good and what was not in the world and also in literature, especially the novel. He became what he always dreamed of and worked for, a "writer,” a famous writer.    Salter’s first two books portrayed flying. The cruel reception of his next two innovative novels discouraged him and accentuated his perfectionism. His detour into lucrative screenwriting interrupted his serious work. It took time for the social change of the 1960s to alter the hostile response to his novels. Eventually, as his style and subject matter became more acceptable, authors and reviewers began to see the high quality of his writing. In his late career, as the Zeitgeist finally caught up with him, he moved from outsider to insider, from cult figure to successful writer, from obscurity to fame. Unlike Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka and Tomasi di Lampedusa, who died before their work was recognized, Salter lived long enough to become celebrated while he was still alive.


  1. These books were Gods of Tin: The Flying Years (2004), Last Night (stories, 2005), There & Then (travels, 2005), Life Is Meals (gastronomy, 2006), Memorable Days (correspondence with Robert Phelps, 2010), All That Is (novel, 2013), Collected Stories (2013), Conversations (interviews, 2015), The Art of Fiction (on writing, 2016) and Don’t Save Anything (essays, 2017).

  2. Salter named his daughters Allan Conrad, Nina Tobe and Claude Cray.

  3. Salter was praised by his close friends, Irwin Shaw and Peter Matthiessen, as well as by Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Edmund White, John Irving, Michael Ondaatje, Tim O'Brien, Julian Barnes and Susan Sontag. There is only one brief reference to Salter in the biographies of Plimpton and Shaw; none at all in the lives of the other writers or of Salinger, Jones, Vonnegut, Capote, Styron, Vidal, Updike, Roth and Raymond Carver.

  4. The translations included Un bonheur parfait (Light Years) and Et rien d'autre (All That Is). He was also translated into Spanish: Juego y distracción (A Sport and a Pastime); Italian: La solitudine del cielo (The Hunters) and L'arte di narrare (The Art of Fiction); and German: Verbrannte Tage (Burning the Days) and Lichtjahre (Light Years).