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All the Known World

Kevin Stevens

All That Is, by James Salter, Picador, 290 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-1447238263

Forty years ago, in the slightly grubby, less than cinematic tiers of University College Dublin’s Theatre L, I attended a film society showing of Three, starring a young and sexy Charlotte Rampling, a smitten Sam Waterston, and handsome Robie Porter. It was enchanting viewing for a first-year arts student suspended between foggy notions of aesthetic and sexual liberation and the hard realities of 1970s Ireland. Seductively set in exotic Mediterranean locations, the film tells the meandering story of two American college buddies adrift in Europe who are joined on their summer tour by a sophisticated and free-spirited young Englishwoman. The sexual rivalry that follows ends as you suspect it will, but the movie’s languid tone and French New Wave influences have a lasting impact.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but Three was my introduction to one of America’s best writers. It would be many years before I discovered that James Salter’s film – the only one he directed, though he scripted many – was a pale reflection of his 1967 paean to postwar France, A Sport and a Pastime, a novel so erotically explicit that most publishers refused to consider it. Salter would flirt with Hollywood for much of his life, but came to the conclusion about screenwriting that “the time you’ve spent doing that, if you are interested in writing, is wasted time”. Fiction was his métier, his passport, as he would see it, to immortality. And though he published rarely – six novels, a memoir, and two collections of short stories spread across fifty-six years – he has slowly acquired the reputation of being American fiction’s finest craftsman.

Now eighty-eight, Salter has published what will inevitably be his swansong, All That Is, his first novel since 1979’s Solo Faces and a fitting finish to a literary career spent mostly outside the limelight. Spanning four decades, it tells the story of Philip Bowman, a New York book editor and bon viveur who, like many a Salter protagonist, pursues sexual fulfilment as the only fitting follow-up to the experience of war. In the making for at least fifteen years, the novel does not disappoint. A lifetime’s refinement of his famous style makes reading All That Is a delight, sentence by sentence, page by page. Like Isaac Babel, Salter builds narratives that are simple but surprising, with scenes and chapters that unfold like life itself and yet feel, once you are through them, as if they could not have happened any other way.

From the book’s beginning we are on familiar ground: the thrilling prose, carefully shaped yet always feeling offhand; the narrative economy, allowing for movement across large swathes of time while focusing on a magnified present; the sudden shifts in point of view; the tone of awe and anticipation in the face of life, its possibilities and failures. Bowman’s profession allows Salter to explore the world of books and authors, to acknowledge the writers he admires (Hemingway, Auden, Lorca) and disparage those he does not (Jerzy Kosinski, Penelope Gilliatt). Bowman’s childlessness and serial romantic involvements develop the theme of male loneliness. But mostly, the novel is concerned with sex, what Salter has called “the real game of the grown-up world”.

All That Is celebrates adulthood. Male adulthood. The opening chapter describes a kamikaze attack on an American warship bound for Japan, and Bowman’s experience of that ordeal by fire haunts the rest of the book. Years later he will think of the ship’s deck as “where the only daring part of his life lay”. In a few short chapters he comes home to a hero’s welcome, begins working at Braden and Baum, and has his first love affair.

He was inexperienced but it was natural and overwhelming. Also too quick, he couldn’t help it. He felt embarrassed. Her face was close to his.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I couldn’t stop it.”
She said nothing, she had almost no way to judge it.
She went into the bathroom and Bowman lay back in awe at what had happened and feeling intoxicated by a world that had suddenly opened wide to the greatest pleasure, pleasure beyond knowing.

Salter’s feel for time and place is sure and convincing. In the first third of the novel he writes of a lost period, when sex was still furtive, when a man proposing marriage asked permission of his prospective father-in-law, where, in many parts of the United States, character depended greatly on your race and religion, your antecedents, and how you presented yourself in company. Yet there is perhaps not as much irony as there should be in his exploration of this world, and not nearly enough irony either, as the decades pass and the book progresses, in the descriptions of male attitudes that have failed to keep pace with social change:

“We’re in the middle of the woman thing. They want equality, in work, marriage, everywhere. They don’t want to be desired unless they feel like it.”
“Outrageous.”
“The thing is, they want a life like ours. We both can’t have a life like ours.”

And though the frankness of the sex scenes no longer shocks, the language, overwhelmingly male-centric, occasionally descends into silliness: “he was on her like a beast”; “he came like a drinking horse”. Yet Bowman’s point of view is not to be confused with Salter’s, and ultimately the character’s vision of sex as personal renewal is darkened by his creator’s wider perspective of failed opportunity and the inevitability of sadness.

The formal beauty of the novel makes up for its excesses. Salter is master of short fiction, and each chapter of All That Is, complete with title, is as concise and resonant and perfectly concluded as one of his short stories. His descriptions – of buildings, landscapes, moods – are consistently accurate and evocative:

This was in Ovid, South Carolina – Oh-vid, as they pronounced it here – oyster shell driveways and tin advertising signs, churches, whiskey bottles in brown paper sacks, and white-skinned girls with wavy hair who worked in stores and offices, you were born to marry one. It was in his blood, hard-imprinted there like the bottle caps and bits of foil trampled into the flat, fairground earth.

Like Bellow, he is very good on faces:

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.

Reading All That Is is like walking through a portrait gallery. Salter breaks fiction-workshop rules with aplomb. He tells rather than shows. He gives minor characters major back stories, stories that suddenly blossom into subplots that parallel the main narrative with contrast and finesse. He changes point of view within a sentence. He is a great impressionist, using fragments of memory, character, description, and point of view to construct a narrative mosaic of a setting rich in cultural significance.

Many critics focus on Salter’s stylistic precision and love of detail as if he is all surface. In fact, his art ushers us towards a larger view, an understanding of American character that is rooted in history. In All That Is, significant personal moments, brilliantly observed, turn into passages of reflection and realisation that subtly place the personal in the context of the great swell of event on which times change and character floats: war, commerce, art; the life of the mind and the body; the roles of men and women.

He saw himself now to be another kind of man, the kind he had hoped, fully a man, used to wonder … The sky was without color and the windows of buildings, as happened at ever earlier hours, were alight. The office seemed unusually quiet, had everyone gone out? It was eerily still. They were not gone, but they were listening to the news. A frightening thing had happened. The president had been shot in Dallas.

Life, lived inside and outside of history, is Salter’s great theme, and no one is better at expressing the bittersweet nature of its offerings, though he is ever a celebrant. And nowhere does his love of life came into focus as clearly as in the closing pages of this fine novel, a meditation on the “dark river” of death that perfectly rounds out the flow of time and event that is Philip Bowman’s story, but which also resonates poignantly when we consider Salter’s advanced age:

What if there should be no river but only the endless lines of unknown people, people absolutely without hope, as there had been in the war? He would be made to join them, to wait forever. He wondered then, as he often did, how much of life remained for him. He was certain of only one thing, whatever was to come was the same for everyone who had ever lived. He would be going where they had all gone and – it was difficult to believe – all the known world would go with him.

The novel’s epigraph reads: “There comes a time when you realise that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” We will forever be in Salter’s debt for doing as much as any writer to confer reality on his version of the known world.

15/07/2013

Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.

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