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Where are the Women? A fresh look at James Salter

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All That Is, by James Salter

Published by: Picador    $29.99

James Salter’s new novel All That Is, is his first in 34 years. Not that he’s been idle. There  have been short story collections and his memoir, Burning the Days. Salter, an iconic figure in American literature, has had an extraordinarily varied writing life. Now 87, he was a war hero, serving as a fighter pilot in Korea (his novel, The Hunters, examines his wartime experiences). He then became a full time writer in New York and Paris before the Hollywood phase of his writing took over – he wrote the screenplays for acclaimed films such as Downhill Racer.

At a time when Philip Roth has declared there will be no more novels, it is heartening to see an older writer still very much in control of the medium. There are sentences in All That Is that are so carefully wrought, so luminous, a reader could weep with delight. There is no doubt Salter combines the rigorous and the poetic and he is a master of form. Why then, do I have so many reservations about the novel?

The first reason is Salter’s central character, Philip Bowman. In may ways he is a typical Salter hero, an action man and naval officer who after the Second World War, begins a career in publishing.  We see the burgeoning success of his career as a New York editor, track his first disastrous marriage and witness a series of doomed affairs, before (SPOILER ALERT!) his meeting with a woman with whom, the reader senses, he will spend the rest of his life. We meet his friends and colleagues and peer into their lives, which very much counterpoint or reflect Bowman’s own.

The sweep of the novel traces Bowman’s lifepath from the last days of WW2 to what appears to be the end of the 1980s. This is a momentous period in American history – TV, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Civil Rights Movement, hippies, man on the moon, the IT revolution, the rise of feminism – the list of upheavals and innovations goes on and on, and yet none of this is tackled in the novel, which glosses over the shifting socio-cultural landscape as if it were a paranthesis.

Salter writes at the end of one chapter: “A frightening thing had happened. The president had been shot in Dallas”. And that’s 1963 dismissed, along with one of the most emotional and game-changing events in US politics. In the next chapter we’re back in the navel-gazing world of publishing and its smug acolytes. This is a network of WASP men, with hermetically-sealed WASP values that seem to hover somewhere around the 1930s. The handful of Jews who infiltrate this world are assimilated – no other ethnic minorities are represented.

Indeed, Bowman personifies the blinkered, prejudiced, retro-looking white American male. He is irritatingly self-satisfied and self-absorbed. He’s a lover of art and music, of Paris and good food, but if you told him that across town from his comfortable Manhattan condo there were single parent families living in poverty, rat-infested houses, racial unrest, he would probably look at you in disbelief. It’s a long time since I’ve met a protagonist in a novel so socially unaware. And it’s hard not to wonder if Salter is also out of touch with the dynamics and concerns of contemporary society.

Salter’s defenders would no doubt reply that the novel dissects and satirises a certain time and class, but I think he’s in deadly earnest.  It is telling that the most vibrant and affecting passages concern Bowman’s time fighting during the war. Here, there is an immediacy, a sense of empathy with his fellow-man that is not seen in the remainder of the novel.

This lack of empathy is especially true concerning Bowman’s attitude towards women. To backtrack for a moment: All That Is has received glowing reviews, but I’ve yet to see one female critic among the fulsome accolades accorded by the male reviewers I’ve scanned. Nor do any women writers appear on the book jacket, where you can read  plaudits by Julian Barnes, Tim O’Brien, Edmund White and (most disappointingly, as he’s one of my literary gods), John Banville.

To backtrack further, Salter’s treatment of women in his fiction to date has been equivocal at best. The women in his books are admired, worshipped, lusted over and possessed sexually, but they are also talked at (rarely conversed with) and patently intellectually inferior. Salter can write paragraphs of the most glorious sensuality and eroticism (A Sport and a Pastime arguably contains some of the best-written sex in literature – though written entirely from the male perspective) but the relationships between men and women outside the bedroom are strained.

All That Is continues in the same vein. Here’s a young Bowman with Vivian, soon to be his wife. On a previous date, he told her to read Hemingway (she hadn’t). Then:

“He wanted to go on talking about Ezra Pound and introduce the subject of the Cantos, perhaps reading one or two of the most brilliant  of them to her, but Vivian’s mind was elsewhere”.

Clearly, Vivian’s not up to such lofty discourse. Again, here’s a description of a girl met at a party. “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.” 

Demeaning as this is, more disturbing is the way Salter completely ignores gender politics and the advances women have made over the past 50 years. Television series such as Madmen chronicle the evolution of women in the workforce and their transition from lowly secretaries in the 1950s to power-brokers. But Salter’s women never cross that threshold. They may work and hold down serious jobs yet their status remains ill-defined. Here’s a snatch of conversation that dates circa 1980, late in the novel, with Bowman very much an elder statesman by this time.

Claire continued talking about Susan Sontag. What did they really think of her – she meant what did Bowman think……

“All powerful women cause anxiety”, he said.

“Do you really think so?”……

“Men do”, he said.

That exchange almost took my breath away. It’s not only the way Sontag (one of 20th century culture’s most clear-sighted analysts) is so casually dismissed.  This scene is also a lesson in how to alienate a female audience and completely implausible given the inroads women had made by the Eighties. Whatever Bowman’s personal views, he could never, ever, have uttered them so publicly. In the next line, we read that Claire considers Bowman’s reply “chauvinistic”, yet instead of rebutting him, she goes on to make a drunken fool of herself.

Thirty pages and some plot twists later, the novel ends, with Bowman attaining a kind of peace, reconciling himself with all that is, was and is to come. Yet as a female reader, I felt cheated. Far from an epic narrative that scrutinises what it is to be human in the 20th century, I was left considering all that the novel was not but could have been.  If this is to be Salter’s last book, it holds its place uneasily and divides more than it conquers.

Read it: To observe a supreme stylist at work

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A Meditation on Love and Loss

Pictured: Pat Kavanagh and Julian Barnes

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

Published by: Jonathan Cape, $24.95

In a recent interview on BBC Radio, Barnes said he found reviewers’ comments that books were “deeply moving” and “beautifully written” the pinnacle of cliché. Better an in-depth analysis or some thought-provoking viewpoint, he added witheringly, than resorting to the trite. Of course he’s right and I confess to having employed those hackneyed phrases myself once or twice. And yet both would apply very fittingly to his new, slight (only 118 pages) but very deep book.

Levels of Life is an elegy to Barnes’ late wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008. Hers was a fierce, sudden death from cancer. Not much more than one month passed between diagnosis and funeral. Barnes’ world was turned upside down. They had been married for 30 years and as a couple were a stalwart of the British literary landscape. As Barnes writes – two people come together and suddenly the world is changed.  But when “they” become “he” – how do you cope?

Barnes has always had a philosophical bent (he is after all the author of Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters), so it’s not surprising that he approaches the topic of grief with characteristic lack of sentimentality and profound reflexion. The novella is divided into three parts: the first is a concise history of ballooning; the second the tale of a 19th century British adventurer and balloonist in love with the actress Sarah Bernhardt. The last section concentrates on Barnes’ own thoughts and feelings arising from his wife’s death. Air, land and six feet underground. Three levels of life and love.

The disparate elements of Levels of Life at first seem uneasy bedfellows. Is the symbolism of soaring into the air and crashing to the ground below too obvious and at the same time, too obtuse? And yet somehow, the book comes together perfectly. The last section, “The Loss of Depth” , is especially affecting (note, I did not say “moving”). Here is love and a meeting of minds so strong, so death-defying that it brings a lump to the throat.  Barnes isn’t afraid to show his pain, nor his anger. Not for him the Five Stages of Grieving ending in acceptance. He is especially scathing when describing well-meaning friends who use euphemisms like “passed” or “lost” to describe the finality and pitilessness of death.

Levels of Life, like all Barnes’ previous works, is dedicated to Pat Kavanagh. Her name is not mentioned once in the novella, yet she is a constant presence. And on the dust jacket, there she is, her intelligent gaze caught half smiling in a small black and white photograph. Reunited again with Barnes, whose snapshot sits just above hers.

Read it if you: Enjoy literary fiction and memoir. Keep the Kleenex handy.