I found out yesterday that James Salter died about a fortnight ago. I was surprised at how sad I felt. It came over me, like a cloud passing across the sun, and for an hour or so I felt quite melancholy.
I wondered at it. James Salter was a writer of long-standing quality. He fought in the Korean war and wrote about that. He released another novel last year. He was a gorgeous writer to read. Some of his prose was just golden. In that way he was a bit like Hemingway, one of those influential stylists who everyone admires, but few can emulate.
I’ve been a long time reader. I read a couple of his books last year, but I always reckoned his stories were better than his novels. I was a fan, but not a devout fan. There were different reasons for that. My favourite novel of his was Light Years, but his most famous book probably is A Sport and a Pastime. A Sport and a Pastime is an especially glittering book, but I couldn’t finish it. It’s a book told in the first person describing another person in admiring, almost sycophantic terms. The object of this adoration was doubtless outstanding, but I couldn’t stomach the obeisance of the narrator. The sex scenes I had no problem with.
That was the exception. I’ve read a lot of his stuff, admiring his style and often the story, and attuned to a masculine worldview that I shared. He was one of those writers I’d have like to have met and hung out with.
That he’s now dead should come as no surprise. He was 90 when he died, a good innings in just about anyone’s book. It was not that that made me sad. The more I thought about it the more I realised I was losing a generation of writers I grew up with. They’re all much older than me, but because I read them starting when I was a teenager they feel in many ways contemporaries. Now, one by one, they’re passing away – Styron, Updike, Salter now, and at some time in the near future, I expect, Phillip Roth, not to mention many others.
Everyone dies, and everyone has a story, but most stories go untold. The difference with writers is that we see the evidence of their life in the words they share with us. It’s like seeing the ligaments beneath the skin, the pulse of blood through the veins. The best writers make it real, and leave you with a sense of the size and breadth and unpredictably of life, as well as its uniqueness. They accumulate a great wealth of material you feel like you know intimately, and sometimes in a deeply personal way. Then they die and though their words – magically – live on long after they have gone, there are no more shoots of imagination. A font of creativity has gone; a wise, well-worn voice, is silenced.
That’s life, it happens, and one day it will happen to me too. For a moment it’s a reminder of your own mortality, but then your mind shifts on from such prosaic considerations. Someone you have known all your life has gone, like a favourite uncle you envied for his interesting life and great stories. There’s one less, and soon enough there’ll be none at all. Because they’re my generation of writers there’s no replacing them, no matter how many good writers emerge. When they’re gone it’s empty.
For the record – and this may be subject to my generation, and state of my life – that there are not the profound voices and great writers now that there were when I was growing up. We lose, and gain little.