It’s a rare day when I finish reading two books, but that’s today. I don’t have much more energy than to read and, it seems, to write also.
I ran a hot bath before. When you’re weary and aching the thought of a soothing hot tub to laze in is very enticing. My phone went off just as I got in. It was a message connected to work and no-one could answer it but me. For a few minutes, I sat in hot water, sending enquiries and responding to others. Then I put my phone down and picked up a book.
The book is the autobiography of James Salter. He’s an author whose writing I always thought was somewhat less than the sum of its parts – but what great parts. Style is very much an individual thing, and I mind myself drawn to very different styles of writing and books all the time. That is to question, is there a definitive and empirical best style? I think not, and would be disappointed to think otherwise – but there are some writers whose prose jumps off the page at you. It glitters and charms and draws you into the world it conjures before your eyes. Salter was one such writer – perhaps, outside of Hemingway, the writer with the most pronounced style.
To my way of thinking his writing is generally beautiful, and when I think about it I don’t know why I think less of his writing. His first book, The Hunters, was okay without being great, but it opened the way for him. A Sport and a Pastime is the book many rave about, and while much of it is gorgeous, I found it difficult to read. It’s lush and sensual and set in Paris and has a lot going for it, except that, like The Great Gatsby, it’s the story of one man as told by another – but whereas, in Gatsby, I had no issue with it, here I found it too hero worshipful and self-effacing.
That’s on me as a reader, and perhaps is a commentary on my own ego.
My favourite of his novels is Light Years, which has a gentle and wise melancholy to it. Then there are his stories, several of which are very good, but none – though I have his collections on my shelf – come immediately to mind.
Then there’s this, his autobiography.
When I started reading I thought it somewhat typical of his writing – beautiful to read, but fragmentary, and without a common thread. I would read a chapter on a Saturday or Sunday lying on my bed. More recently, it was adopted as my ‘bath’ book as I’d finished the one previous. It was perfect to read in the bath – not too heavy, and episodic enough that you could put it down and pick it up without missing much.
By then I’d reconsidered the book. My earlier doubts about it had become virtues. It’s by no means a traditional autobiography. It’s very roughly linear, but it jumps around and focusses more on the characters met along the way than the events of his life. It has a rhythm that echoes experience as we live it, not in great movements, but in small insights.
His family is touched upon, but you don’t really get to know them. As for his writing, he alludes to books he wrote, touches upon the times around them, but there is little about the craft of writing.
I came around to thinking that a biography structured like this is more true to life than the traditional form. We live in episodes. Much of life is fragmentary. We meet people along the way and they take us places. We learn as we go along and sometimes we feel it deeply, and other times find ourselves looking in the mirror. Things don’t go as we always expect, and not all the things we wish come to be. Times change, people come and go, scenes jump.
Linear progression only really makes sense in retrospect, and even then is often artificially applied.
In the end, I really came to appreciate this book, to the point now I think it his greatest work. It’s so much richer for the oblique view of things he allows us through his eyes. It feels more authentic because it’s not about all the things he did, the things in the papers and on IMDB, but about real-life stuff we know because we have a real-life, too. The attitude throughout is reflective, sometimes weary, often curious – like someone beholding the glittering moments of his life and seeing the expanse for it for the first time.
He’s gone now, but he’s lucky to have had the time to reflect back on everything. I hope I can do the same thing one day.