Aspen Times Weekly: ‘All That Is — and a lot more
Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words Series
Saturday, Nov. 30, at 6 p.m.
James Salter has been tagged with the term “a writer’s writer” that the phrase has lost most of its meaning to the writer himself.
“It’s one of those things somebody wrote once, somebody saw it, it got repeated,” Salter said this past spring in his cozy Victorian in Aspen’s West End, that he bought in 1971 and where he lives part-time with his wife, Kay. “So it might be what you call a phony fact — like a mistaken birth date.
“What I took it to mean, among other things, is that writers admire me. Some writers do.”
Salter might downplay the “writer’s writer” tag, but his latest book fully embraces the world of writing. “All That Is,” which was published in April and is Salter’s first novel since 1979, creates the life of Philip Bowman, a man who could well be dubbed “the editor’s editor.” “All That Is,” which a New York Times review called “strikingly original,” follows Bowman through the entirety of his life: military service in the Pacific in World War II, a marriage and a divorce, various affairs and friendships, frequent trips to Europe.
But Bowman’s existence never strays far from his work as a New York book editor. The full course of his life is tied to his profession, and the world that surrounds publishing. “In the end Bowman decided on journalism,” Salter writes. “There was the romance of reporters like Murrow and Quentin Reynolds, at the typewriter late at night finishing their stories, the light of the city all around, theaters emptying out, the bar at Costello’s crowded and noise. Sexual inexperience would be over with.” Sex, the hours one keeps, where he would live, the level of volume and human activity — for Bowman, all are dictated by his choice of profession.
“It’s the life of an editor,” Salter, who opens the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series with an appearance on Saturday, Nov. 30 at Paepcke Auditorium. “I was exterior to that world. I was a writer, and didn’t work in a publishing house. But I’ve been in them. The book has a certain authority.”
Salter, who has lived part-time in Aspen since the 1950s, is 88. In conversation, he can be short on words, and this can come off as either coyness or extreme directness. When he says that he was an outsider to the publishing world, and that “All That Is” has “a certain authority,” he is being both coy and straight to the point. The novel imagines a world that is satisfying in its detail and clarity, in its reality. In the concise, precise language that has become his signature, Salter conveys not just the activity of a 20th century New York book editor but the surrounding look and the emotional feel of that piece of the world.
“It represented an aspect of civilization,” Salter said of the publishing industry, with no hint of grandiosity. “I liked its dignity, the sense of dedication it had. I liked its privileges and its social aspects, even though it had a lot of reading and solitude to it. The editors and publishers I knew had admirable lives.”
“All That Is” begins with Bowman on a battleship in the Pacific. This is no surprise to those familiar with Salter’s output (which has been more admired than commercial). His debut novel, “The Hunters,” from 1957, was about fighter pilots in the Korean War; another novel, “Cassada,” revisited the subject, as did the 1997 memoir “Burning the Days.”
“It was the central era of my life, the war. It was the heart of my life,” Salter, who attended West Point and served 12 years, including six as a fighter pilot, said of his time in the military.
But the examination of Philip Bowman’s war years takes up just a few pages. In “All That Is,” Salter is looking down on the long arc of Bowman’s life, tracking it toward its conclusion. There is far more time devoted to the older Bowman than the younger. The publishing profession serves not only as one that Salter knows, but one that, like Bowman, is heading toward an end.
“It was an era of publishing, everybody I knew sensed was drawing to a close — that particular style and pace of publishing,” Salter said. “I sometimes have that little elegiac quality in passages.”
Talking about his own book, Salter brings up “The Leopard,” Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s landmark 1958 novel about the 19th century upheaval that resulted in a group of individual states becoming a unified Italy.
“It’s sort of a story of the fading of the old era,” Salter said.
Also in the Winter Words series (all events are at Paepcke Auditorium):
• Richard Blanco, Jan. 28: Born in Madrid to Cuban parents and educated in Miami, Blanco read at President Obama’s second inaugural, becoming the fifth inaugural poet in U.S. history. The experience is the subject of his new poetic memoir, “For all of Us.”
• Dani Shapiro & Nick Flynn, Feb. 8: Flynn’s memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” focused on his father, an alcoholic who lived on the streets of Boston. His latest memoir, “The Reenactments,” is about adapting the earlier book into a film, starring Robert De Niro as the elder Flynn, and touches on film and memory. Shapiro has written five novels and two bestselling memoirs. Her latest book is another memoir, “Still Writing: the Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.”
• Carole DeSanti & Karen Joy Fowler, Feb. 25: DeSanti’s debut novel, the historical fiction “The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.,” was written while DeSanti worked as an executive and editor for Viking Penguin. Fowler’s novels include “The Jane Austen Book Club” and the recent “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” about a young female outsider.
• Tom Reiss, March 19: Reiss earned a 2013 Pulitzer Prize for “The Black Count,” a biography of Alex Dumas, the inspiration behind his son Alexandre’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
• Maria Semple, March 31: Semple, who was raised in Aspen, earned acclaim for her recent satirical novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”
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