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James Salter: The Invisible Miles

Only months before he passed away at the age of 89, James Salter—one of the last big guns of postwar American literature—visited the University of Virginia to deliver the Kapnick Lectures. Those talks, which cover his experiences as both a great writer and a passionate reader of others, were attended by standing-room-only audiences. Many of us feel a great nostalgia, only a year later, for that autumn in 2015 when we had a new Salter lecture to look forward to every week. We are proud to offer Salter's lectures in a new book, The Art of Fiction. Below is an excerpt from the book's introduction, by National Book Award-winning author, and devoted Salter admirer, John Casey.

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If you haven’t read any books by James Salter, should you read these lectures first? Maybe. Certainly the first one, “The Art of Fiction.” You would get a sense of his voice, of his rhythm–his perfectly timed abruptnesses, which are agreeable surprises–that is, you agree to stop and let the echo clarify. . . .

Salter’s life was full of coincidences. This is in part because he lived in many different places and was involved in various kinds of activities (West Point, the army air corps of World War II and the air force in Korea and after, literary New York, Middleburg and Upperville, Virginia, Paris, mountain climbing in the French Alps, skiing in the Swiss Alps, moviemaking in America and Italy, a conversational evening with Nabokov in Montreux). The coincidences come in greater part because he was curious, observant, and had a prodigious memory both visual and verbal. He was also open to his friendly impulses. Burning the Days, his memoir, has many short paragraphs about meeting someone that end with “I liked him immediately,” or “she was authentic.” . . .

Why write? Salter confesses to the lesser reasons—pretty much the same ones George Orwell confesses to in his essay “Why I Write.” Salter lists “to be admired by others, to be loved by them, to be praised, to be known. . . . None of those reasons give the strength of the desire.” 

Besides the skills of observing closely, besides the love of words, besides the lessons derived from instruction, besides reading and rereading to see how an effect has been achieved, and besides the desire, what else might there be? In “Life into Art,” the third lecture, Salter includes as answer almost everything, almost anything: an overheard phrase, the way someone crosses the street, an incident in the life of a friend.

Yevgeny Zamyatin is the author of We, an anti-utopian novel written in 1924 that foresaw what Soviet Russia would become under Stalin. Zamyatin said in a lecture that when he was full of ideas that hadn’t yet taken a unified form, a chance observation often pulled them together. It was, he said, like adding one more crystal to a supersaturated solution: the crystals began to join together coherently.

So it’s not surprising that Salter has a similar notion. (How I wish that Zamyatin had come up in our conversations!) Salter says in this third talk, “You don’t do all the writing at your desk. You do it elsewhere, carrying the book with you. The book is your companion, you . . . [are] alert for links to it.”

But that lucky accident—apparent accident—wouldn’t do its magic unless you also had the routine, the ritual, the discipline of a writer. Salter says, “I try to write regularly. . . . I write when I don’t feel like it, but not when it revulses me. . . . I write by hand with a pen. Then I type it on an electric typewriter. . . . I like the sound, slightly irregular, of the keys hitting.”

Salter also mentions in his first lecture or in an aside that Flaubert wrote forty-five hundred pages to get the three hundred of Madame Bovary. About his own novel, All That Is, he says, “I made two thick notebooks for this book, reference books divided into sections holding things from my journals that might be of some use: weather, places, conversation, faces, deaths, love, sex, people. Toda. I didn’t use even a quarter of it.”

It takes a lot of miles of training to run a race.

But Salter also records how as a young man, after writing imitatively and inconclusively for a long time, he finally wrote a good story. He mentions some details that he noted by chance: a German girl at a Fasching ball in a costume “like a bathing suit with gold scales and a skirt.” There is a man who drifts by. Another German girl. “The next day we went to the beach. And that’s it. That’s the story, but the difference this time was that I was able to write it. It was the language, the assurance. I knew only a limited amount about the German girls, but I pressed down hard. . . . I somehow made it count.”

The Art of Fiction is available now.

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