I'm a latecomer to James Salter's
work, having just recently read and been bowled over by his novel, A Sport and a Pastime
. It was published in 1967, and I expected it to seem quaint and dated. In short, it's not. Its exploration of a love affair between an American man and a French girl is probably the best narrative of "good" sex that I've read. Because face it, most of the sex one finds in novels these days is "bad" sex. You know the difference; I don't need to explain that. And when there is good sex (particularly if it's at all explicit), it's often badly written to the point of being cringe-inducing--even by the best writers. So...I humbly suggest Salter's book as a primer for those who are preparing to attempt a scene of that kind in their own fiction.
A volume of Salter's correspondence with longtime friend Robert Phelps, Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps
, edited by John McIntyre, will be out this month from Counterpoint Press. Although I don't read literary correspondence all that often, what I've seen so far of these letters has led me to believe I'm missing out. In addition to which this kind of exchange may soon become a relic.
, a fiction writer, literary biographer, and writing professor, sent an adoring letter to Salter after reading A Sport and a Pastime
, and so began an affair of friendship that lasted until Phelps' death. Excerpts from the letters have appeared in The American Scholar
In their letters, the two men commiserate about everything from travel to bad reviews. (On reviewers, Salter reminds Phelps that "they are not the only readers, they are the paid readers." Something to keep in mind.)
What interests me most are their references to the creative process. Richard Ford is quoted in The American Scholar
as saying that Salter "writes American sentences better than anybody writing today." In which case, it's gratifying to know that writers like Salter can have days like the rest of us:
"I'm still at work, disheartened, on the final chapter of my book...It still eludes me...Somewhere in all that boring clay is the shape I'm looking for." Later, he describes a play he's working on: "I don't know anything about it yet except there are parts I don't detest."
I think I can get on board for that, writing a passage that I don't detest.
Phelps says that if every writer has his given form..."I sometimes think mine is the footnote....I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin."
Salter, on the other hand, loves "the infinities, the endlessness..." He will clearly always find something new to say, or a new way of saying it. "We must consume whole worlds to write a single sentence and yet we never use up a part of what is available."
I can't help being struck by the likelihood that this type of relationship may never again be immortalized and made public this way. Unless of course you're a person who saves emails (intentionally--not just to avoid cleaning out the inbox), and (even less likely) you're corresponding with a person who writes emails that are worth saving.
For further insight and reflections on Robert Phelps, see this essay, written by Derek Alger
, a long-time student of his and editor of Pif
, the online literary magazine.