In Praise of James Salter

[Originally published in Sacred Trespasses, November 27, 2015]

In celebration of the life and work of James Salter—and to mark the publication of Conversations with James Salter, released this week by the University Press of Mississippi—Andrés Hax offers a remembrance.

***

Accolades and reverent appraisals of James Salter abound. Perhaps my best contribution—and homage—to Salter would be to record a few specific observations from the morning and afternoon that I was with him, on June 4, 2014, for an interview for a newspaper in Buenos Aires, where I live. There were two very small things in particular that I think I will always remember and that were great lessons. But I’ll get to that.

Despite Salter’s great courtesy, I was very nervous, or else perhaps I would have noticed many more things. But in addition, I was enchanted, in the literal sense of the word. As one does, for better or for worse with one’s revered authors, I had mythologized Salter. The thought of “James Salter” was archived in my mind alongside other sacred thoughts, like those of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, or of Moby-Dick and Remembrance of Things Past. To me he was (he is!) a part of Literature, not a mere mortal. This is why they say it is dangerous to meet your heroes. They never match your ideal. I can say, however, that Salter matched mine.

First, he opened the door to his home and there he was. He took me to the kitchen table. He sat with his back to the windows so that I saw him illuminated from behind. He was welcoming but also stern. He asked me a series of pointed question, including “Have you written books?” (Alas, no.) It wasn’t that he was being chummy or putting me at ease. It was more that he wanted to know who was going to be interrogating him. Although it put me off balance, it was also comforting. He was going to take me seriously and respect me, but first he wanted to know—briefly—who I was and what I had done.

Salter, though he was about to turn eighty-nine when we met, did not look like an old man. I thought of Robert Redford, with whom he worked and was friendly. How old is Robert Redford? He seems to be beyond that. Salter fell in that category as well. And he had a real presence. It is easy to say that, but when you meet someone with that indefinable thing—striking looks, strength, elegance, fierce intelligence and kindness mixed with a certain harshness and melancholy, plus something else intangible that puts it all together—other people seem lesser, dim. I am trying to be precise, beyond hero worship. I expect that other people who have met him will confirm my impressions.

But now for the two specific things that I mentioned at the beginning. During the entire interview, which lasted a bit longer than an hour, Salter took notes on small white pieces of paper. Later, I read somewhere that he did this at dinner parties as well. Once he stopped me and asked me how I had phrased a question a few minutes before. When I told him, he wrote it down. I think writers cling to life writing and that the true ones write everywhere, like Faulkner writing on the walls of his bedroom. It was a lesson, like he was saying: remember, remember, remember. Don’t let anything pass unnoticed. Get it down. You might need it later.

After turning off my digital recorder and winding down the interview, I invited Salter and his wife, Kay, to lunch. I am not debonair like that, but I had seen in a profile written in The Guardian that the journalist had gone to lunch with Salter, so I decided to give it a shot. He looked at me and said, “Wait a minute.” Then he stood up and walked to the kitchen to speak with his wife. He said in a loud voice, “This young man wants to take us out to lunch.” I am not a young man, but I was touched by the phrase. But then the voices went down to a murmur. Not good, I thought. He returned and said, “Kay and I have agreed to go to lunch with you, but on one condition… That you answer all our questions about Argentina!”

We ate at a small sushi place in the town near his home. It was like being in a Salter book, eating sushi and gossiping with this legacy writer and his wife—in the Hamptons. Things like this don’t happen to me. It was all a dream of sorts.

And now the second lesson. At one point I told him that there was some lag in social customs in Argentina, some for better and some for worse. For example, many middle class people have maids, to use the politically incorrect term. They usually say “la chica que ayuda” or something of the sort as to avoid the word maid. And I told him that in my home we had someone helping us. And I kept speaking, happy to be talking with James Salter. Then he interrupted me and asked, “What is her name?”

I was thrown. Whose name? I didn’t know what he was talking about. I asked him who he meant. “The woman who helps in your home,” he clarified. I told him her name, Margarita. And he repeated it, as if to lodge it in his memory: Margarita.

Why would he want to know that detail? He really did want to know it. Would that be a germ for a story? Or, as he listened to the anecdotes of his guest, was he listening to them as if they were the story? If that was the case, his question made perfect sense. How would you not want to know the name of one of the characters of the story, however fleeting her appearance?

I don’t know how it may seem to a reader of this article, but to me that question “What is her name?” was extraordinary. It was like a little shaft of light revealing a part of Salter’s mind at work.

And I—poor student—don’t even remember the name of the restaurant where we ate or the name of Salter’s street. But I remember him, being in his presence, and that will remain with me, for as long as I live, one of my most cherished memories.

Blessings on James Salter.

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