Late to the party

Unwrapped over the festive period, and unsolicited by me, was a volume that I had mused over; an author unknown.  It turned out to be a delightful read, and I want to know more.

Usually when I happen across a writer for the first time I find out that firstly he is now dead, often long dead, and that secondly he or she invariably died at a tragically young age.  But this one bucks the trend.  He breathes yet; and all going well there will be 90 candles on his cake next year.

Step forward James Salter.

Having thoroughly enjoyed There & Then I found out a little more about the man, his life and style.  I’ll read more I think.

There & Then is a volume of travel writing, typically articles and essays published individually over many years, and brought together in one volume nearly 10 years ago.  It tells of a life of some interest, lived to the very full.  And it showcases a writer of huge talent.

Salter takes us to Paris, decades ago, and to rural France.  We go further, to Japan for a return visit with a bicycle and an adult son who wasn’t around when Salter went first to Japan, as a fighter pilot.  And there are ski slopes.  Not just any slopes, but the ones you’ve heard of, at Kitzbuhel and Klosters, the famous runs; and I think of Klammer & Killy, and Tomba & Stenmark.  Salter’s done them all, the Stielhang and the Lauberhorn, the Hahnenkamm.

But he goes up too, up rock faces with ropes and climbs too big he has to sleep on the vertical face before reaching the summit for lunch.  He has magical days, immortal ones.  And with his craft we share in them.

But he’s not a travel writer.  This collection is the only volume bringing together a number of articles around people and places over the years.  He writes novels, and short stories, and screenplays.  He’s been writing full time since 1957, The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Read, as one article I came across shouted.  In his previous career, as a fighter pilot with service in Korea and a hundred missions fighting MiGs over the Yalu River, he flew with Buzz Aldrin.

Allow me to summarise, from an article in Esquire: He is the literary writer who taught himself rock climbing in his fifties, who drank with the greats of postwar American letters, who opened fire in the skies above Korea, who, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed John Huston’s mistress, and made love to French actresses and skied the Alps with Olympians.

His latest novel, and the first for some time, All That Is, was published just last year.  If there’s not a biography out there then there should be, though perhaps, like Twain, he’s instructed a posthumous release.  I want to read it.

Before it became the playground of the rich and the want-to-be-seen, he bought a ramshackle wreck in Aspen, and renovated it, himself.  It’s now prime real estate, though he’s given up the skiing himself.

I’m always excited when I add a new writer to the list, especially one with a list of works to discover.  But to find one that’s still alive, and one that’s had decades of rich experiences, one that can write with the same style as he lived, is joy itself.  It’s a fine start to the 2014 list over on The Bookshelf.  And a quest to follow.


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