Saturday, April 2, 2011

James Salter on Irwin Shaw

David L. Ulin, musing about the happy change in the weather, was reminded of Irwin Shaw's much anthologized "Girls in Their Summer Dresses." Shaw is largely forgotten now, his literary achievements oddly overshadowed by the enormous commercial success of his late novels, and yet his short stories not only hold up but are superb. Ulin's post prompted a F'book friend to mention James Salter's remembrance of Shaw in "Burning the Days," Salter's gorgeous if pointillistic memoir. Salter is, of course, the man of the moment, or rather of the month, as elaborated here. I took his memoir down from the shelf and read:

Time with its broad thumb has blurred nothing. He was forty-eight that year and already late for a dinner he was going to on Avenue Foch. He gave me the address—come afterwards for coffee, he said. A few minutes later, paying the bill, he left. Thus I discovered that Paris. There were worlds above, I learned, but there are also worlds below. I found Avenue Foch—the name itself has only a faint resonance now, the century is ending and into its crypt all such things will vanish, marshals of France as well as unknown poilus—and I also found the Île Ste.-Louis, rue de Grenelle, Place St.-Sulpice, and apartments and restaurants as well as other towns and regions, not always in France, because of him. He was my unknowing Virgil, brief in his descriptions, irrefutable, fond of drink. Years later I heard him give some advice: never be in awe of anyone. He was not in awe of Europe. He tossed his coat on her couch.

There may be, as well, a shadow-like depiction of Shaw in "Via Doloroso," a short story in Salter's first collection, "Dusk." From that story, I suspected that Shaw, for Salter, was not so much a mentor as a representative figure of a writer, one to compare himself against, admire, and whose example and aims he would in some measure turn away from. Or perhaps he took Shaw's advice to heart, never to be in awe of anyone.

The Paris Review, who originally published another of Salter's stark classic stories, have made available on-line "Am Strand von Tangere." It shows well how in turning away from the example of Shaw, in taking another route, he become such a fascinating writer. It begins:

Barcelona at dawn. The hotels are dark. All the great avenues are pointing to the sea.

The city is empty. Nico is asleep. She is bound by twisted sheets, by her long hair, by a naked arm which falls from beneath her pillow. She lies still, she does not even breathe.

In a cage outlined beneath a square of silk that is indigo blue and black, her bird sleeps, Kalil. The cage is in an empty fireplace which has been scrubbed clean. There are flowers beside it and a bowl of fruit. Kalil is asleep, his head beneath the softness of a wing.

Malcolm is asleep. His steel-rimmed glasses which he does not need—there is no prescription in them—lie open on the table. He sleeps on his back and his nose rides the dream world like a keel. This nose, his mother’s nose or at least a replica of his mother’s, is like a theatrical device, a strange decoration that has been pasted on his face. It is the first thing one notices about him. It is the first thing one likes. The nose in a sense is a mark of commitment to life. It is a large nose which cannot be hidden. In addition, his teeth are bad.

At the very top of the four stone spires which Gaudi left unfinished the light has just begun to bring forth gold inscriptions too pale yet to read. There is no sun. There is only a white silence. Sunday morning. The early mornings of Spain. A mist covers all of the hills which surround the city. The stores are closed.

Nico has come out on the terrace after her bath. The towel is wrapped around her, water still glistens on her skin.

“It’s cloudy,” she says. “It’s not a good day for the sea.”

Malcolm looks up.

“It may clear,” he says.

Morning. Villa-Lobos is playing on the phonograph. The cage is on a stool in the doorway. Malcolm lies in a canvas chair eating an orange. He is in love with the city. He has a deep attachment to it based in part on a story by Paul Morand and also on an incident which occurred in Barcelona years before: one evening in the twilight Antonio Gaudi, mysterious, fragile, even saintlike, the city’s great architect, was hit by a streetcar as he walked to church. He was very old, white beard, white hair, dressed in the simplest of clothes. No one recognized him. He lay in the street without even a cab to drive him to the hospital. Finally he was taken to the charity ward. He died the day Malcolm was born.

Against all advice, I'm in awe. Read the whole thing here.

Read Ulin on Shaw here (hat-tip Jane Ciabattari and Anna March).

Shaw's story "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" may be read here.

The Paris Review Daily Glides into James Salter Month

It's James Salter month at The Paris Review Daily, and this coincides with the magazine's blog coming into its own as the model for literary blogs, truly worth a daily read.

At the dawn of the World Wide Web, or the brower-surfable web, in 1994 or 1995, the magazine launched its first on-line incarnation, courtesy of the multi-media company Voyager/Criterion Collection. Really, I think it was simply a page with a few covers, a list of contents, and an address to send a subscription check. Nevertheless, it was chosen by WIRED magazine as one of the top ten sites on the web. Competition wasn't exactly stiff, as there were at that time only a few thousand sites on the web.

All these years after, including a period when the magazine disappeared from the web, and the recent years when there was a handsome site used only for announcements, The Paris Review Daily has become something of another order. In June, new Editor Lorin Stein's introductory note announced:
Since its founding in 1953, The Paris Review has devoted itself to publishing “the good writers and good poets,” regardless of creed or school or name-recognition. In that time the Review has earned a reputation as the chief discoverer of what is newest and best in contemporary writing.

But a quarterly only comes out…well, you know. We have been looking for a way to keep in touch with our readers between issues, and to call attention to our favorite writers and artists in something close to real time. If the Review embodies a sensibility, this Daily will try, in a casual and haphazard and at times possibly frivolous way, to put that sensibility into words.

The first few months began haltingly, and frankly a bit sophomorically. Elizabeth Bowen once said the she tried to not use a word more than once on a single page. In the first few weeks of the relaunched website there was a scatological word or five in every single post... but then it was, after all, Terry Southern month.

The site, under the direction of the wonderfully-named Thessaly La Force, has since expanded to showcase original literature, commentary on design, biography, television, translation, as well as a whimsical advice column, and links to interesting articles on other sites. The sports writing has been surprisingly good... but then the magazine's Maximum Editor George Plimpton did his best writing about sports... or rather used sports to leap into his best writing, a sort of mnemonic device, as he might have said, and did whenever he asked a writer their own gateway to creativity. I especially commend to you Louisa Thomas on the US Open and Will Frears on the recent World Cup... topnotch sport reportage. I only wish there was a bit more about poetry and poets... those "unacknowledged legislators" left unacknowledged again.

But I've especially enjoyed the series of tributes to James Salter, American letters finest living stylist. Of particular note, Louisa Thomas, again, on James Salter's writing about skiing is a fitting tribute to the master. She writes... and I hope I'll be forgiven by TPR Daily for quoting at such length... but it is good:

I read There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter for the parts about skiing the way one reads A Sport and a Pastime for the sex. In fact Salter writes about skiing the way he writes about sex: as something luminous, clean, somehow moral. This was a few years ago, when I was obsessed with skiing; I thought about it all the time. In Salter I sensed a sympathetic hunger, the longing for something transcendent, pointless, permanent, and always vanishing. There aren’t many good authors who write about skiing. Hemingway does a little. Salter does it a lot, as a way of writing about something else, just as writing about sex is a way of writing about other things: beauty, courage, obsession, mastery—mostly, someone else’s mastery.

When I skied, or when I thought about skiing, a beautiful skier would stop me in my tracks. He would slide over a lip into a bowl or glade, or drop into a little chute out of bounds. His solid body would become liquid, slipping through the snow, as he found the fall line. I would watch his back and then fly after him, tracking him, fearless and afraid. “What enables you to learn?” Salter asks. “It’s simple: desire.” [...]

“There is always that lone skier,” Salter writes, “oddly dressed, off to the side past the edge of the run, going down where it is steepest and the snow untouched, in absolute grace, marking each dazzling turn with a brief jab of the pole—there is always him, the skier you cannot be.” What Salter is describing is not quite jealousy; it is awe. Awe can create a sense of obligation. In the presence of that skier you can never be, skiing becomes a devotional act. [...] To read Salter on the skiing life is to be aware of this life’s reward: the feeling of a turn, the glide and cut, the nervy edges. The speed and focus. The sun on the mountains. The feeling of being free. [...]

I read “The Skiing Life” now and I miss the skiing life. It is, of course, a life I never really had. Two years ago I did go skiing again, in Jackson Hole. On run after run, I was extraordinarily happy. On the chairlifts gliding up, I looked out for that girl, that beautiful skier. I wanted to see her very badly. I saw more patrolmen pulling stretchers than I could count.

At night I slept on a bench in a cabin in Grand Teton National Park. In the mornings we heard the avalanche warnings. I thought of Meta Burden, a beautiful skier who had died in Aspen in a flood of snow. Salter had written about her. She was a “goddess,” he said. “They dug her out in the dark and carried her body down.”

See The Paris Review Daily HERE. Consider bookmarking it, or even reading it daily.