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.

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