Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood / Review by Sam Jordison

Ernes Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn
Sun Valley, Idaho, 1940


Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – review


Naomi Wood's novel about Ernest Hemingway and his four women brings their story convincingly, movingly to life


Sam Jordison
Sunday 23 February 2014 10.30 GMT

H
as there ever been a writer as good at personal myth-making as Ernest Hemingway? Papa. He who who led the lost generation of injured and traumatised after the first world war. Who symbolised the bohemian dream life in 1920s Paris. Who changed English literature with his unadorned, brutal and yet still tender prose. Who liberated the Paris Ritz after the second world war. Who drank the most, who caught the biggest fish, who bedded the most beautiful women, and who grew the most impressive beard. Who was also, as Naomi Wood is fond of telling us, devastatingly handsome; a "beauty" with "broad shoulders", and an all-conquering "grin".

"What pull he has! What magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars. Women turn their eyes from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone."

So thinks his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, anyway. She, Hadley Richardson, Martha Gelhorn, and Mary Welsh, the four women in this tetralogy of marital strife and disintegration, all have different ways of coping with their errant husband – and they are all variously engaging. There's a melodramatic edge, even something of the soap opera in the way Wood has them all confronting their problems, throwing their drinks at one another and vocalising their torment. But who wouldn't want to watch a glossy drama starring Papa and set on location in Florida, Cuba and Paris?
There are also more cerebral rewards, especially in contemplation of the fifth woman in this arrangement: the author herself. Naomi Wood has to wrestle Hemingway on to the page, and make him seem a believable domestic husband as well as that 20th century-striding colossus. Sometimes he slips away, and the story falters. More often it feels like we're seeing the real man behind the Papa legend. Or at least, a convincing fiction of him. The measure of Wood's success comes in the emotional impact of the final pages. She has made Hemingway's famous tragedy seem moving all over again – and that's no mean feat.


Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood / Review by Lara Feigel XLISTO


Hemingway with his fourth wife, Mary, in 1950
Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – review

The story of how Hemingway moved from mistress to marriage – told by each of his four wives – is as enticing as it is mysterious
Lara Feigel
Thursday 20 February 2014 08.00 GMT

Ernest Hemingway was unusual not in the number of women he loved, but in the number of those women he wanted to marry. There was Hadley Richardson, the generous, homely older woman, Pauline Pfeiffer, the rich society vamp, Martha Gellhorn, the restless long-legged war correspondent and Mary Welsh, the adoring journalist who took the risky step of giving up her own career to become the fourth Mrs Hemingway. "A feat," Martha Gellhorn says in Naomi Wood's accomplished new novel, "to want to marry every woman he fucks."
Hemingway loved the stability of marriage. As a writer, he found that his nerves were calmer when he knew there was someone there to protect him from the world. But his writing was fuelled by excitement, so he also needed the novelty of other women. And he didn't feel obliged to reconcile these contradictions. He once told F Scott Fitzgerald that his vision of heaven comprised two lovely houses in town, one containing his wife and children, where he would "be monogamous and love them truly and well", the other "where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on nine different floors".
Unfortunately, he wouldn't have been able to stop himself proposing to the mistresses. Mrs Hemingway lays bare the absurdity of this trait by fast‑forwarding between the start and end of all four marriages. Wood manipulates four sets of past-and-present with ease, telling the story from the perspective of each wife in turn. She creates narrative momentum despite the expansive time frame, because holding the novel together is the question of whether Hemingway will ever find a woman to last the course.

Each new wife believes that she alone can provide the requisite mixture of comfort and excitement needed to redeem Hemingway, but only Mary Welsh succeeds in retaining the Mrs Hemingway title until his death. Arguably, by this stage Hemingway is too drunk, depressive and irascible to convince any of his new conquests to marry him. But in Wood's portrait he has also found the complete and restful love he craved for years. The scenes where Mary mourns her husband after his suicide in 1961 are moving in their understated tenderness. We see Mary burning the obituaries and adding a lock of her hair to Hemingway's secret box of conjugal keepsakes.
It is not surprising that Mary's tone is the most assured in the book. The task of ventriloquism is relatively straightforward when the voice is as natural and wry as Mary's. It is harder when it is the less eloquent Hadley. The opening section where Wood tries to impersonate Hemingway's diffident first wife sometimes has an anachronistic chick-lit quality. It is difficult, too, when it is Pfeiffer, whose lazy wit is caught at moments but lost when Wood has her "long for the cherished life as newlyweds". It is almost impossible when it is Gellhorn, whose acerbic war reportage is well known enough for any imitation to feel flat.
For all this, Wood succeeds remarkably well in capturing the best-known voice, that of Hemingway himself, whose dialogue is almost entirely convincing. With anyone else, lines such as "I'm cockeyed crazy about you, Rabbit" would sound absurdly mannered, but Wood is right to think that, with Hemingway, you cannot take it too far. She could have gone further, though, in her psychological analysis of the hero (or villain) of the story. The motivation behind Hemingway's continual desire for marriage remains mysterious.
Reading Wood's book you would think that women flocked to him because he was brilliant in bed. In fact he had lengthy periods of impotence and was often too insecure to be generous (Gellhorn once described sex with Hemingway as, "Wham, bam, thank you ma'am without the thank you"). Wood could have included these contradictions as a way to open up the question of what it was he wanted and never quite found in marriage. At one point Martha thinks: "He is not so much greedy for women as blind to what he thinks he needs and so he grabs at everything." This seems true, but why is he blind and what does he actually need? Admittedly, this conundrum has resisted the analysis of Hemingway's chroniclers for many years, so Wood may be right not to offer her own solution. Certainly her portrayal of Hemingway is enticing, maddening and haunting enough to leave us trying to solve it for ourselves.
 Lara Feigel is the author of The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (Bloomsbury).

Friday, August 18, 2017

Hemingway / The Old Man at the Bridge


Illustration by T.A.


The Old Man at the Bridge

by Ernest Hemingway



An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road. There was a pontoon bridge across the river and carts, trucks, and men, women and children were crossing it. The mule-drawn carts staggered up the steep bank from the bridge with soldiers helping push against the spokes of the wheels. The trucks ground up and away heading out of it all and the peasants plodded along in the ankle deep dust. But the old man sat there without moving. He was too tired to go any farther.

It was my business to cross the bridge, explore the bridgehead beyond and find out to what point the enemy had advanced. I did this and returned over the bridge. There were not so many carts now and very few people on foot, but the old man was still there.

“Where do you come from?” I asked him.

“From San Carlos,” he said, and smiled.
That was his native town and so it gave him pleasure to mention it and he smiled.
“I was taking care of animals,” he explained. “Oh,” I said, not quite understanding.
“Yes,” he said, “I stayed, you see, taking care of animals. I was the last one to leave the town of San Carlos.”
He did not look like a shepherd nor a herdsman and I looked at his black dusty clothes and his gray dusty face and his steel rimmed spectacles and said, “What animals were they?”
“Various animals,” he said, and shook his head. “I had to leave them.”
I was watching the bridge and the African looking country of the Ebro Delta and wondering how long now it would be before we would see the enemy, and listening all the while for the first noises that would signal that ever mysterious event called contact, and the old man still sat there.
“What animals were they?” I asked.
“There were three animals altogether,” he explained. “There were two goats and a cat and then there were four pairs of pigeons.”
“And you had to leave them?” I asked.
“Yes. Because of the artillery. The captain told me to go because of the artillery.”
“And you have no family?” I asked, watching the far end of the bridge where a few last carts were hurrying down the slope of the bank.
“No,” he said, “only the animals I stated. The cat, of course, will be all right. A cat can look out for itself, but I cannot think what will become of the others.”
“What politics have you?” I asked.
“I am without politics,” he said. “I am seventy-six years old. I have come twelve kilometers now and I think now I can go no further.” “This is not a good place to stop,” I said. “If you can make it, there are trucks up the road where it forks for Tortosa.”
“I will wait a while,” he said, “and then I will go. Where do the trucks go?”
“Towards Barcelona,” I told him.
“I know no one in that direction,” he said, “but thank you very much. Thank you again very much.”
He looked at me very blankly and tiredly, then said, having to share his worry with some one, “The cat will be all right, I am sure. There is no need to be unquiet about the cat. But the others. Now what do you think about the others?”
“Why they’ll probably come through it all right.” “You think so?”
“Why not,” I said, watching the far bank where now there were no carts.
“But what will they do under the artillery when I was told to leave because of the artillery?”
“Did you leave the dove cage unlocked?” I asked. “Yes.”
“Then they’ll fly.”
“Yes, certainly they’ll fly. But the others. It’s better not to think about the others,” he said.
“If you are rested I would go,” I urged. “Get up and try to walk now.”
“Thank you,” he said and got to his feet, swayed from side to side and then sat down backwards in the dust.
“I was taking care of animals,” he said dully, but no longer to me. “I was only taking care of animals.”
There was nothing to do about him. It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro. It was a gray overcast day with a low ceiling so their planes were not up. That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Hemingway / Indian Camp







Indian Camp

by Ernest Hemingway



At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.
Nick and his father got in the stern of the boat and the Indians shoved it off and one of them got in to row. Uncle George sat in the stern of the camp rowboat. The young Indian shoved the camp boat off and got in to row Uncle George.
The two boats started off in the dark. Nick heard the oarlocks of the other boat quite a way ahead of them in the mist. The Indians rowed with quick choppy strokes. Nick lay back with his father’s arm around him. It was cold on the water. The Indian who was rowing them was working very hard, but the other boat moved further ahead in the mist all the time.
“Where are we going, Dad?” Nick asked.
“Over to the Indian camp. There is an Indian lady very sick.”
“Oh,” said Nick.
Across the bay they found the other boat beached. Uncle George was smoking a cigar in the dark. The young Indian pulled the boat way up on the beach. Uncle George gave both the Indians cigars.
They walked up from the beach through a meadow that was soaking wet with dew, following the young Indian who carried a lantern. Then they went into the woods and followed a trail that led to the logging road that ran back into the hills. It was much lighter on the logging road as the timber was cut away on both sides. The young Indian stopped and blew out his lantern and they all walled on along the road.
They came around a bend and a dog came out barking. Ahead were the lights of the shanties where the Indian bark-peelers lived. More dogs rushed out at them. The two Indians sent them back to the shanties. In the shanty nearest the road there was a light in the window. An old woman stood in the doorway holding a lamp.
Inside on a wooden bunk lay a young Indian woman. She had been trying to have her baby for two days. All the old women in the camp had been helping her. The men had moved off up the road to sit in the dark and smoke cut of range of the noise she made. She screamed just as Nick and the two Indians followed his father and Uncle George into the shanty. She lay in the lower bunk, very big under a quilt. Her head was turned to one side. In the upper bunk was her husband. He had cut his foot very badly with an ax three days before. He was smoking a pipe. The room smelled very bad.
Nick’s father ordered some water to be put on the stove, and while it was heating he spoke to Nick.
“This lady is going to have a baby, Nick,” he said.
“I know,” said Nick.
“You don’t know,” said his father. “Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what is happening when she screams.”
“I see,” Nick said.
Just then the woman cried out.
“Oh, Daddy, can’t you give her something to make her stop screaming?” asked Nick.
“No. I haven’t any anaesthetic,” his father said. “But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.”
The husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall.
The woman in the kitchen motioned to the doctor that the water was hot. Nick’s father went into the kitchen and poured about half of the water out of the big kettle into a basin. Into the water left in the kettle he put several things he unwrapped from a handkerchief.
“Those must boil,” he said, and began to scrub his hands in the basin of hot water with a cake of soap he had brought from the camp. Nick watched his father’s hands scrubbing each other with the soap. While his father washed his hands very carefully and thoroughly, he talked.
“You see, Nick, babies are supposed to be born head first but sometimes they’re not. When they’re not they make a lot of trouble for everybody. Maybe I’ll have to operate on this lady. We’ll know in a little while.”
When he was satisfied with his hands he went in and went to work.
“Pull back that quilt, will you, George?” he said. “I’d rather not touch it.”
Later when he started to operate Uncle George and three Indian men held the woman still. She bit Uncle George on the arm and Uncle George said, “Damn squaw bitch!” and the young Indian who had rowed Uncle George over laughed at him. Nick held the basin for his father. It all took a long time.
His father picked the baby up and slapped it to make it breathe and handed it to the old woman.
“See, it’s a boy, Nick,” he said. “How do you like being an interne?”
Nick said. “All right.” He was looking away so as not to see what his father was doing.
“There. That gets it,” said his father and put something into the basin.
Nick didn’t look at it.
“Now,” his father said, “there’s some stitches to put in. You can watch this or not, Nick, just as you like. I’m going to sew up the incision I made.”
Nick did not watch. His curiosity had been gone for a long time.
His father finished and stood up. Uncle George and the three Indian men stood up. Nick put the basin out in the kitchen.
Uncle George looked at his arm. The young Indian smiled reminiscently.
“I’ll put some peroxide on that, George,” the doctor said.
He bent over the Indian woman. She was quiet now and her eyes were closed. She looked very pale. She did not know what had become of the baby or anything.
“I’ll be back in the morning.” the doctor said, standing up.
“The nurse should be here from St. Ignace by noon and she’ll bring everything we need.”
He was feeling exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game.
“That’s one for the medical journal, George,” he said. “Doing a Caesarian with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders.”
Uncle George was standing against the wall, looking at his arm.
“Oh, you’re a great man, all right,” he said.
“Ought to have a look at the proud father. They’re usually the worst sufferers in these little affairs,” the doctor said. “I must say he took it all pretty quietly.”
He pulled back the blanket from the Indian’s head. His hand came away wet. He mounted on the edge of the lower bunk with the lamp in one hand and looked in. The Indian lay with his face toward the wall. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. The blood had flowed down into a pool where his body sagged the bunk. His head rested on his left arm. The open razor lay, edge up, in the blankets.
“Take Nick out of the shanty, George,” the doctor said.
There was no need of that. Nick, standing in the door of the kitchen, had a good view of the upper bunk when his father, the lamp in one hand, tipped the Indian’s head back.
It was just beginning to be daylight when they walked along the logging road back toward the lake.
“I’m terribly sorry I brought you along; Nickie,” said his father, all his post-operative exhilaration gone. “It was an awful mess to put you through.”
“Do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?” Nick asked.
“No, that was very, very exceptional.”
“Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”
“Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?”
“Not very many, Nick.”
“Do many women?”
“Hardly ever.”
“Don’t they ever?”
“Oh, yes. They do sometimes.”
“Daddy?”
“Yes.”
“Where did Uncle George go?”
“He’ll turn up all right.”
“Is dying hard, Daddy?”
“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”
They were seated in the boat. Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.
In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing; he felt quite sure that he would never die.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hemingway / The End of Something






The End of Something

 by Ernest Hemingway



In the old days Hortons Bay was a lumbering town. No one who lived in it was out of sound of the big saws in the mill by the lake. Then one year there were no more logs to make lumber. The lumber schooners came into the bay and were loaded with the cut of the mill that stood stacked in the yard. All the piles of lumber were carried away. The big mill building had all its machinery that was removable taken out and hoisted on board one of the schooners by the men who had worked in the mill. The schooner moved out of the bay toward the open lake, carrying the two great saws, the travelling carriage that hurled the logs against the revolving, circular saws and all the rollers, wheels, belts and iron piled on a hull-deep load of lumber. Its open hold covered with canvas and lashed tight, the sails of the schooner filled and it moved out into the open lake, carrying with it everything that had made the mill a mill and Hortons Bay a town.
The one-story bunk houses, the eating-house, the company store, the mill offices, and the big mill itself stood deserted in the acres of sawdust that covered the swampy meadow by the shore of the bay.
Ten years later there was nothing of the mill left except the broken white limestone of its foundations showing through the swampy second growth as Nick and Marjorie rowed along the shore. They were trolling along the edge of the channel-bank where the bottom dropped off suddenly from sandy shallows to twelve feet of dark water. They were trolling on their way to set night lines for rainbow trout.
“There’s our old ruin, Nick,” Marjorie said.
Nick, rowing, looked at the white stone in the green trees.
“There it is,” he said.
“Can you remember when it was a mill?” Marjorie asked.
“I can just remember,” Nick said.
“It seems more like a castle,” Marjorie said.
Nick said nothing. They rowed on out of sight of the mill, following the shore line. Then Nick cut across the bay.
“They aren’t striking,” he said.
“No,” Marjorie said. She was intent on the rod all the time they trolled, even when she talked. She loved to fish. She loved to fish with Nick.
Close beside the boat a big trout broke the surface of the water. Nick pulled hard on one oar so the boat would turn and the bait, spinning far behind, would pass where the trout was feeding. As the trout’s back came up out of the water the minnows jumped wildly. They sprinkled the surface like a handful of shot thrown into the water. Another trout broke water, feeding on the other side of the boat.
“They’re feeding,” Marjorie said.
“But they won’t strike,” Nick said.
He rowed the boat around to troll past both the feeding fish, then headed it for the point. Marjorie did not reel in until the boat touched the shore.
They pulled the boat up the beach and Nick lifted out a pail of live perch. The perch swam in the water pail. Nick caught three of them with his hands and cut heir heads off and skinned them while Marjorie chased with her hands in the bucket, finally caught a perch, cut its head off and skinned it. Nick looked at her fish.
“You don’t want to take the ventral fin out,” he said. “It’ll be all right for bait but it’s better with the ventral fin in.”
He hooked each of the skinned perch through the tail. There were two hooks attached to a leader on each rod. Then Marjorie rowed the boat out over the channel-bank, holding the line in her teeth, and looking toward Nick, who stood on the shore holding the rod and letting the line run out from the reel.
“That’s about right,” he called.
“Should I let it drop?” Marjorie called back, holding the line in her hand.
“Sure. Let it go.” Marjorie dropped the line overboard and watched the baits go down through the water.
She came in with the boat and ran the second line out the same way. Each time Nick set a heavy slab of driftwood across the butt of the rod to hold it solid and propped it up at an angle with a small slab. He reeled in the slack line so the line ran taut out to where the bait rested on the sandy floor of the channel and set the click on the reel. When a trout, feeding on the bottom, took the bait it would run with it, taking line out of the reel in a rush and making the reel sing with the click on.
Marjorie rowed up the point a little way so she would not disturb the line. She pulled hard on the oars and the boat went up the beach. Little waves came in with it. Marjorie stepped out of the boat and Nick pulled the boat high up the beach.
“What’s the matter, Nick?” Marjorie asked.
“I don’t know,” Nick said, getting wood for a fire.
They made a fire with driftwood. Marjorie went to the boat and brought a blanket. The evening breeze blew the smoke toward the point, so Marjorie spread the blanket out between the fire and the lake.
Marjorie sat on the blanket with her back to the fire and waited for Nick. He came over and sat down beside her on the blanket. In back of them was the close second-growth timber of the point and in front was the bay with the mouth of Hortons Creek. It was not quite dark. The fire-light went as far as the water. They could both see the two steel rods at an angle over the dark water. The fire glinted on the reels.
Marjorie unpacked the basket of supper.
“I don’t feel like eating,” said Nick.
“Come on and eat, Nick.”
“All right.”
They ate without talking, and watched the two rods and the fire-light in the water.
“There’s going to be a moon tonight,” said Nick. He looked across the bay to the hills that were beginning to sharpen against the sky. Beyond the hills he knew the moon was coming up.
“I know it,” Marjorie said happily.
“You know everything,” Nick said.
“Oh, Nick, please cut it out! Please, please don’t be that way!”
“I can’t help it,” Nick said. “You do. You know everything. That’s the trouble. You know you do.”
Marjorie did not say anything.
“I’ve taught you everything. You know you do. What don’t you know, anyway?”
“Oh, shut up,” Marjorie said. “There comes the moon.”
They sat on the blanket without touching each other and watched the moon rise.
“You don’t have to talk silly,” Marjorie said. “What’s really the matter?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course you know.”
“No I don’t.”
“Go on and say it.”
Nick looked on at the moon, coming up over the hills.
“It isn’t fun any more.”
He was afraid to look at Marjorie. Then he looked at her. She sat there with her back toward him. He looked at her back. “It isn’t fun any more. Not any of it.”
She didn’t say anything. He went on. “I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me. I don’t know, Marge. I don’t know what to say.”
He looked on at her back.
“Isn’t love any fun?” Marjorie said.
“No,” Nick said. Marjorie stood up. Nick sat there, his head in his hands.
“I’m going to take the boat,” Marjorie called to him. “You can walk back around the point.”
“All right,” Nick said. “I’ll push the boat off for you.”
“You don’t need to,” she said. She was afloat in the boat on the water with the moonlight on it. Nick went back and lay down with his face in the blanket by the fire. He could hear Marjorie rowing on the water.
He lay there for a long time. He lay there while he heard Bill come into the clearing walking around through the woods. He felt Bill coming up to the fire. Bill didn’t touch him, either.
“Did she go all right?” Bill said.
“Yes,” Nick said, lying, his face on the blanket.
“Have a scene?”
“No, there wasn’t any scene.”
“How do you feel?”
“Oh, go away, Bill! Go away for a while.”
Bill selected a sandwich from the lunch basket and walked over to have a look at the rods.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

James Salter / A brief survey of the short story

James Sater


A brief survey of the short story part 72

 JAMES SALTER 

James Salter's unreliable genius


Some of his short stories have conspicuous faults – not least in their portrayal of women – but the best show a unique, sad beauty


Chris Power
Friday 14 April 2017 08.05 BST



“T
here is no complete life. There are only fragments.” These lines from James Salter’s 1975 novel Light Years express a belief, perhaps even a philosophy, which informs all his writing. It is one that would favour the short story, which prioritises the extraordinary moment above the changes over time found in novels. So does Salter’s prose, which is lyrical but extremely economical. Structurally, however, his instinct is towards the expansive: he likes to move through large stretches of time. This combination has resulted in a relatively small body of short stories (two collections, from 1988 and 2006) that is unlike the work of any other writer.
In American Express, Salter spends half the story summarising the legal careers of Frank and Alan, two young, talented New York lawyers. They dedicate themselves to a case nobody wants and it makes their name. They establish their own firm, with “new offices overlooking Bryant Park which from above seemed like a garden behind a dark chateau”. There were “young clients, opera tickets, dinners in apartments with divorced hostesses, surrendered apartments with books and big, tiled kitchens”. When Salter is in this summarising mode you might sometimes doubt his ability: he tells rather than shows, and seems to skate over the surface of things.

But in the second half, when the lawyers take a trip to Italy, the summarising ends and moments are left to speak for themselves. Leaves piled against table legs tell us it is autumn; the dissolution of Frank, who is sleeping with a schoolgirl, is indelibly portrayed when he descends from his hotel room looking “like a rich patient in some hospital”; Alan, enviously spectating on his immoral acts, watches a young man from a window: “He crossed the driveway and jumped onto a motorbike. The engine started, a faint blur.” This is the Salter the New York Times critic Anatole Broyard was talking about when he marvelled, in an otherwise negative review of Light Years: “It is almost unbelievable what he can do with a few pigeons.”
The conventional choice for a writer as sophisticated as Salter, who died in 2015, would be to embed the first half of American Express as one or more flashbacks within the second half, as a counterpoint to their disturbing collapse in Italy; at one point Frank’s father divides the world into “those going up and those coming down”, which could also be the story’s title. But the unusual structure of Salter’s version is no accident or fumble: it is how he tells stories.
In the first few pages of his 1997 memoir Burning the Days, he forewarns the reader: “I am writing offhandedly of a great span of time.” He proceeds to move compulsively back and forth through his life: a detail of a love affair in the late 40s reminds him of another from the 60s; packing his things at West Point pulls his thoughts to a time “long afterwards”, when he got his car stuck in a snowdrift. This will frustrate anyone wanting a traditional autobiography, but it captures the ramifying nature of remembrance brilliantly, and returns us to his contention that life is not something you can study as you choose, but is instead a heap of fragments to sort through.

One of the most extreme examples of Salter’s restless narration is a story called Arlington, which begins straightforwardly enough: “Newell had married a Czech girl and they were having trouble, they were drinking and fighting”. Newell is a soldier and his superior, Westerveldt, visits to try to broker peace. Westerveldt feels like the main character, although for a line or two Newell’s thoughts swim into the narrative.
When Westerveldt’s visit ends, Salter briefly describes an evening when Newell is away on duty and his wife goes out alone. An officer takes her home, and she later reports that she had been raped. This is followed by a thumbnail portrait of Westerveldt: the mortar scar he picked up in Pleiku, his love affair with a woman in Naples, and marriage to a divorcee from San Antonio, and his death from leukaemia at 58. Then we are back with Newell, a passenger in a car driving from the memorial service to Arlington cemetery. The rest of the story follows his perspective.
For all its erratic movement in time, Arlington works. Al Alvarez once wrote that Salter is “simply not interested in telling stories”. I don’t think that’s true at all; he just isn’t interested in telling them the way they are “supposed” to be told. Arlington absolutely is a story; it seems much longer than its seven pages, and it contains one of the best descriptions of a graveyard since Kipling’s The Gardener:
The gravestones in dense, unbroken lines curved alongside the hillsides and down toward the river, as far as he could see, all the same height with here and there a larger, grey stone like an officer, mounted, amid the ranks. In the fading light they seemed to be waiting, fateful, massed as if for some great assault.
Like Kipling, Salter wants to impart knowledge in his stories. Reading the former, you might learn how to build bridges, or what it feels like to be shot; Salter’s early novels contain many technical particulars of flight and air combat (he flew jets in Korea), and his short stories show he is the Kipling of sex. In Eyes of the Stars, he describes a woman who is “18 and more or less innocent, everything still ahead of her. If she took off her clothes you would never forget it”; in Give, the narrator tells us his wife is “31, the age when women are past foolishness though not unfeeling”. Charisma begins: “Men don’t have to have looks. It’s not that.”
These pronouncements, which are not meant to be ironic – his autobiography is full of this kind of thing – appeal in their certitude (“I believe there is such a thing as objective truth insofar as we are given to know it”, Salter told the Paris Reviewin 1993), but can also sound ridiculous, particularly the pronouncements on women’s bodies. In The Destruction of the Goetheanum, a young woman is described as having “a serving girl’s mouth, a girl from small towns”. The main character in Eyes of the Stars, who is in her 60s, has arms “like a cook’s”. An argument can be made that these judgments belong to characters, not Salter, but it is difficult to be certain. He isn’t above the cruelty or the snobbishness of either remark.
Yet Salter can temper the harshness to be found in his work with notable sensitivity. Dusk is a story – like so many in his work – about the end of love, or at least a love affair. It begins with Mrs Chandler, a middle-aged woman who has been left by her husband and is about to be spurned again, standing beside a neon sign that says “prime meats”. She is a woman who “lived a certain life”, Salter tells us, before gathering its fragments:
She knew how to give dinner parties, take care of dogs, enter restaurants. She had her way of answering invitations, of dressing, of being herself. Incomparable habits, you might call them. She was a woman who had read books, played golf, gone to weddings, whose legs were good, who had weathered storms, a fine woman whom no one now wanted.
That last clause feels more like an expression of Mrs Chandler’s own self-pity than external opinion. Returning home, her lover is waiting in the driveway. It is cosy inside, but the way Salter describes the gathering dusk – “Outside, the fields were disappearing” – suggests a kind of oblivion. Bill tells her he is back with his wife, then leaves. She imagines following him home and driving past his house: “The lights would be on. She would see someone through the windows.” As the story ends, she can hear geese outside and imagines one, shot and thrashing in the long grass, “bloody sounds coming from the holes in its beak. She went around and turned on lights. The rain was coming down, the sea was crashing, a comrade lay dead in the whirling darkness”.
Those extraordinary last lines read like a tribute to Salter’s favourite short story writer, Isaac Babel. Babel, Salter said, had “the three essentials of greatness: style, structure, and authority”, and in certain stories – Dusk, Twenty Minutes, Last Night, Foreign Shores – Salter has them too. The latter story, about a Dutch nanny who is dismissed by her employer after the discovery of sexually explicit letters, contains a passage that expresses Salter’s unique blend: striking and beautiful description, the sorrow of things ending, and the great sensuality and cruelty of life:
The fall was coming. Everything seemed to deny it. The days were still warm, the great, terminal sun poured down. The leaves, more luxuriant than ever, covered the trees. Behind the hedges, lawn mowers made a final racket. On the warm slate of the terrace, left behind, a grasshopper, a veteran in dark green and yellow, limped along. The birds had torn off one of his legs.


THE GUARDIAN