James Salter's black book
While visiting the writer James Purdy in Brooklyn, I was staying in the apartment of a Manhattan poet. Purdy went silent for a while at the mention of the man, then let rip. My poet had suppressed a review of a Purdy novel in the New York Times, thereby casting it into obscurity and preventing the planned sequels. Purdy is great at falling out with other writers - the last time I heard from him was through his assistant, threatening me with a lawyer.
I've got my own black book. Happily I forget the name of the writer whose review of my On Bended Knees in The Sunday Times was the uniquely bad one which helped kill the paperback. I presume she stays nameless in the publishing world, writing screaming vindictives in the torments of perpetual obscurity.
Jams Salter's nemesis is Mrs Doubleday, wife of the eponymous New York publisher. He told the tale at his London Review Bookshop reading last night, his novel A Sport and a Pastime frankly erotic. Though George Plimpton chose it as one of his select five picks to edit, he had no power in the house, Doubleday choosing to run scared of anything not wholly family-oriented. Mrs Doubleday later read Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and was so offended she had the book withdrawn. (Salter spoke of Dreiser's 'relentless, but toneless, power'.) Doubleday 'smothered' Salter's book.
Graham Greene was the first to promote him in the UK, using his shareholdings at the Bodley Head to convince them to publish the work. Five books have just been launched in the UK - hence this first public UK reading of a 82 year lifetime. The reading drew a full house, helped by Richard Ford's piece in The Guardian recently, suggesting Salter is the finest writer of American sentences. Salter took some time, he told us, to decide that Ford actually liked the stories, and was not in fact condemning them.
The Guardian publishes the Salter story 'Last Night' if you want to judge for yourself. Personally I get the quality of the sentences, but string them together and it does not amount to much. What interests Salter in life, it seems, does not interest me. Heterosexual infidelity is a major theme. Speaking of Irwin Shaw, Salter remarked: 'The great engines of this world do not run on fidelity'. I've no particular moral reading of the theme, simply a lack of interest.
Salter thought Henry Miller was 'a nutty saint'. Nabokov was 'tall, stately, and with very clear wit inside of him and in his dialogue with you. He liked to play around.' Interviewing him in the shabby surrounds of the Montreux Palace Hotel, Salter asked if he liked the company of other writers. 'I don't talk to writers,' said Nabokov. So who did he like to talk with? 'Bankers.'
22/3/2007 The Guardian has just released a podcast of a conversation with James Salter, and a reading.