Thursday, August 10, 2017

Essays on writing I - James Salter

The company we keep


After James Salter

10 June 1925 — 19 June 2015

By LB Mehta, 31 July, 2017

“There is your life as you know it and also as others know it, perhaps incorrectly, but to which some importance must be attached. It is difficult to realize that you are observed from a number of points and the sum of them has validity.” From Burning the Days, a memoir by James Salter

ome time ago I became convinced that summer is the time for dying. The body wants to go when the earth is closer to the sun, heat can reach the bones, lift the loneliness of winter away. My sample set is personal, but continues to grow. Both my mother’s parents died in June, seven years apart. When my partner was a young boy, his mother died in July. Just this weekend, after two immense family losses this summer, I heard of the passing of my beloved English Literature professor and friend Eunice de Souza, on July 29th 2017.

This piece began as a diary entry, a way of recollecting my meeting with James Salter. Mr Salter passed away on June 19th, 2015, the summer after I met him. It was his death that led me to the conclusion that perhaps summer is a time for letting go, somehow convinced that Salter augered his own season of passing in the death of Dean, Salter’s young American protagonist in one of his early novels, A Sport and a Pastime. Dean dies in the book on the 12th of June.

In October 2014, the fiction writer and essayist Olufemi Terry invited me to the Scott Fitzgerald Festival where Salter was to teach a master class.  Femi revered Mr Salter but I had not yet read him, so I went downstairs to my building library, and found a copy of A Sport and a Pastime.

We arrived at the venue in Rockville around the same time as Mr Salter and his wife Kay Eldgridge. Femi is Salter’s kind of writer – critical, always polishing – he is a savant. Mr Salter drew us aside. He was 89, his eyes attentive as he engaged us, asking me to spell my name. He was unlike the description Robert Redford gave of him, “how quiet and reserved he was,” quoted here from a New Yorker article by Nick Paumgarten.

If I remember correctly, Mr Salter asked me, “Why do you write?” and his head tilted forward, leaning in for the answer, his face lined and handsome. Nick Paumgarten, had said that Salter was often writing notes about people he met, layering them into his stories.

I answered honestly, “I don’t seem quite able to do anything else. It makes me happy.”

Mr Salter looked at me as if he was genuinely intrigued by the concept.

Later, as we waited for the class to start, I thought of all the caveats to such a childish statement. “It makes me happy, except that I’m mostly miserable because writing a novel is so hard (groan).”

My partner says, “You say you are doing this because it makes you happy, but darling, you don’t appear happy at all.” He is right. After a long day I am often irritable. Most days, I stop work dead at three o’clock, having carefully divided my time between paid assignments and writing. I head to pick up my kids from school with bags of healthy snacks and soccer balls. I stand at the playground, hoping to chat about writing if there is someone there to oblige. Mostly, I admire the beauty of the seasons, aware that this time with my children is a gift – how lucky I am to be out on a playground watching children have the unstructured time that children should. Yet, three p.m. is so arbitrary that I am off kilter a little, not in keeping with my natural rhythm of working into the evening.

Mr Salter had begun his class, which turned out to be a conversation with the audience. Kay was sitting near by, her face open to the world, taking it all in, seeming to judge nothing. A beautiful face. The kind of person you want to get to know. I thought about so many of my female writer friends whose partners didn’t show up to anything and had never read a word of what they wrote. It seemed, at that moment, that male writers had their own very special status.

Salter was addressing the audience at one point and said, “There is a writer out there,” and he looked at me, “Who said that she writes because it makes her happy. I’ve never heard of that before.”

If he was being sarcastic, I have to say it didn’t come across that way. He seemed curious, he was making a connection. At some point I asked a question about how one balances family and writing. I was thinking of him, young, trying to make a living from writing, the father of four children.

He looked gravely at me and said, “Something’s got to give. Maybe it will be your writing.”

I was both terrifed and intrigued. You hear that often, successful people talking about how balance is not really possible. I suppose that is partly why writers take many years to finish a book. They are also living, working to make money, taking care of their parents or grandparents, fulfilling other callings or caring for children. All I can say is I accepted the challenge to finish my novel.

Before we left I asked Mr Salter, “Which is your favorite?” gesturing to the books for sale. He said Light Years, so I picked that up and had him sign it as a gift to another writer friend. Then I gave him my library copy of Sport and a Pastime to inscribe to me. I was rather impressed when he spelled my name correctly.

Writing this, I am tipping back in my desk chair, staring out at the fir trees reaching into a washed out blue sky with restless clouds. I wonder for a moment if writing is like going to war, heading into a dark place from which you are not sure you will return. It is very hard to come back to ordinary life after you have gone away. I don’t mean to trivialize war by saying this, and obviously in many other ways a writer is not a soldier. There are days when I am brutalized by the process, but it is not because I have actually lost friends, or my limbs. As a writer, every day you expect it of yourself, that you will wade out into the ocean and return to your family life. That daily journey is the hardest one I take. But I get better at it, I learn that it will still be waiting for me, that a few hours away is not abandoning it.

In those hours away, happiness is not joy as much as purpose, it is duty to the simple intention – that of writing. It is solitary, and it is the company we keep when we emerge, that helps us return to the light of living. The circle of writers that surrounds us during the writing of a book is often very small. It includes the writers we read, like Salter, and the writers who are our friends, like Femi. We are wary of books handed to us while we are working on our own. At other times, we are down right impatient with bestsellers that have to be read, like The Goldfinch. There is only place for writing, and what we read is the same as the company we keep, these are our intimates.

Some writers have made an art of chronicling their own lives with reference to other writers. They are readers too, and see their own stories in those of the writers they love. They organise connections until a montage of experiences form a symphony – a life or a book.

James Salter begins his memoir Burning the Days like this, “The true chronicler of my life…as if he had been waiting a long time to tell me, that he knew everything. I had never seen him before.” This stranger comes to Salter trying to connect – he describes Salter’s childhood and has kept track of events in his life. His knowledge has small discrepancies from fact, but is generally correct.

When we chronicle the life of another, even with little inconsistencies, we don’t make the life of the other person whole. Instead, we seek the company of others as a way of making our own life whole,   fitting missing pieces of melody into our own life’s symphony.


Part II  - on the Indian poet and novelist Eunice de Souza and other essays appear in my column: The Company We Keep

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