Monday, June 22, 2015

Remembering James Salter


In early 1990 I had the pleasure, honor, really, of hosting James Salter when he visited the University of Utah.  I remember the date mostly because Buster Douglas had just shocked the world, the boxing world, by knocking out the previously thought to be indestructible, Mike Tyson.  Douglas had been a 42-1 underdog and we were still talking about it weeks later.

Salter arrived from Aspen by train and travelled with a thermos of pre-mixed martinis.
When I tell the story of his visit I usually tell how David Wright and I took him out to dinner at what was then probably the swankest Salt Lake City restaurant, The New Yorker.  Salter made David and me nervous by commandeering the wine list and ordering, what to us then was, an unseemingly expensive wine at fifty dollars a bottle.  Then another bottle, then another.   We were graduate students: many were the things that could make us nervous. We were risking being late for his reading.  Also, we doubted the university would reimburse us for the wine.  Luckily, the person who was to sign off on the reimbursement was Larry Levis who didn’t blink as he signed and, in hindsight, wouldn’t have done so even if he had noticed the extravagant amount.  Levis, sigh.
What I want to tell you now is that when Salter signed my copy of Solo Faces, a book I continue to much admire, he turned first to page 132 and changed a typo: against the left hand margin of a left page was the word “here.”  Salter added at “t” in the margin to make it “there.”  Then he wrote out the sentence from memory in his inscription to me when he signed the book:
“There is something greater than the life of cities, greater than money and possessions; there is a manhood that can never be taken away.”
I’m glad I looked in the book for the typo, because I hadn’t remembered that I kept there my hand-written introduction to him that I read to the audience that night in 1990.  This was the first time I had publicly introduced anyone of his stature and I remember the paper fluttering as my hand shook with nerves.  Here it is, as I wrote it:
“The faculty and staff of the creative writing program would like to thank you all for being here and to thank James Salter for reading and speaking to us this evening.
“Mr. Salter’s first book appeared in 1957.  His most recent book, Dusk and Other Stories published in 1988 by North Point Press was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, certainly one of the highest honors a writer may be awarded in this country. One of the stories from that collection, “American Express, ” was included in The Best American Short Stories of 1988, edited by Shannon Ravenal, and is currently being produced for television by PBS.
“Mr. Salters’ reputation has grown quietly and elegantly, according to Esquire.  His best known books are two very fine novels, A Sport and a Pastime, first published in 1967 and Light Years, 1976, both available from North Point Press.  Mr. Salter speaks self-deprecatingly about another novel, Solo Faces, which I promise you is far and away the best portrayal and use of mountain climbing in a work of fiction.
“When I asked Mr. Salter if there was any particular thing I should include in my introduction, he asked only that I not use hyperbole.  My problem is just the opposite: I can’t find praise enough to describe the experience of reading his work.
“Mr. Salter once cited a passage by de Laclos, author of Les Liasons Dangereuses to describe how he feels about writing: “To Write, What a Marvelous Thing!”
“It’s somehow comforting to know that the pleasure he takes in writing is somewhat commensurate to the pleasure one derives from reading his work, because to read his work is indeed a very marvelous thing, as you will all learn, or be reminded of, this evening.
“I give you James Salter.”
During his visit he read one of my stories and was complimentary.  He had remained interested in climbing, thinking that Solo Faces never really got to the heart of Gary Hemming upon whom it was loosely based.  He was almost regretful about that. I urged him to think of the book as completely independent from Hemming’s story, but he said he had a hard time doing that.  He gave me some advice about my own story that has been helpful: “You’re showing off here. It’s unnecessary.” I’ve watched for that in my work ever since.
His son, also James Salter, lived in Park City and asked me privately if Solo Faces was any good, because he had heard climbers speak poorly of it.  I had to explain that a) climbers didn’t really accept writing from anyone that wasn’t a known member of their own tribe, and b) the concept of what is literary was beyond most of them anyway. James the younger was grateful to hear this.  We made plans several times to ski Deer Valley together, but never managed to make it happen.  Some time before I left Salt Lake City for good I heard he had moved to Taos.
Now James Salter has left us, last week at the age of 90, and I am about the age he was when we met in 1990.  Salter wrote “Life passes into pages if it passes into anything.”  And now his has.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Late and Unvited Correspondent Responds to Maggie Nelson's Bluets

1. During the time she was writing Bluets, 2003—2006, Maggie Nelson received “blue reports from the field” from her “blue correspondents.”  She acknowledged 22 “principal correspondents.” I am nine years after the fact, and uninvited.

2. When Dylan wrote, “Where have you been my blue-eyed son?” I always heard my father talking to me.  Also, I took his first answer, “I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,” literally and personally.

3. I took Bluets on a short climbing expedition in the Alaska Range.  As it happened we spent only one night at base camp and I was only able to read about the first third of the book.

4. “I am not very interested in the matte stone of turquoise,“ Nelson wrote.    Nor was I.  Once I knew professional gambler, wildly successful who wore enormous turquoise rings on gnarled fingers that belonged to his past life, the workingman he once had been.  I associated turquoise with a kind of aesthetic coarseness.

5. I have read some great books in expedition tents, including Moby Dick and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the first time in the St Elias Range. More recently China Mieville’s The City, The City on the Harding Icefield.

6. Late in her book Nelson confesses to learning very late into her project that bluets can be translated “cornflowers.”

7. In the 1970s a “bluet” was French stove favored by climbers and backpackers all over the world.  The parts of it that were not chrome were blue and it matched the propane canisters for it, also blue, and known in Europe simply as “gaz.” These stoves were simple to use, and lasted forever.  The empty gaz canisters were littered all over the wild places of the world, even Everest Base Camp.  The flame, too, was pure blue.

8. In a dark forest in Nepal I came across a lone nomadic trader who had set up a small table in the most unlikely place. The scene was out of a fairy tale.  From him a bought a stone of turquoise and I have not thought of the stone the same since.

9. ”Once I travelled to the Tate in London to se the blue paintings of Yves Klein . . . ,”  Nelson writes. Just this spring I became reacquainted with an old friend who had traveled to Amsterdam as a form of escape and discovered a passion for Vermeer.  He would write a book about this obsession and I acquired a copy of it.  The next day, I was in the Minneapolis Museum of Art and there on loan from the Rijksmusem was “Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.”  You could make this coincidence up, of course, but why would you?

10. On this expedition the most dangerous aspect is the number of crevasses on the glacier. They are both hidden and visible, and there are many.  Peering into one the whiteness goes to blue, goes farther than I can see, to darkness.

11. Horace de Benedict de Saussure invented the cyanometer, Nelson tells us, to measure the blue of the sky.  She mentions this critically, in disbelief that such a thing may be measured. She does not mention his early, the third ever, ascent of Mt. Blanc, nor his attribution as the father of alpinism, nor that he is considered the person who “made” Chamonix what it is today.

12. I love writing with fountain pens, always with blue ink so that my signature contrasts conspicuously with the black ink of machine-printed documents.

13. In The Blue Light (Das Blau Lichte), Leni Riefenstahl plays Junta, the beautiful mountain girl who reigns over a sacred mountain space, a grotto of crystals high on the mountain that is illuminated during the fill moon.  Many young men from the village below have fallen and died trying to find this place. When Junta shows a young man the source of the blue light, he harvests all the crystals and she is crushed and falls to her death.  The film was made in 1932.  Later Riefenstahl would be a kind of Nazi sympathizer and the names of the Jewish people who worked on the film were elided from the credits.

14. My own blue-eyed son, the one who looks the most like me, is the child I understand the least.  Is the most tenuously tethered to the world, to me.

15. Half the world’s people list blue as their favorite color, Nelson tells us, a fact which did not deter her.  Blue was always my own favorite color, but in retrospect I suppose this was due to the fact of my blue eyes and saying that was my favorite color was like saying I was my own favorite person.

16. When Nelson cites Schopenhauer it is to note his insistence that pain is the “most real thing.”  In On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Schopenhauer discusses how reason affects our perception of distance, including an anecdote that "Saussure is reported to have seen so large a moon, when it rose over Mont Blanc, that he did not recognize it and fainted with terror."  Apparently Schopenhauer thought this ridiculous.

17. Reading Bluets on the glacier I was struck deeply by the book's femininity.  As if this were an artifact from a world I had left far behind.

18. Every dozen or so years someone writes a book about blue, Nelson observes.  Hence, I suppose, there is no need to attempt to be exhaustive; perfectly appropriate to be personal.

19. Another rhetorical literary question I have taken personally comes from Cummings: “How do you like your blueeyed boy/Mr. Death?”  Mr. Death, one suspects, is indifferent, but I can tell you that this blueeyed boy does not much care for Mr. Death.

20. The best definition of the blues I know comes from James Baldwin: “ They [the blues] were not about anything very new,  . . . keeping it new, at the risk of destruction, madness and death, in order to find out new ways to make us listen.  For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.  There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

21. After the expedition we sit on the glacier waiting for the pilot who will take us back to the green world.  We stare across at the forbidding north face Mt. Huntington, its icy blue seracs and cornices enshadowed until the morning.  Climbed only once.

22. Flying over the Ruth Glacier there are small blue ponds of meltwater forming on the snow.  This blue is known only to a privileged, lucky, few: pilots and mountain travellers.

23. I have written of this elsewhere, but once on the glacier below Mt Blanc, we witnessed a moonrise so bright and overpowering that at first we couldn’t believe it was the moon.  Don Whillans, the great British workingman climber, drunk, and pugilist also experienced this.  So go back to your dark smoky library, Schopenhauer, and mope for few more centuries.

24. I saw a piece of turquoise in the parking lot on my way to lunch.  I bent to pick it up and upon touching it realized it was a well-chewed piece of bubble gum.

25. When I return from the glacier I first finish reading Bluets, which in the end, I suppose is not so much about blue as it is desire and loss.  And then I turn to the account of the first, and only, ascent of the north face of Mt. Huntington by Jack Roberts and Simon McCartney in 1978.  It is an unimaginable feat, leaving no mystery as to why it has gone unrepeated.  And, this blue-eyed boy is very happy to have been released from the glacier, its blue ice and the myriad possible ways it might have held us in its grasp forever.