James Salter Is a Sexist

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June 25 2013 6:44 AM

The Cold Heart of James Salter

We no longer require compassion from the literature we admire. We admire writers who celebrate irony, disdain, contempt.

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The icy heart is not new for Salter. His earlier novel, A Sport and a Pastime, is also marked by emotional detachment, and the title story of his last collection, Last Night, is remarkable for its inhumanity. A woman dying of cancer spends a final evening with her husband and a friend. They spend a last, elegiac dinner together, drinking a splendid wine. At bedtime the husband and wife retire upstairs where he injects her with a lethal dose of morphine. Then the husband retires downstairs to spend the night with his girlfriend—the close friend who came to dinner. They have great sex. But the morphine doesn’t work, and to everyone’s dismay, the wife survives. Sadly, the wife’s discovery of the erotic liaison between the other two is the cause of their breakup, though the husband does his best to sustain it.

Bowman feels entitled to his vindictiveness: He has no scruples and feels no remorse, and nothing in Salter’s prose suggests he should feel otherwise. There is no conflict within this human heart, and herein lies the book’s great flaw. Salter presents Bowman as a kind of prince, a man we’re intended to admire. He’s a man of sensitivity and refinement, who loves good books, good shirts, good wine and women, though his love for women is almost entirely sexual, and his deepest engagement with them occurs in bed. He is at moments candid about his inability to empathize, but Salter presents this not as a flaw so much as the natural entitlement of man. When Bowman’s wife refuses him in bed, “He knew he should try to understand but felt only anger. It was unloving of him, he knew, but he could not help it.”

Katie Roiphe, writing in Slate, characterizes the book as a brilliant indictment of love—but love is an abstract emotion, you can’t indict it. In fact what Salter does is reveal his own incapacity for that huge and engulfing passion. As Roiphe says, he writes “as if he is watching life down here from a very distant planet. … There’s a disturbing anonymity to Bowman’s attachments. … Salter seems to be saying that these unique, individual ardent attachments could just as easily be with another woman encountered on a different day.” Bowman is an emotional isolate and a narcissist: Musing on the end of an affair, he thinks sentimentally of himself: “They had done things together that would make her look back one day and see that he was the one who truly mattered.” Cold and withholding, Bowman’s character denies the deepest and most fundamental aspects of compassion. A protagonist whose view is narrow and fixed means an absence of struggle and complexity; as an authorial vision, Salter’s is limiting and constrictive.

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Bowman’s actions reveal that he’s not the noble prince. He’s Iago, ruthless, mean, and vengeful. Shakespeare knew, of course, that you can’t make Iago the main character—he isn’t large enough. He has only one point of view: his own. A villain—a character without morals or compassion—doesn’t offer enough substance or complexity for a great protagonist, just as its opposite does not—a Pollyanna, someone without capacity for hatred, rage, or envy.

Certainly there are loathsome creatures in celebrated works of fiction—Humbert Humbert is a prime example. But I’d argue that Lolita fails to reach greatness for this very reason—there is no conflict within this human heart. Humbert’s icy coldness, his monumental disdain for every character he meets, turns him into a parody of a human being, and the book itself is a parody of a romance. Its brilliant writing and shocking content have mesmerized and titillated readers, but the book won’t endure beside King Lear. Lacking compassion, interior conflict, and consequences, Nabokov’s vision devalues human experience, instead of celebrating it.

Why do we read great fiction? For many reasons, and one of them is the beauty of the prose. For that we read Salter: His grave and sonorous descriptions, of landscape, of weather and of sex, are almost unmatched. But another reason we read it is to expand our understanding of the human heart, and for that we need someone who offers an expansive vision, someone who understands the human heart in all its spaciousness and reach. Salter doesn’t seem to be such a writer; he doesn’t seem to understand the vastness and the heat of the deep interior spaces. He moves only through the cold outer chambers, and, though beautifully observed, this is bleak territory, and what is written there is only half the truth.

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books, most recently the novel Sparta.

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