William Faulkner, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, declared that the only subject worth writing about is “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Great writing demands the universal truths of “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion,” says Faulkner; any writing without pity or compassion is “ephemeral and doomed.” As Kafka wrote in a letter to his friend Oskar Pollack in 1904, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” It’s compassion that shatters the ice.
But somehow we no longer require compassion from the literature we admire. We admire writers who celebrate irony, disdain, contempt, who establish emotional distance rather than intimacy. We’ve come to confuse compassion with sentimentality and we’re slightly embarrassed by both. Have people changed, in some fundamental way? Is the human heart no longer in conflict with itself? Is this deep inner conflict no longer important?
James Salter is praised as a writer’s writer, with good reason: His work is hauntingly beautiful. Each word seems inevitable and perfect, as though the sentences were carved in marble. His voice creates an enchanted forest, and we move, entranced, through its deep shadowy glades. The spell is such that we might not notice the content. If we did, we’d pause, in confusion and dismay.
Salter’s latest book, All That Is, is written in the episodic style of a memoir. It recounts in a meandering fashion the story of Philip Bowman, who grows up in a modest fatherless household in New Jersey and goes into the Navy in World War II, where he sees action in the Pacific. He comes home and goes to Harvard, where he feels like an outsider. He finds a job in publishing, which becomes his career. He gets married, then divorced. He has affairs, he moves house. In the end he meets another woman.
Bowman, like most young men, thinks constantly about sex, and sees women almost solely in physical terms. The jokes and comments made by him and his friends are coarsely sexist. Perhaps we’re expected to forgive this, because sexism was then common. But this isn’t Faulkner, using the N-word while it was still current. This is Salter, in 2013, writing racist and sexist fantasies—like the one about the black maid who is laid down naked on her belly so her white boss can set silver dollars on her back before he screws her. Salter writes this passage with loving attentiveness, infusing it with a hushed and secretive heat. He compares it to “certain feverish visions of saints.” Apparently we’re meant to think of this like a kind of religious ecstasy—but isn’t it kind of loathsome?
About halfway through, Bowman (Beau-Man, or the Archer—he is prodigiously handsome, and prodigiously good in bed) falls in love with Catherine and they have great sex. She finds him a beautiful house in the Hamptons. He won’t marry her, but he buys the house in both their names. She lives there with her teenage daughter, Anet, while Bowman comes out on weekends. Catherine betrays him, sues for sole possession of the house, and wins. Enraged, Bowman leaves the Hamptons. Several years later, when he’s around 50, he runs into Anet, who is around 20. This is his chance, and he mounts a calculated campaign. He seduces her, introduces her to hashish, and then takes her on a romantic trip to Paris. They have great sex, during which she lovingly surrenders herself, making it “plain she was his.” That’s what he wanted, and while she’s asleep he walks out, leaving her without money or a ticket home. It’s quite a remarkable act of cruelty: revenge carried out on an innocent, and driven not by a great emotion like love or grief or even rage, but by small, dishonorable ones—vindictiveness, hoarded spite, pure malice.