Taut Rhythmic Surfaces

George Saunders

Speaking at a Celebration of James Salter’s Life and Work
July 28, 2015
All Souls Unitarian ChurchNew York City

I didn’t know James Salter well at all, personally. I only spent part of one day with him and Kay at the Hay Festival in Wales a few years ago. But I remember that day very fondly. It was such a thrill, really, to meet one of my writing heroes and find him everything that I had hoped he would be: sweet, funny, self-effacing, and generous.

But actually he had been a dear friend of mine for many years before that, and will continue to be a dear friend to me as long as I live through his prose. He did for me, and does for me, what any dear friend might do. He helps me sustain my sometimes faltering faith in an idea I base my life on: namely, that there is something sacred about working in prose; that purifying one’s prose style is a form of spiritual dedication; that working with language is a beautiful and noble way to spend one’s life. Every time I read his work I feel a kindred spirit there and am convinced all over again that the way we write a sentence can be everything: exploration, devotion, celebration. A person is never more himself than when he’s writing a sentence he’ll later stand by. A mediocre stylist sounds like anyone else. The great stylist can be picked out in a few lines. Salter was one of those.

So what made his style so great? For me, the main quality of his style is its incredible surface tension. His paragraphs proceed so originally that they make the reader fear this originality will suddenly vanish. I remember once hearing a Fado singer in Lisbon whose voice and phrasing were so pure and so strange and she sang with such concentration that you sort of feared for her. Could she keep that up? If not, what a letdown it was going to be. But she could keep it up and she did. And then she just stopped, leaving behind a stunned and transformed room. For me, Salter’s prose is like that. It seems impossible that someone could be regarding the world with such an intense gaze, with such love-struck intelligence, making such a taut rhythmic surface, never uttering a single banal sentence, and you’re a little afraid for him. Afraid that the prose will drop down into some more quotidian register or surrender something of its intensity because it sort of seems like it will have to. And then it doesn’t. For whole books, it doesn’t.

Emily Gilbert