April 2013

Arts & Letters

‘All That Is’

By Robyn Annear

All That IsJames Salter, Picador; $29.99

By James Salter

The back-cover blurb for All That Is misleadingly highlights the protagonist Philip Bowman’s experiences as a World War Two naval officer and his subsequent career in book publishing. In fact, these form but a sketchy backdrop to the novel’s real story: one man’s lifelong pursuit of love – if “pursuit” is not too energetic a term for it.

Readers familiar with Salter’s work will recognise the name Philip as one that recurs from book to book. Just a tic, or code for memoir-as-fiction? There’s more than one Enid in his books, too, France features large and lovingly, and characters invariably enthuse about Venice in January. There’s a sense, reading Salter, of something cumulative at work, both within each book and between them. Perhaps that is what he meant when, asked in a recent interview about his evolution as a writer, he said, “Even at the beginning my ambition was to write something that people would go on reading.”

But it would be hard to characterise All That Is as a page-turner. The account of Bowman’s relationships, spanning 50 years, is necessarily episodic. Salter further breaks the narrative flow with eddies of seeming digression – pages, even chapters, long – in which he illuminates la vie d’amour of some slight or fleeting acquaintance of Bowman’s. In a writer lacking Salter’s discipline and brevity (he spends words with the thrift of a poet), these divergences might flag a wandering attention. Here, though, they serve as a contrast to Philip Bowman’s own relationship terroir.

For somehow, with Bowman, love fails to “take”. We see him love-struck: a tender, attentive lover, a considerate partner. Yet the women in his life ultimately hold back from committing to him. For much of the book, it seems as if Bowman lays himself at the mercy of the women he loves, for want of the requisite grit or insistence to make a connection stick. A late chapter titled “Forgiveness”, however, leads the reader to reconsider all they thought they knew about Bowman as a lover and as a man.

“What the unseen part of their life was, who can say?” The jolt of realisation that there may be more to Bowman – to anyone – than the reader knows is what gives Salter’s spare, cool-tempered novel its heft. That, and the sex.

At 87, Salter still writes some of the best sex in print. Unlike his contemporaries Updike and Roth, he forswears bravado to write sex that is both consensual and epic, conveying pleasure and discovery in equal parts: “Her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery …”

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

From the front page

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection

In This Issue

Kreutzer Sonata (1901), René François Xavier Prinet

The violin through time

The devil’s instrument

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Margaret Atwood comes to Perth

Brides revisited

© Johann Persen

‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ theatre review

Good medicine

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

At Sea with the Whale Pirates

Eyewitness to the whale wars


More in Arts & Letters

Robert Fielding, Western Arrernte and Yankunytjatjara peoples, ‘Graveyards In Between’, 2017

Standing and ceremony: The 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial

Themed around ‘Ceremony’, the NGA exhibition provides a moving examination of what it means to be Indigenous in 2022

Image of James Joyce and publisher Sylvia Beach in Paris

The consecration: James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

A century after its publication, the difficult reputation of Joyce’s seminal novel has overshadowed its pleasures

Image of Tom Cruise, circa 1980

Sixty business: Tom Cruise

‘Top Gun: Maverick’ hits screens as its ruthlessly career-oriented star turns 60

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist


More in Noted

Cover image of Louise Kennedy’s ‘Trespasses’

‘Trespasses’

The powerful debut novel from Irish author Louise Kennedy is a masterclass in emotional compression

Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection

Cover of Robert Lukins’ ‘Loveland’

‘Loveland’

Robert Lukins’ second novel takes a Brisbane woman to Nebraska, where an inheritance sparks a change in character as well as in fortune

Still from ‘We Own This City’

‘We Own This City’

David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’, returns to Baltimore for a present-day examination of rapacious police corruption


Online exclusives

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

Composite image of Sydney Morning Herald editor Bevan Shields (image SMH/supplied) and actor Rebel Wilson (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Two sides of the same Shields?

Editor Bevan Shields’ attempts to handle the backlash over his masthead’s treatment of Rebel Wilson points to the dismal and fragile state of news media