April 2013

Arts & Letters

‘All That Is’

By Robyn Annear

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.

All That IsJames Salter, Picador; $29.99

Cover: April 2013
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