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

April 2013

From the front page

Image of Ancestral Spirit Beings Collecting Honey, 1985-87

‘John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New’ at the MCA, Sydney

The celebrated bark painter’s ethos guides this retrospective exhibition

Misleading parliament? A-OK

Peter Dutton’s was an open-and-shut case

In The Big House

The quintessential American cultural experience is still college football

Image of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Bob Menzies and Gamal Nasser

Bob Katter in a Mareeba cafe. © Nic Walker / Fairfax Syndication

The Heart and Mind of Bob Katter

Adventures in Katterland


Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg (directors)

Counting the numbers: Graham Richardson in December 2000 with Inside Sport model of the year finalists © Jaime Fawcett / Newspix

The Rolling of NSW Labor

Party boys

More in Arts & Letters

Image of Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein: show tunes and symphonies

Centenary celebrations highlight the composer’s broad ambitions and appeal

Still from Leave No Trace

The hermitic world of Debra Granik’s ‘Leave No Trace’

The ‘Winter’s Bone’ director takes her exploration of family ties off the grid

Image of Low

Low’s ‘Double Negative’: studies in slow transformation

Twelve albums in, the Minnesota three-piece can still surprise in their unique way

Covers of Motherhood and Mothers

To have or not to have: Sheila Heti’s ‘Motherhood’ and Jacqueline Rose’s ‘Mothers’

Heti’s novel asks if a woman should have a child; Rose’s nonfiction considers how society treats her if she does

More in Noted

‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer

The Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is an engaging story of love and literary misadventure

Hannah Gadsby: ‘Nanette’

Believe the hype about the Tasmanian comedian’s Netflix special

Cover of A Sand Archive

‘A Sand Archive’ by Gregory Day

Day grasps landscape as an intimate living thing

Cover of The Lebs

‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

A fresh perspective on Muslim youth in Sydney’s west

Read on

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple

Image of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Image of Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton

Turnbull fires back

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’

Image from ‘In Fabric’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part one)

A British outlier and a British newcomer are among the stand-outs in the first part of the festival