A fascinating tale of a life lived
ALL THAT IS by James Salter (Picador)
Not too long at nearly 300 pages, this novel is detailed and satisfying and concerns one Philip Bowman, whom we first meet aboard a United States troop carrier heading for the coast of Japan in World War II.
This intense and strangely lyrical beginning leads to quieter waters when he resumes his life in America: Harvard, and a job in publishing as a fiction editor. He says of this pleasant and interesting existence that it was "a life superior to its tasks".
Towards the end of the book Bowman notes: "The power of the novel in the nation's culture had weakened ... something everyone recognised and ignored."
In the 1950s Iris Murdoch and her husband were often at gatherings devoted to "Whithering" as in "Whither the Novel?", so this has been going on a while, and still people are writing and reading and greatly enjoying novels. This is certainly one to relish.
Though composed of the central thread of Bowman's own life — his first marriage, some lusciously described love affairs, some of the defining issues of the day, and vignettes of people who were close or influential, it also has many buttresses.
Salter does not stick to the main character and gives almost the same weight, though not as much length, to the side stories, so that "all that is" emerges in considerable complexity, often in authorial overview but also through cleverly characterising dialogue.
It is elegantly written, skipping judiciously along, subtle and full of such wisdom as one may eventually gather in a life.
Many women pass through Bowman's life until he is eventually able to satisfy his "strong pull to connubial life" rather than having his pheromones overrule his brain.
His relationship with his mother, of mutual affection and kindness, counterbalances some of his erotic misadventures.
Salter evokes the era in some detail, sometimes taking a slightly unconventional view, for example, of the horrific war in the Pacific and the fate of Japan; German Jews in post-war America (as observed by other Jews — Bowman's publisher boss and his wife); the Russians ("depth and intimacy found nowhere else").
It is at once unpretentious and wise, with many situating and beautiful descriptions of landscape, weather, light, blending the physical surroundings with states of mind — it's where we live, after all — such as this one on autumn: "There was a time, usually in late August, when summer struck the trees with dazzling power and they were rich with leaves, but then became, suddenly one day, strangely still, as if in expectation and at that moment aware ... The sun was at its zenith and embraced the world, but it was ending, all that one loved was at risk."
The fascination of this book is the long view of Bowman's passage through chance encounters, his own choices and the continuing business of making sense of it all.